Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Kearny's March
  • Written by Winston Groom
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780307455741
  • Our Price: $16.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Kearny's March

Buy now from Random House

  • Kearny's March
  • Written by Winston Groom
  • Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9780307270962
  • Our Price: $27.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Kearny's March

Buy now from Random House

  • Kearny's March
  • Written by Winston Groom
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307701411
  • Our Price: $12.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Kearny's March

Kearny's March

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847

Written by Winston GroomAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Winston Groom


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: November 08, 2011
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-70141-1
Published by : Knopf Knopf
Kearny's March Cover

Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Kearny's March
  • Email this page - Kearny's March
  • Print this page - Kearny's March


A thrilling re-creation of a crucial campaign in the Mexican-American War and a pivotal moment in America's history.
In June 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny rode out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with a thousand cavalrymen of the First United States Dragoons. When his fantastic expedition ended a year and two-thousand miles later, the nation had doubled in size and now stretched from Atlantic to Pacific, fulfilling what many saw as its unique destiny. Kearny's March has all the stuff of great narrative history: hardships on the trail, wild Indians, famous mountain men, international conflict and political intrigue, personal dramas, gold rushes and land-grabs. Winston Groom plumbs the wealth of primary documentation--journals and letters, as well as military records--and gives us a sleek, exciting account that captures our imaginations and enlivens our understanding of the sometimes dirty business of country-making.


Chapter One

A People in Motion

Late on an August afternoon in 1845, the most famous man in America, U.S. captain John Charles Frémont, departed Bent's Fort, the last outpost of American civilization, which lay in the foothills of Colorado's Rocky Mountains. With him were several score of the toughest, most experienced mountain men of the day-fur trappers and Indian fighters such as Kit Carson, Joseph Walker, and Bill Williams; the French-Canadians Basil Lajeunesse, Antoine Robideaux, Alexis Godey, and Auguste Archambault; a party of nine Delaware Indians; and an eighteen-year-old free black man who was Frémont's valet. Sixty-one of them in all, they made a formidable armed party, each man carrying a .50-caliber Hawken "buffalo rifle," two pistols, and any number of knives. They were headed west, into the setting sun, with instructions to chart the unknown.

Frémont's fame had reached him surprisingly early, at the age of thirty-two, after his first journey of exploration several years before, in which he disproved the widely held myth that the vast plains west of the Mississippi River were nothing more than a worthless, uninhabitable wasteland-the so-called Great American Desert. It was further enhanced by his second expedition, which "disclosed to multitudes a shining new land of flowers, sunshine, and wealth." American explorers in those days were accorded the sort of exultation once given to modern-day astronauts. Theirs was a difficult, often dangerous, but fascinating and useful world that let the common man see what lay beyond his antlike horizons.

Daniel Boone became a legend in his own time by pioneering the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap, and early in the century Lewis and Clark unveiled the secrets of the Northwest Territory. The U.S. Navy thrilled the nation with its report of the Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (the renowned "Ex.Ex."), which charted the Pacific from Alaska to the South Seas, including a detailed look at the American West Coast. But Frémont's revelations struck a note that set the country atremble, for by this time it was fairly bursting with European immigrants and others yearning for cheap, fertile land to sow and reap.

Aided in some measure by his wife's flair for literary composition, Frémont's published reports sent whole communities scurrying to acquire "prairie schooners," the great covered wagons that took Americans on their westward migration. It didn't hurt, by the way, that the wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, at the time the most influential man in the U.S. Senate, who saw to it that his son-in-law's findings were distributed wholesale by the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Frémont's present mission was, ostensibly, a strictly scientific one, established to discover and chart the western expanse of the continent. To that end his expedition carried with it the most sophisticated instruments of the day: "a fine refracting telescope, two pocket chronometers, two sextants, a reflecting circle, a siphon barometer and cistern barometer, half a dozen thermometers and an assortment of compasses." And if the delicate barometers got broken, altitude would be determined by taking the temperature at which water boiled. A brilliant young artist and draftsman named Edward Kern was along to sketch flora, fauna, and topographical features. Also included were sacks of trinkets, clothing, and tools for the Indians they would inevitably encounter, as well as ample ammunition should the Indians prove hostile. The press had already branded Frémont the "Pathfinder," but in fact he found few paths that had not already been traveled by the Native Americans or indeed by the mountain men. The difference was that Frémont was able to map them and describe them in a way that only a trained engineer and scientist could.

