Excerpted from Kearny's March by Winston Groom. Copyright © 2011 by Winston Groom. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Winston Groom is the author of fifteen previous books, including Vicksburg, 1863, Patriotic Fire, Shrouds of Glory, Forrest Gump, and Conversations with the Enemy (with Duncan Spencer), which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He lives with his wife and daughter in Alabama.
Q: Your previous histories have ranged from the Civil War to World War I & II to the War of 1812. What led you to the story of Kearny’s March and made you want to tell it?
A: Somewhere in the process of research for one of my other books—I forget which one—I came across Kearny and his march. It intrigued me, because it seemed to be a mission of great difficulty and danger—literally plunging off into the unknown that was then the Great American West. I filed it away, and when I had some time to look into it, I found all sorts of interesting things of that period. It was a very powerful, a very dynamic time in American history.
Q: Why was the Mexican-American war such a heated issue in the United States?
A: I think two reasons. One was a moral issue of making war on Mcxico. When it first came up it was sort of like Iraq. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, right? Well, Mexico had attacked U.S. troops who had been sent there to defend Texas, which had just been let into the Union. But pretty soon it became clear that the war was also a war of conquest (not to suggest that we were/are trying to conquer Iraq, only that the mission changed). And this did not sit well with many Whigs, who were a kind of “moderate-to-liberal” party. Even Ulysses Grant, who fought in it right after leaving West Point, called it, “the most unjust war ever waged against a weak nation by a stronger one.”
Second there was the slavery issue, which was just beginning to heat up in earnest. Abolitionists were worried that the South would try to spread slavery to any new territories acquired in the war. I think I make the point in the book that the day Stephen Kearny marched his army out of Fort Leavenworth began the first phase—the political phase—of the U.S. Civil War.
Q: Who was Stephen Watts Kearny and why was he selected to lead this expedition?
A: Kearny was a highly respected army Colonel (soon-to-be-general) who commanded the Army of the West, based at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which was at the edge of the American frontier. He happened to be the one in the right place at the right time when the Mexican War broke out. His mission was to ride his 2,000-man army down the 1,000-mile Santa Fe Trail and capture Santa Fe from the Mexicans (which was capital of a territory encompassing present day New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Colorado, Utah and Nevada). After that, Kearny was to push on another thousand miles across the uncharted deserts of the Southwest—inhabited then only by wild Indians—and into Mexican California, which he was to capture and hold. All of this was a very tall order, and was done with immense hardship and loss of life.
Q: The other primary figure in this drama is Captain John Charles Frémont, who you describe as “the most famous man in America” in 1845. Frémont also set out across the continent. How did his mission differ from Kearny’s?
A: Frémont was an explorer—more precisely, he was an officer of the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers—charged by the U.S. government with exploring and mapping the uncharted West. He did this with half a dozen journeys of exploration, using a star-studded array of colorful and famous mountain men such as Kit Carson, Alexis Godey, Joseph Walker, Bill Williams and others, and the published details of his exploits were carried by the newspapers, making Frémont and other others as revered as the astronauts once were.
But when he reached California, after climbing though both the Rockies and the High Sierras, Frémont began to see his mission as not just one of exploration, but also of conquest—in particular, California. In the end this led to a notorious conflict with General Kearny.
Q: James K. Polk is not one of our most well-known presidents and yet as you describe, he was a man of strong opinions, decisive action, and was instrumental in shaping the borders of this country. Do you feel that history has underrated Polk as a president?
A: I certainly do. Polk was a man of vision, though he probably didn’t know it himself. He faced two major foreign policy problems when he took office—the probability of War with Mexico and the possibility of war with England over the Oregon Territory, which encompassed present-day Washington, Oregon, parts of Montana and Idaho and way up into Canada. Polk out-bluffed the British, whipped the Mexicans, and made America a land from sea to shining sea (he at least paid the Mexicans for their loss). I think Harry Truman was right on with Polk when he said, “Great president. Knew what he wanted to do, and did it.”
Q: The subtitle of your book is “The Epic Creation of the American West.” Does this refer more to the great swath of land in the west that the U.S. acquired after the war with Mexico or to the myth and legend that built up by Fremont, Kit Carson, and other pioneers?
A: All of that, actually. The sweep of war fell across the American West and Kearny was there and held his own, while greater battles were fought along the Mexican border and then down into the interior itself. Larger than life figures were borne out of that episode in history to emerge in another, far more critical era: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, James Longstreet, and others truly too numerous to mention. They made their spurs in Kearny’s era.
Q: How did the difficulties of communicating across the continent affect the decisions that were made by Frémont in California? Did this significantly change the course of events?
A. It took at least six to eight weeks and longer to communicate cross continent, and orders laid in Washington were often prefaced with the understanding that officers should “act according to their best judgments.” Many got in trouble for doing just that; take Fremont for example; he was celebrated for his contribution in the conquest of California, but court-martialed for his refusal to relinquish command to Kearny. Go figure!
Q: Brigham Young and his Mormon followers were also journeying across the continent to Utah, in order to escape persecution in the States. Did their migration contribute to the western expansion of the country they were trying to escape?
A: Well, the Mormons were trying to get to a place outside the United States, which they thought would be safer, but no sooner had they arrived in Utah than it became a U.S. Territory. The Mormons resisted this—in particular U.S. laws governing the number of wives a man can have—and had to be subdued by the army in what became known as the Mormon wars.
Q: The Mexican-American War created many heroes, President Zachary Taylor for one. What happened to Kearny and Frémont once they returned home?
A: Fremont was court-martialed, as mentioned—by Kearny, actually. I don’t want to give away the result of that most famous of 19th Century trials. Kearny was made governor of California, and then governor of Mexico City, once U.S. troops had conquered and occupied it. I think I’ll let the reader find out for himself what became of General Kearny; it is kind of sad.
Q: What’s next for you? Are you working on a new book?
A. I am always working on a new book; I have mouths to feed, including a just-turned-thirteen-year-old daughter who shows absolutely no signs of getting any cheaper. I am on the last chapter of a book about the Battle of Shiloh that will be published in April upon the 150th anniversary of that tragic event. Then, around Valentine’s Day, Vintage/Anchor will re-publish my novel Forrest Gump, in a nice collectable edition. And a little later on this spring I have a book coming out for young adults about President Ronald Reagan. When I say I am always working on a book, I kid you not.
From the Hardcover edition.