A learned friend of rather retro views likes to muse from time to time on the North America that might have been: a balkanized continent without the miniature tribalisms that have plagued the actual Balkans, which, so said a Saki character, “produce more history than they can consume locally.” In this thought experiment we might now have a quilt of commonwealths: New England, Midatlantica, the Confederacy, New France in the Mississippi Valley, and perhaps even a New Spain in the Southwest.
It was not to be, and just why it wasn’t is obviously a very complicated story. But one factor was a journalistic phrase that electrified American political discourse in 1845 and after: “Manifest Destiny.” An ideological notion that drew upon the contours of the map but also upon the idea that the United States owed tutelary responsibility to the world as the citadel of thrusting democratic experimentation. The phrase is usually attributed to a wordy New York editor, John L. O’Sullivan, who wrote of the annexation of Texas that it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The ascription of this destiny to “Providence” added a pleasing metaphysical spin to raw ambition.
Winston Groom’s new book, Kearny’s March, tells a significant part of the story. The year of that march, 1846-47, was not only the year of the Mexican War but also a year of prodigious feats of exploration that engaged two notable adventurers. One was Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny himself; the other was the more famous (or notorious) John C. Frémont, a mere Army captain but also the son-in-law of the powerful Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, with ambitions to match. Frémont was already celebrated as the “Pathfinder,” though according to Groom this was a misnomer since Frémont had found no new paths in the western wilderness. He did aspire to be the emancipator of California, then a disputed entity, from the lotus-eating Laodiceans who sparsely inhabited it.
A case can be made that the true mastermind of all this was James K. Polk, dark-horse Democratic winner of the 1844 election and 11th president. Groom calls Polk a “political cipher,” though the epithet seems misplaced in the light of Groom’s own evidence. Polk set himself big goals, including the acquisition of California. Texas, as well, was annexed on his watch, the proximate cause of the Mexican War, itself the proximate occasion of American acquisition of Mexico’s properties north of the Rio Grande. When the dust of battle and intrigue settled, the United States possessed vast lands that would embrace New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and parts of Colorado and Utah. At $18 million plus considerable bloodshed, it was a bargain not far inferior to Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and the approaching “Seward’s Folly.”
One can argue all day about the justice of Polk’s and O’Sullivan’s aggressive vision. Polk seems to have favored peaceful purchase over war but did not shrink from arms. Groom stipulates that it is “beyond the scope of this book to conduct a moralizing seminar on nineteenth-century standards of behavior.” A good thing, no doubt, since Manifest Destiny entailed measures against weaker Indians, Mexicans, and indigenous Californians that were far from polite and which, incidentally, earned the notable condemnation of Ulysses S. Grant.
Kearny was sent with his Army of the West southwestward from Fort Leavenworth down the primitive Santa Fe Trail and thence, eventually, to California. The obstacles, natural and human, quite apart from armed clashes, were fierce and formidable and but for the guidance of mountain men like Kit Carson, might have proved insurmountable. They included erratic weather, oscillating by day and season between blinding heat and freezing cold, rugged mountain ranges and deserts, monster snowfalls, rattlesnakes that liked to cozy up with camping troopers in their blankets, unfriendly Indians, mosquitos, fleas, grasshoppers, and gnats. And disease and quarreling, too.
Ultimately, the arrival of Kearny’s bedraggled army in Los Angeles, diminished by at least one major battle, brought him into collision with Frémont, who had marched earlier from Colorado and waged his own private war for American acquisition. Headstrong as always, Frémont disputed the office of governor with Kearny. His refusal to accept the orders of a superior officer led to a Washington court-martial some months later. Frémont escaped from the charge of mutiny but was dismissed from the Army, reinstated by Polk, and resigned. He would be heard from again, in little more than a decade, as the impromptu and untimely emancipator of Missouri slaves. Kearny, winner of the argument, served briefly as governor-general of Mexico City but fell victim to yellow fever and died in October 1848.
These two titans are not the only dramatis personae of Groom’s vivid account. Other principals include the Mormons, then in quest of the Zion they would find in Utah, beyond the hostile reach of the United States. And the tragic Donner party, who set out on bad advice to cross the Sierra by a shortcut called the “Hastings Cutoff.” They were trapped in the passes by early snows and their fate is gruesome and legendary. Groom calls his account of that fate “The Horror,” echoing the last words of Conrad’s Kurtz: a figure of fiction who exemplifies the pressure of unfriendly nature and isolation on civilized norms. Groom writes:
On . . . the same day . . . Kearny marched victorious into Los Angeles, Luis and Salvador, the two Miwok Indians accompanying [the Donner travelers] in their attempted escape from the Sierra, were killed and eaten by starving members of the party.
As that stark sentence suggests, Groom’s retelling of the Year of Decision is brisk, unblinking, unsentimental, and sometimes grim. And appropriately so. This is not a tale for dainty or euphemistic narration, and Groom knows warfare at first hand. The story is all too human, marking our perennial capacity for good and evil, the heroic and the shameful, the tragic and the triumphant.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.