Frémont was by now well versed in the rigors of such undertakings. The previous year he and his party got up the High Sierras too late, nearly froze and starved, and survived only by eating their pack animals and even the pet dogs that some of the men had acquired. Death could come in a flash in these fierce, uncharted climes-ambush by a war party; the sudden charge of a thousand-pound grizzly or the leap of a cougar; quicksand, desert thirst, prairie fire, flash floods, and heaven help the man who fell ill.

Now a new menace was in the air, the threat of war-war with Mexico, war with England. The U.S. Congress had just voted to grant the independent Republic of Texas statehood. Mexico immediately severed diplomatic relations and promised war if the Americans went through with it. Britain had begun making bellicose noises over U.S. claims to the immense Oregon Territory that included what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Likewise, it was feared that the English, who possessed the world's most powerful navy, would come in on the part of Mexico if she went to war with the United States.

These problems were likely on Captain Frémont's mind as his little army plodded out of Bent's Fort toward the distant, snowcapped Rockies. Sixty men doesn't sound like much in the long scheme of things, but in the 1840s, in the sparseness of the western half of the contin-ent, sixty well-armed, well-trained men were a force to be reckoned with, considering that in the entire province of California fewer than one thousand Mexicans could be counted on as a military force.

Frémont believed, or so he later said, that he was under secret instructions from the president himself, James K. Polk, to seize California from the Mexicans if war broke out. Navy Secretary George Bancroft had issued similar orders to Commodore John Drake Sloat, commander of the U.S. Pacific Squadron. At the time, there was a sizable community of American emigrants living there, most residing in towns along the coast or on farms in the Sacramento Valley. It was anticipated that these sturdy people would rise up against the Mexican authorities in the event of war, or perhaps instigate a war themselves.

It was shaping up as an explosive adventure, but Frémont felt up to the task. If successful he knew he would come home covered in glory. Little did he dream that instead he would return under arrest and facing a court-martial for mutiny, a hanging offense.

The following year, 1846, the war with Mexico arrived. It broke out between a Mexican army on the Rio Grande and the U.S. Army under General Zachary Taylor, which President Polk had sent south to provoke hostilities. At least that's the way most people saw it. Polk's story was that the Mexicans had attacked American soldiers first, and on American soil, and he was sticking to it.

While the principal theater of the war remained along the Rio Grande, Polk also set into motion another event designed to fulfill his dream of an America "from sea to shining sea." He sent out urgent orders to Colonel (soon to be a general) Stephen Watts Kearny at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas-then considered the western "frontier" of the United States-to march his two-thousand-man Army of the West a thousand miles down the old Santa Fe Trail and capture the New Mexico Territory, a huge Mexican province consisting of Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, which was presently being governed from Santa Fe. Kearny's further instructions were to march the army another thousand miles west to the California Territory, which also included what are presently the states of Utah and Nevada, and take that, too.

Polk's line of thinking was that the inhabitants of those far-flung provinces were being so ill served by their government down in Mexico City they would willingly submit to U.S. conquest. He wasn't far from wrong. In the New Mexico Territory, for example, the government seemed powerless to protect its farmers from the depredations of the wild Indians, at the same time taxing the citizens heavily for that exact purpose.

Still, Kearny's task was daunting. The Santa Fe Trail was tough and tricky. There had been trade up and down its course long enough that nobody was going to get lost, but weather, terrain, and hostile Indians were always challenging, and to get a whole army over it was a complicated project and logistical nightmare. Then there was the question of what lay in wait at the other end. Would the Mexican government send a large army up to defend the place? Would Kearny face insurmountable fortifications? Would the population be rebellious? And then, assuming success in Santa Fe, he would then have to move the California force another thousand miles, this time across some of the most inhospitable desert and mountain terrain on earth, which remained unmapped, unexplored, and all but unknown. It would be a dangerous enterprise, but danger was the business Kearny was in and Polk couldn't have picked a better man.

Kearny had entered the army nearly thirty years earlier, after graduating from Columbia College, and for the past decade he had commanded the First Cavalry Regiment. In fact, he had already come to be known in army circles as the Father of Cavalry. A newspaper reporter who had recently met him described him as "a man rising fifty years of age. His height is about five feet ten or eleven inches. His figure is all that is required by symmetry. His features are regular, almost Grecian; his eye is blue, and he has an eagle-like expression, when excited by stern or angry emotion, but in ordinary social intercourse, the whole expression of his countenance is mild and pleasing, and his manners and conversation are unaffected, urbane, and conciliatory, without the slightest exhibition of vanity or egotism. He appears the cool, brave, and energetic soldier." So it certainly appeared that Stephen Kearny was well equipped to lead the expedition the president had ordered-but there was something else. What Kearny didn't know, what he couldn't know, was that from the moment he marched the Army of the West out of Fort Leavenworth, on June 26, 1846, "the first phase, the political phase, of the American Civil War had begun."

By the 1840s a tense and immutable friction had begun to thrum across the American landscape, North and South. In the beginning the argument was largely political and, more specifically, economic. A decade earlier North and South had nearly come to blows as a result of a tariff passed over the objections of southern legislators, which put duties on foreign goods in such a way as to make them nearly unaffordable in the South. This legislation, known to southerners as the Tariff of Abominations, had been declared "null and void" by the state of South Carolina, forcing a showdown on the question of whether states must obey laws of Congress that they found obnoxious. The stalemate was broken when Andrew Jackson threatened to send federal forces to Charleston to enforce the law, but this left a bitter feeling among many southerners that only increased with time.

The immediate grievance in the North over war with Mexico was a fear that if the nation added Mexican territory in the Southwest it would mean loss of northern political power to the southern "slave power," which would move to occupy the new lands with their slaves. Up to now, a delicate balance in the U.S. Senate had been maintained between the two sections of the country-eleven southern states and eleven northern- so that a workable if uneasy balance had been achieved.

In 1821 Congress had forged a bitter settlement allowing Missouri into the Union as a slaveholding state-the Missouri Compromise-brokered by Henry Clay of Kentucky, in which slavery was henceforth banned north of the southern Missouri boundary line. For twenty-five years this had worked to keep the dangers of sectional politics at bay. Until now- until Kearny's march, a quarter century later, which threatened to radically disturb the balance created by the compromise. By this time the issue was further vexed by the growing abolitionist movement in the North, which had brought a moral dimension to the political question of slavery. This tended to produce high passions, which were inflamed when a relatively unknown congressman from Pennsylvania inserted language into an appropriations bill that would have banned slavery in any territory acquired by the United States from Mexico. That legislation, known as the Wilmot Proviso, opened a Pandora's box that neither laws nor common sense could ever close.

Kearny of course knew little or nothing of this. His immediate task was to get to Santa Fe with his army and put the Mexican authorities (namely one Governor-General Manuel Armijo) out of business.

Meanwhile, draped wretchedly along the banks of the Missouri River from what is now Omaha to Council Bluffs, nearly seven thousand of God's "chosen people" huddled starving and freezing and awaiting their chance to move west. They were Mormons, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose unusual beliefs habitually caused them to be driven away-often violently-from wherever they tried to settle down. But now they were leaving the United States, or so they thought, for what was identified on most maps as "Unorganized Indian Lands" that had been portrayed so enticingly by the explorer John C. Frémont in his recently published journals.

A significant hurdle, however, was that the Mormons had no money to get there. Their leader, Brigham Young, had approached President Polk for funds, on the basis that the government was responsible for ensuring that such a large number of citizens could have a peaceful place to live without being attacked all the time. Polk responded that the U.S. government was not in the business of handing out travel money to religious sects but then, seeing as how war had just broken out with Mexico, he offered to provide good military pay to five hundred Mormon men if they would form a battalion and march to California with Kearny's army. This offer was accepted, and the Mormon men began to assemble themselves at Fort Leavenworth for the long trek ahead. For his part, Polk was glad the Mormons were clearing out-the farther west they moved, the better. If only somehow he could get the Irish to go with them.

Two hundred miles south, in mid-May of 1846, a different kind of emigrant party was poised at the jump-off point at Independence, Missouri, beyond which lurked hostile Indians, barren plains, searing deserts, insuperable mountains, and a thousand other dangers known and unknown. These were the families of George and Jacob Donner and James and Margaret Reed, who a month earlier had left their own prosperity behind in Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Illinois, and saddled up for the long haul west. Most of the early pioneers were hardscrabble and had undertaken the treacherous journey because they could see no future at home, but the Donners and the Reeds were substantial folk, so the irony remains that if only they'd stayed put and tended to business, the horrors that overtook them would not have happened.

Like many of the other emigrants, Reed and the Donner brothers had immersed themselves in Frémont's appealing recital of the golden West and concocted their own dreams, some of epic magnitude. They had also read a popular new book by a young adventurer named Lansford W. Hastings, who had made several trips to California and who was touting a new, shorter route south of the Great Salt Lake. It was said to take hundreds of miles off the old Oregon Trail, and would come to be known infamously as the Hastings Cutoff.

From the Hardcover edition.
Winston Groom|Author Q&A

About Winston Groom

Winston Groom - Kearny's March

Photo © Squire Fox

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.

Author Q&A

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.



Praise for Winston Groom's Kearny's March:

“Readable and engaging. . . . Groom is a masterful storyteller. . . . Told wonderfully, drolly by Groom. . . . Informed, reliable, shrewd and insightful, but laid-back. . . . Graceful and succinct. . . . Kearny’s March is for those who long to relive those exciting and dangerous days—and more particularly for those happy just to read about them. Groom fleshes his story out with enough extravagant, flawed personalities to cast a Shakespearean comedy.”
Dallas Morning News 
“Vivid. . . . Groom’s retelling of the Year of Decision is brisk, unblinking, unsentimental. . . . This is not a tale for dainty or euphemistic narration, and Groom knows warfare at first hand.”
The Weekly Standard
“Groom describes the hardships of [Kearny’s] trail beautifully. . . . The exploits of many of the colorful characters in this history are often breathtaking. . . . A grand story. . . . Groom has developed his powers of storytelling—characterization, concision, and scene-by-scene description—to a high art.”
Tuscaloosa News
“Thrilling. . . . Groom is a graceful, fluid wordsmith with a gift for crafting history. . . . An altogether superior read. . . . [Groom] engages, informs and entertains the reader all at once, so that one comes away from his nonfiction books feeling good about what’s been so effortlessly learned. . . . The book’s main focus is the incredible march west by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny in 1846, but significant parallel themes include the Mexican War, the Mormon exodus, the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, the Donner Party, and the conquest of California. These are all well-known events and have been oft-related through the years. But Groom’s achievement is to interweave them all seamlessly and sweep the reader along like an aspen leaf in a Rocky Mountain stream. . . . Groom is not only a good writer, he’s a fine historian into the bargain.”
Mobile Press-Register 
“Groom has done a sprightly job of chronicling this important but little-studied conflict.”
—Larry McMurtry, Harper’s 
“A vivid recounting of the seminal year that transformed the adolescent United States into a two-ocean nation. . . . [Groom] presents this story with novelistic flair. . . . Replete with adventure and harrowing tales. . . . There is drama aplenty, with backstabbing by everyone—American, Mexican and Indian. . . . It has all the components needed to make for an epic, and it reads easily. . . . True to his nature, Groom breathes life into the complicated players of his story. . . . An intrigue-filled account. . . . If you like a tale of high adventure, a fun read that is action-packed and informative, then pick up Kearny’s March. . . .  Provides a big-picture view of the motivations of men and the nation writ large at a transformative time in this country’s history, while painting a sterling portrait of not only a time but a place—the early American West.”
The Washington Independent Review of Books
“Energetic, enthralling narrative history. . . . Written with novelistic appreciation for character and ambition, Groom’s military histories are vibrant, kinetic, and popular.”
“An intriguing, international drama. . . . Groom brings to life the events of 1846-47.”
Library Journal
“A masterful blend of scholarly research, colorful description, and a confident, enthusiastic style of narrative writing that adds freshness and immediacy to a true-adventure saga.”
Alabama Writers’ Forum
“Valuable, lively, brave in scope, and fast-paced. . . . Despite the fact that the subject is a relatively conventional military history, Groom has done it extravagant justice.”
The Olympian
“Galloping popular history, guaranteed to entertain. . . . Groom follows Kearny’s 2,000-mile march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to California, providing wonderful stories about the soldiers’ progress through a rugged, wildly changing landscape.”
Kirkus Reviews

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: