Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Ulysses S. Grant and the Mexican War

This is the fourth in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about the portrayal of the San Patricio Battalion in the Mexican War. This week, I return to the Mexican War, to talk about my portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant as a young officer.

Many historians have written about the Mexican War as the training ground for many of the officers who later served in the Civil War – Grant and Kearney for the North; Lee and Stonewall Jackson for the South, just to name a few.

In his memoirs, Grant spoke about the United States’ provocation of the war:

The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory furthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. [The United States Army was] sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it.

The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885), reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, CT, p. 45.

[T]o this day [I] regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

Memoirs, p. 37.

In New Garden, main character Jack Grier serves in Grant’s company. Grant suggests his opinion about the merits of the United States Army’s position in disputed territory in a scene where Grant has invited Sergeant Donovan and Private Grier to his tent to inform Jack that he is about to be promoted to corporal (page 53).

Grant slipped into his tent. A moment later he returned with a whiskey bottle in his hand. He uncorked the bottle. “It looks like you brought cups for the occasion.”

Jack and Donovan stood and extended their tin cups. Grant filled both of them and then his own. “Congratulations, Corporal Grier. I expect a lot from you. You’ll get your stripe in the morning, in front of the men.”

“Thank you, sir.”

As the men sipped their whiskey, Grant lowered his guard. “Where are we, Grier, the United States or Mexico?”

“Well, sir, the Texans say we’re in Texas, but the Mexicans say otherwise.”

“But what do you say?”

“I say we’re where we’ve been ordered to go, sir. I figure the United States and Mexican governments will work out their border issues.”

“But, Grier, don’t you find it a little peculiar that our ‘Army of Occupation’ was ordered to establish our base in disputed territory?”

“I’m just following orders, sir.”

Grant also spoke about the quality of the Mexican army.

The Mexicans have shown a patriotism which it would be well if we would imitate in part, but with more regard to truth. They celebrate the anniversaries of Chapultepec and Molino del Rey as of very great victories. **** At these two battles, while the United States troops were victorious, it was at very great sacrifice of life compared with what the Mexicans suffered. The Mexicans, as on many other occasions, stood up as well as any troops ever did. The trouble seemed to be the lack of experience among the officers….

Memoirs, p. 102.

I depict the Mexican soldier’s frustration with the lack of success on the battlefield [New Garden, p. 61]:

Private Jorge knelt for morning prayers. The day before he was certain his fellow Mexicans would rout the Yankee invaders. “What went wrong? I stood my ground, as did my fellow soldiers. We closed ranks after the hellacious cannon fire from the Americans. Why did our commandante not provide cannon adequate to mow down the proud Americans? Why did our officers lack the knowledge and skill to lead our brave soldiers to victory?”

In just a few pages, the reader receives a hint that Grant has misgivings about the war and that the Mexican soldiers do not lack for courage. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.



Leave a comment

Filed under Mexican War, Uncategorized

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The San Patricio Battalion

This is the third in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. This week, I turn to the Mexican War, more specifically, to the San Patricio Battalion.

Military recruiting has not changed dramatically since the 1840’s. Recruiters then and recruiters now have their greatest success among the poor. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but on the eve of war with Mexico, German and Irish immigrants made up roughly forty percent of America’s regular army. In turn, the Mexican officers actively recruited those men to switch sides.

Among the characters in New Garden is main character Jack Grier’s NCO, Sergeant Donovan, an Irish immigrant. American troops are encamped across the Rio Grande from the Mexican town of Matamoros in March, 1846. A chapter captioned “The San Patricio Battalion” (57-58), portrays Donovan’s dilemma and the choice made by him and other immigrant soldiers.

The next morning Donovan obtained permission to attend mass at a Catholic church in Matamoros. He discreetly packed most of his valuables in the event he chose not to return.

Donovan did not object to fighting Seminoles or Apaches, but he was less enamored with making war on fellow Catholics. He had observed the priests mingle among the Mexican troops. He had heard the American officers question their orders to march south of the Nueces River into disputed territory. The Irish made up 24 percent of the American troops. Many of them shared Donovan’s doubts.

Mass and communion settled Donovan’s dilemma. Kneeling in church, absorbing the Latin litany, inhaling the incense, receiving Holy Communion, Donovan felt Catholic once again. After the service two Mexican officers approached him. Other American soldiers were also approached by Mexican officers. The Mexicans offered them incentives to leave the United States Army for the Mexican Army. They offered Donovan the rank of major, as well as four hundred acres of land outside Puebla, in the cooler, higher elevations of Mexico.

****The United States behaved like England, bullying its way into the territory of North America’s other democracy. He had left Ireland because of the English. Leaving the United States felt the same. He threw his lot in with the Mexicans.

Over the next eight days more soldiers swam across the Rio Grande. Taylor grew alarmed and issued orders to fire on any deserter. The sentinels shot several deserters and several others drowned, but over one hundred and thirty men made it across the river. Over the next two years they would serve Mexico in the San Patricio Battalion.

Seventeen months later, the Americans fight the San Patricios at Churubusco. Jack Grier has risen to the rank of sergeant, and now commands the unit previously run by Donovan. Dying in Jack’s arms, Donovan begs Jack to care for his widow, Ileana. Jack’s decision to honor Donovan’s dying wish will have consequences, good and bad, for the rest of Jack’s life.

Time seemed to stand still. Donovan rose behind his improvised barricade and began to fire on Bryan and Chandler. Jack could not move his Paterson revolver fast enough. As Bryan and Chandler fell, Jack emptied his revolver on Donovan. All five shots hit their target.

Hit, but not yet dead, Jack and Gold bent down over Donovan, while the other soldiers tended to their fallen comrades. Donovan held a letter in his left hand, forcing it in Jack’s right.

“Illeana,” he moaned. “Care for her, Jack, please.”


“Ileana, my wife. Puebla. Please, promise.”

Jack tried looking away. “Save your breath, Donovan. We’ll take care of these wounds.”

Struggling to laugh, Donovan coughed up blood. “No, Jack, the wounds are fatal. I don’t want a noose. Ileana. Promise, promise.”

“I promise.”

Two months after Churubusco, thirty of the San Patricios draw their last breath as the American flag is raised at Chapultepec (New Garden, pp. 67-69).

Within minutes thereafter, another American hoisted the United States flag over Chapultepec. This was the hangman’s signal. At Mixcoac, only two miles from Chapultepec and well within sight of the battle, thirty San Patricios stood on makeshift scaffolds constructed on United States Army wagons. They had stood there all morning, their hands and feet bound, ropes around their necks. Once the colors unfurled above Chapultepec, the teamsters ordered the mules foreward. Thirty San Patricios swung in the Mexican sunshine.

In just a few pages, the reader learns about the San Patricios. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mexican War, Uncategorized

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The Underground Railroad

This is the second in a series of articles in which I will share my methodology for crafting a story which I hope is both interesting and informative. In my first article, I discussed slavery in the context of the slaveholding household and women’s non-existent legal rights. This week, I turn to the underground railroad, which played a significant role in the antebellum history of Guilford County, North Carolina.


Levi Coffin                          Source: Biography.com

Among the underground railroad’s leaders was its unofficial president, Levi Coffin, who was born in the Quaker community of New Garden. He moved to another Quaker community in Richmond County, Indiana, as a young man and later moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

My research for the novel included many hours of perusing microfilm of the period’s weekly newspaper, the Greensborough Patriot. Although the newspaper’s editor, often spoke out against slavery, he married a woman who owned slaves and he ran advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves. Slavery, as they say, was a “peculiar institution,” and William Swaim was not the only person who fell in love with someone whose circumstances differed dramatically from his or her own.

My research also included many hours researching the Greensboro Public Library’s rare books room. There and from many other sources, I learned much about the operation of the underground railroad. Nails were sometimes hammered into the bottom of fence rails as a sign that a farmhouse was a safehouse for runaways – a “station” on the underground railroad. “Station masters” sometimes hid runaways in cellars, not in a typical cellar, but one with a niche dug adjacent to an open square, with barrels or other objects employed to conceal the niche.

New Garden includes one chapter (pages 12-14) dedicated to Tom and Sara Grier’s operation of a station on the underground railroad. I open the chapter with a newspaper advertisement similar to one a subscriber might read in an 1843 edition of the Greensborough Patriot:


Ran away from the subscriber on Sunday the 5th of September, instant, a negro man, named JOE, about 5 feet, 9 inches high, black complection, a cook by trade. It is suspected that he is attempting to get to a free State in company with some free negroes. The last account of him he was in Asheboro; had on a white hat, and in his shirtsleeves. The above reward will be given for his apprehension and confinement, or delivery to me in Wentworth. JAS. W. WOODLEY Oct. 21st.

The story then goes on to find Joe near the Grier farmhouse:

The sun’s last rays finally dropped below the western tree line. Joe rubbed his left hand along the bottom rail of the split-rail fence, just as the blacksmith at the last station had instructed. This had to be the right house. ****

The story continues, as Joe, with some trepidation, knocks on the door and is admitted into the farmhouse. Tom leads Joe into the cellar to change into different clothes.

Tom led Joe down the ladder. At first glance the cellar appeared to be a twenty-by-twenty-foot square. When Tom removed some barrels, however, there was an additional four-by-eight-foot space off to one side with a cot in the middle.

The next day, Tom transports Joe in a false-bottom wagon to the next station. A runaway would not spend his entire journey in such a wagon, but he would do so when traveling through areas where he might be seen.

Joe crawled into the false bottom. He could barely move. Stories about the slave ships sailing the Middle Passage from Africa’s Gold Coast had passed through generations of American slaves. The slave trade had been so profitable that the ship captains had crammed Africans into every available crevice. As Joe thought of those horrible stories, his mouth opened into a wide grin. This was a different vessel, one that would carry him to freedom. He would escape the land of the Pharaohs while walking this earth, unlike the millions of his brethren who listened to the slave preachers and would do so only after drawing their last breath.

In just a few paragraphs or pages, the reader learns about an evening on the Underground Railroad. The historical details, gathered in many hours of research, are told in the context of a story, not sometimes mind-numbing text.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.


Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, slavery, Underground Railroad

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: Slavery and Women’s Rights in Antebellum America

If you read my blog, you probably are already a rabid history fan. Even if you’re not, you should consider the historical novel, so long as it accurately portrays the history of the period. This is the first of a 12-part series of articles in which I will share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Let’s begin with New Garden, a Civil War era novel.

The book is largely about two Quaker brothers who make decisions that put themselves at odds with their faith. Jack Grier joins the U.S. Army at the eve of the Mexican War. His brother Richard becomes a lawyer and politician and marries into a slaveholding family. How do those decisions affect them and everyone around them? No matter how much success Richard achieves, he can never get past his father’s obvious favoritism for Jack, even when Jack is on the other side of the country in California.

Slavery is the overwhelming issue of the day. I did not try to convey the meaning of the institution by merely citing statistics and quoting famous politicians of the day. That’s for a history class. I weave the topic along with that of women’s non-existent legal rights in the context of a story. How did slavery and women’s position play out in Southern society?


Mary Chesnut Source: CivilWar.org

White masters and overseers often took advantage of their power over the women held in bondage. Their children’s legal status was determined by the status of the mother, not by the status of the father. If the mother was free, the child was free. If the mother was a slave, the child was a slave. How did this play out in the Southern household where the children included those who were free – the offspring of the master and his wife – and those were slaves – the offspring of the master and a household servant?


The Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut (whose husband served as a United States Senator from South Carolina before the Civil War) was highly critical of miscegenation and offered this commentary:

Every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds.

In New Garden Richard Grier’s future father-in-law, Edward McAllister, transfers ownership of Alicia, his daughter by his household servant Annie, to Richard as a wedding gift. Richard is engaged to Alicia’s half-sister, Lydia. McAllister sent both daughters to Canada for an education, but Alicia’s legal status has reverted to that of a slave upon her return to North Carolina. The following is an excerpt (183-184) in which Annie and Alicia discuss her plight.

“You say you think he’s giving me to Richard? No, Mama, he wouldn’t do that. He might give me to Lydia, but not to her husband. Why would he do that?”

“Now, Alicia, we’ve talked about that. Giving you to Miss Lydia would make no difference at all. You’d belong to Mr. Grier anyway. Even I know that about the law. You seen the other slave owners. Most of ‘em have at least one colored girl to keep ‘em warm when the wife’s not willing or able. I figure you going to be that girl for Mr. Grier.”

Alicia shuddered, then said in a soft, weepy voice. “Mama, I don’t think Lydia would allow it.”

“Miss Lydia about to get a big-time lesson on how things are. White women got no rights once they say the ‘I do’s.’ After that they do whatever the husband tells them, just like us. Better not back talk neither. You seen Old Man Hoskins and all the colored folks in his house. Most of them’s his children. Old Miz Hoskins has to grin and bear it. Better act like she don’t know what’s going on.”

In just a few paragraphs or pages, the reader learns how the peculiar institution actually played out in the southern household of slave owners. The passage should tug at the heartstrings of anyone.

New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, slavery, Uncategorized

Miranda Warnings at Fifty-Year Anniversary

You know the drill if you’ve seen any crime show. The police detective “Mirandizes” the accused when he is taken into custody:

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can and will be used against you in court.

You have the right to an attorney before making any statement and may have your attorney with you during questioning.

If you cannot afford an attorney and desire one, the court will appoint one for you.

You may stop the questioning at any time by refusing to answer further or by requesting to consult with your attorney.

When the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Miranda v. Arizona [384 U.S. 436] in 1966, many law and order conservatives screamed that the Supreme Court’s opinion imposed unreasonable restraints on state and local law enforcement officers.

Federal law enforcement officers were already providing Miranda-like warnings in custodial interrogations. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure required production of an arrested person before a commissioner “without unnecessary delay” and excluded evidence obtained in default of that statutory obligation. At the outset of an interview, the FBI’s established procedures required the investigating agent to advise any suspect or arrested person in a custodial setting that he was not required to make a statement, that any statement may be used against him in court, and that the individual may obtain the services of an attorney of his own choice.

The rationale for the Miranda warnings is rooted in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution. Essentially, the Fifth Amendment provides that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The Sixth Amendment further provides that a criminal defendant shall “have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Chief Justice Earl Warren explored the “Star Chamber” proceedings in seventeenth century England as the genesis for the Constitutional protections afforded in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

Impeach Earl Warren en.wikipedia.org-1

One of many posters at the time to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Warren expressed concern about an accused being questioned by police or prosecutors in a room in which he is cut off from the outside world. Police violence and the “third degree” flourished during the 1930’s and was found by the 1961 Civil Rights Commission to be the rule among some policemen. Warren cited one instance in which Kings County, New York police beat, kicked, and placed lighted cigarette butts on the back of a potential witness for the purpose of securing a statement incriminating a third party.

That federal law enforcement officers succeeded in prosecuting criminals effectively rebutted those who contended that state and local officers could not do their jobs effectively if they had to issue such warnings and had to allow suspects to remain silent and obtain assistance of counsel.

The Warren Court suffered great criticism for “coddling criminals,” but the Justices merely expressed the likely intent of the Founding Fathers, particularly James Madison, who insisted that the Constitution include a Bill of Rights to protect the citizen from overreach by the state.


Leave a comment

Filed under American history

America’s First Transcontinental Railroad: The Men Who Supervised Construction of the Railroad

For millennia men have left their families behind to create an economic opportunity for their families, to march off to war, or to participate in construction of an extraordinary engineering marvel. (Think of the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, and America’s first transcontinental railroad.)

I know something about the first. When I was a small boy living in West Virginia, my father suffered horrific injuries when the roof of a coal mine collapsed and pinned him in the bowels of the earth. A rescue team rushed to his aid and after several agonizing hours succeeded in freeing him from the rock. They immediately realized that the collapsed roof had broken both of his legs. That evening at the county hospital, the medical staff discovered that one lung had collapsed, punctured by three broken ribs.

It took months for my father to recover from his injuries. By that time he had run through most of his life’s savings and had to find a means of supporting a wife and five children. The accident had crushed any interest in returning to the mines and, with only an eighth-grade education, his options were limited. After another six months of trying several vocations, he acquired a Texaco dealership in Newport News, Virginia. Before relocating the family there, he made certain he could make a go of it. To minimize expenses, he slept on a cot in the stock room among cases of oil and grease and took bird baths at the stock room sink.

After a year away from the family, he gained the reputation and clientele he believed necessary to succeed. So he gathered the family from the cool breezes and poverty of Appalachia and moved us to the sweltering heat and new-found economic opportunity afforded by Hampton Roads.

Creating an Economic Opportunity and Participating in the Extraordinary

I’ve written numerous articles about America’s first transcontinental railroad. Most of them detail the struggles and accomplishments of the railroad titans, the men who owned the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies. The construction of the railroad rarely took those men away from home for an extended period of time. That was not true of the men who actually cleared the path and laid the rails or for the men who supervised the work. In this article, I will speak briefly about the two men responsible for overall supervision of the work.

Before the Civil War, John S. (Jack) Casement made his living in the fledgling railroad industry. He worked as a common track layer, a foreman, and ultimately formed his own company, contracting to lay track for several railroad companies in the Midwest. During the war he rose to the rank of general in the Union Army. Afterward, he dove unsuccessfully into the speculative cotton trade. Stung by failure, he returned to the trade that had put bread on the family table before the war.

The Union Pacific Railroad was appropriately named, as the company hired on a number of Union Army veterans. In 1866, Thomas Durant hired former Union General Grenville Dodge as the chief engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. In February 1866, the Union Pacific had laid only forty miles of track when Durant also contracted with brothers Jack and Dan Casement to complete the task. The Union Pacific had initiated construction in Omaha, Nebraska, even though President Lincoln clearly expected that Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, would serve as the railroad’s eastern terminus. There is no greater professional lapse for a lawyer than to approve or draft contract language that allows the counterparty, particularly a con man such as Durant, to avoid executing the terms of an obligation consistent with the client’s intent (in this case, President Lincoln’s intent).

Dan Casement handled the books and General Jack drove the men. They did so at great personal sacrifice by General Jack and Frances Casement. He spent most of his time supervising the work, rarely taking time to visit Frances and the children in Painesville, Ohio. His loneliness is evidenced in his letters to Frances, who remained behind in Ohio throughout the three-year project. American Experience, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/tcrr

In the West, James Strobridge took a different tack once the Central Pacific’s work crossed the Sierra Nevada. During the early years of construction, Charley Crocker of the Central Pacific worked with Strobridge on a contract basis, just as the Union Pacific did with the Casement brothers. But in January 1867, Crocker hired Strobridge as his construction company’s superintendent in charge of building the line. In the winter of 1866-67, Strobridge arranged to bring his home along with him. A boxcar was converted into a one-bedroom apartment for his wife.

Of course, the Central Pacific’s workers – most of them Chinese peasants, at times numbering over ten thousand – were not so fortunate. Their families remained behind in Kwangtung Province, hoping the men who had left China for “Gold Mountain” would forge a more prosperous life for them in America or return home with enough savings to provide a comfortable life. They left home for economic opportunity, but they also played an integral role in an extraordinary project, one that connected east coast with west coast, thereby bringing the country one step closer to becoming one truly united U.S.A.


  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience, pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/tcrr.


Leave a comment

Filed under railroad, Transcontinental Railroad, United States

The National Park Service Turns 100

If you watched the 2016 Rose Bowl Parade, you know the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The participants included Yosemite Park Rangers on horseback and documentary film maker Ken Burns as the Parade’s Grand Marshal. One of the rangers celebrated his 50th year as a seasonal ranger last year (more on that later).

The National Park Service’s story is an evolutionary tale. As our European cousins criticized the carnival-like atmosphere of Niagara Falls in the early 1800’s, United States citizens struggled with how to care for the continent’s many natural wonders that indigenous tribes had somehow managed not to spoil despite living here for millennia.

A few prominent Californians helped to plant the seed when they lobbied to set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees (giant Sequoias) for the benefit and enjoyment of the public. President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, granting California responsibility for maintaining those scenic wonders.

The Yosemite Grant was followed eight years later with the establishment of the country’s first national park, Yellowstone. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation adding Sequoia, General Grant, and an expanded Yosemite to America’s collection of national parks. More national parks and national monuments (the latter established by executive order, bypassing any resistance in Congress) would follow.

While the country was working out this new idea of wilderness preservation, someone had to protect national park land. Where there was no protection, there was vandalism, poaching, and sheepherding. There has always been tension between those who wish to preserve America’s treasures and those who wish to use federal lands for private gain – agriculture, mining, and lumber. For several decades, the United States Army played the role of protector.

Early in the twentieth century, Stephen Mather (who made his millions promoting Borax products), Horace Albright, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Horace McFarland campaigned for the creation of a federal bureau to manage the National Parks. Their efforts bore fruit when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Act (and also know as the Organic Act of 1916) into law on August 25, 1916. The law mandated that the National Park Service “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife [within the parks, monuments, and preserves]” while at the same time providing for current and future generations’ enjoyment of these national treasures. If you have visited a national park on a busy summer day, you understand that conservation and public enjoyment sometimes come into conflict.

As new national parks and monuments have been added and as the number of visitors has grown, the NPS has had to evolve to meet new challenges. The rangers are responsible for fire protection, search and rescue, and law enforcement, as well as the responsibilities we more often associate with them – public education about geology, flora, and fauna; protecting visitors and wildlife from each other; managing campgrounds; providing visitors information about hiking trails and climbing routes. Rangers who were once Jacks and Jills of all trades are now more specialized.

Back to that 50-year seasonal ranger I mentioned earlier (I will use only his first name, Fred.). This past summer, I had the privilege of serving as a volunteer in Yosemite National Park. While there, I met a number of the Rangers. Nothing is more iconic than a ranger on horseback. On one sunny afternoon, a family that included a very young Junior Ranger visited one of the volunteer locations, Parsons Lodge, in Tuolumne Meadows. The young boy was excited about almost everything, including a toad that had managed to hop on a window shutter and a marmot on a nearby stack of rocks. But the Junior Ranger’s really big moment came when Ranger Fred rode up the trail on his horse King. The child was truly star struck as Ranger Fred took ten minutes to engage the Junior Ranger. I’m sure the child will enjoy that memory for quite some time.

Whatever your favorite national park or monument – I have a hard time choosing among Yosemite, Glacier, Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon, and Yorktown, just to name a few – take a few minutes to talk to a ranger. They are often overworked and frequently underpaid. But I’ve never seen one out of sorts with a visitor. Thank the ranger for his or her service. We are privileged to have so many dedicated men and women to enhance our enjoyment of America’s treasures.



  • Farabee, Charles R. National Park Ranger: An American Icon. Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart, 2003.
  • National Park Service History Program (various articles). http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory.




Leave a comment

Filed under American history, National Parks, United States

The Union Pacific Railroad’s Oakes and Oliver Ames

When Collis P. Huntington, Eastern Agent and Vice President of the Central Pacific, found himself at a very low point in 1863 – when he could not raise funds to buy iron and other railroad hardware because the money men saw easier money to be made in war profiteering – a prior business relationship during the Gold Rush proved to be his salvation. Huntington & Hopkins Hardware had bought thousands of shovels from the Ames family’s New England factory for California gold prospectors and had always paid on time. After some consideration, Oliver Ames, Jr. agreed to make the loan on the condition that Huntington guarantee the interest payments. He also provided letters of introduction to eastern manufacturers of rails and locomotives. Huntington leveraged the loan to buy the rolling stock, rails, and other hardware the Central Pacific needed to get started.

The Ames brothers had pulled Huntington’s fat out of the fire, not as an act of charity, but because Oliver Ames could see additional demand coming from a successful railroad. Ames could not have foreseen, however, that he ultimately would become Huntington’s competitor in the race across the continent. And, in that race, the era of good feelings sometimes turned acrimonious.

Oliver and Oakes Ames had made a fortune during the California Gold Rush and added to that fortune supplying materials to the Union Army during the Civil War. With their cups running over, they made the unfortunate decision of joining Thomas Durant’s Union Pacific railroad enterprise. Republican Oakes won a seat in the House of Representatives and an all-important appointment to the House Committee on Railroads. Oliver secured a seat on the Union Pacific’s board of directors and ultimately served as president pro tempore from 1866 to 1868. He was formally elected as the company’s president in 1868 and continued in that role until 1871.


Oliver Ames

They should have known better. But just as investors have pursued every venture related to computers and the internet in the past 25 years, investors wanted everything related to railroads in mid-19th century America. And what siren song beckoned more loudly than building the country’s first transcontinental railroad? Had the Ames brothers done their due diligence, they would have known Thomas Durant was a man from whom they should keep their distance.

Unlike the Associates of the Central Pacific, who largely cooperated in their venture and by all accounts appeared to endeavor to build a solid railroad from Sacramento to Promontory Point, company vice president Durant continuously created controversy. For him, the building of the railroad was the thing. Through his construction contracting company, Credit Mobilier, he sought to extract as much money as possible from the building of the railroad. Credit Mobilier, obstensibly an entity separate and apart from the Union Pacific but in reality a different shell with the same owners, overstated expenses. The bills were passed on to the U.S. Treasury and to Union Pacific shareholders. Of course, the entire enterprise included Oakes Ames bribing Congressmen and Senators with Credit Mobilier stock, selling to them well below market. (The Central Pacific was equally guilty of lining legislators’ pockets.) Sucked into Durant’s scheme (perhaps as much by greed as by exasperation), the Ames brothers came to regret their association with him. The New York newspaper, The Sun, broke the story during the 1872 Presidential campaign. Congress later censured Oakes Ames and one Democrat. The Union Pacific slid into bankruptcy.


Oakes Ames

Back to that much needed loan. As the competing railroad companies crossed the Utah line, each wanted to extend its line as far as possible. This inevitably led to confrontation, with Huntington having no regard for prior good feelings. In one instance, Oakes Ames offered to split the difference between the two railroads’ progress. Huntington blared “I’ll see you damned first.” (Lavender, The Great Persuader, p. 238). Each man threatened to sue the other. Their minions in Congress leveled charges against their masters’ opponents. In the end, the threat of Congressional investigation brought both Huntington and Ames to their senses, thereby paving the way for the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Point. Thomas Durant certainly made the journey an interesting one.


  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/tcrr-ames

Leave a comment

Filed under American history, railroad, Uncategorized

The Union Pacific Railroad’s Thomas Durant: Getting the Facts Right

I have written a great deal about the men of the Central Pacific Railroad. But one cannot talk about the transcontinental railroad without talking about the Central Pacific’s eastern counterpart, the Union Pacific and Thomas Durant.


A meeting of the board of Union Pacific Railroads in a private railway car. L-R, seated at the table Silas Seymour, consulting engineer, Sidney Dillon, Thomas Durant (1820 – 1885), and John Duff, directors. Photograph by Andrew Joseph Russell (1830-1902). (Photo by A. J. Russell /Getty Images)

The popular television show Hell on Wheels has part of it right – Thomas Durant was a stock manipulator and con man who did not hesitate to instruct his engineers to take the long way to get from Point A to Point B so as to maximize the railroad’s take at the government trough. But much of the rest of the portrayal is at odds with fact – he spent very little time on the railroad, preferring to make business deals in his luxurious New York office or entertaining clients on his yacht. Just understand that the television program is for your entertainment. (Similarly, the show puts the Central Pacific’s Collis Huntington in California. As the eastern agent for the Central, he moved to New York in 1863. He lived and worked there, with side trips to Washington, D.C. He did not return to the West until December 1868, when he wanted to see for himself the railroad’s progress. He immediately returned to New York after an absence of only 31 days.) Consult the history for the facts.


Colm Meaney plays Thomas Durant on the AMC show “Hell on Wheels”

He was born in 1820, the son of a prosperous Massachusetts merchant – also at odds with the television show’s portrayal of him as someone who had to grovel for sustenance as a child. At 20 years old, he graduated from Albany Medical College with a specialty in ophthalmology. At 23, he cast that profession aside to join his uncle’s shipping firm as a partner.

In 1853, Durant became a partner in the contracting firm of Farnam and Durant. The firm’s first project was the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (which later hired attorney Abraham Lincoln to represent the company in a dispute with ferryboat companies about a bridge built over the Mississippi River). Due to contract obligations having to be paid in the form of railroad securities, Farnam and Durant ultimately took control of the railroad, with Farnam as its president.

Thereafter, Farnam and Durant chartered another railroad company, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (“the M&M”), with their eyes set on Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, the first set on the east bank of the Missouri and Omaha across the river on its western bank. The railroad progressed in fits and starts, with bond money from Council Bluffs, Omaha, and several Iowa counties that wanted in the game. The company had made little progress when the Panic of 1857 brought down the whole operation. With most of the bond money unaccounted for, Farnam discovered that Durant had pledged their construction company’s securities to dabble in the stock market. Durant survived the Panic unscathed while Farnam was ruined and Iowa saw very little track and grade for its investment in the railroad men.

Undeterred, Durant set his eyes on the transcontinental enterprise. Once he took control of the Union Pacific during the Civil War, he could look west and hope to complete the tracks that would connect the west coast to the east. Contrary to President Lincoln’s wishes, Durant established the eastern terminus in Omaha rather than Council Bluffs. That bridge would have to wait until after Promontory Point, when Durant had left the company. A railroad bridge over a major river is an expensive project, especially when your company can lay miles of tracks in less time over the Great Plains.

It had to test Durant’s patience and stamina, for the Union Pacific did not lay a single rail until after Appomattox. Along the way, Durant established Credit Mobilier, the construction company that secured all the contracts for the grading, the tracks, and all the bridges, trestles, and tunnels – thus guaranteeing Durant would make money in the enterprise even if the Union Pacific failed. Ultimately the Union Pacific had laid two-thirds of the track between Omaha and Sacramento when the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869. Durant cheated business partners and employees the entire journey, but in the end he received credit for an achievement that resulted as much despite his interference as because of his contributions.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under railroad, Uncategorized

The War to End All Wars

If only Woodrow Wilson were right. The massive casualties of World War I were followed by even more horrific numbers in World War II. Americans often forget the First World War and how it affected the European and American psyches as Germany and Japan pursued aggressive measures in the 1930’s. Much of the world blinked, hoping not to replicate the tragedy triggered at Sarajevo, only to see the Second World War envelop most of the rest of humanity.

Hopefully, all of us are familiar with World War II’s narrative: Hitler’s aggression in Europe, with France and Great Britain hopeful that the annexation of Austria, Neville Chamberlain’s sacrifice of the Sudetenland, and Germany’s conquest of the rest of Czechoslovakia would curb the Nazi appetite; Japanese conquests in Asia insufficient to motivate the United States to curb the aggression until the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The First World War is harder to fathom, the product of ultranationalists in Serbia and entangling alliances among the European powers. Young men in Sarajevo plot to murder the heir apparent to the Habsburg throne in Austria-Hungary. They seek personal glory in an act they hope will lead to recreation of a mythical Pan Serbia, “regaining” lands then held by Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Each man is prepared to die by taking arsenic or shooting himself; each fails in the effort. Serbian leaders produce an unsatisfactory response to Austria’s ultimatum (which includes Austria’s participation in the investigation and prosecution of suspected Serbian conspirators). Austria declares war on Serbia. Russia comes to the aid of Serbia. Germany declares war on Russia. Treaty commitments ultimately bring Great Britain into the conflict.

Four years of war lead to 8.5 million deaths, 21 million wounded, and tens of thousands more unaccounted for as young men are obliterated beyond recognition by the weapons of war.

Let’s look at just two countries, France and Germany.

France’s 1910 population numbered 41 million. The war killed over 1.3 million soldiers and left 4.3 million men wounded. Of the men who actually served, 17 percent were killed – roughly one out of six men – and fully half were wounded.

Germany’s 1910 population numbered 78 million. Almost 1.8 million Germans soldiers died and 4.2 million men were wounded. Of the men who served, 13 percent were killed – roughly one out of eight men – another 40 percent were wounded.

Soldiers in the trenches during World War I.

Soldiers in the trenches during World War I.

While the European fighting began in August 1914, the United States did not enter the fray until April, 1917, thereby limiting American casualties (117,000 dead; 204,000 wounded – comparable to 406,000 dead and 708,000 wounded in the U.S. 2015 population).

The American sacrifice was great, but pales in comparison to French and German losses. It’s no small wonder the Europeans hoped Hitler would just leave them alone.

The numbers require some correlation to our current population. Only the Syrian conflict offers a modern-day parallel (2011 population of 23 million; 220,000 dead as of March 2015; 9 million displaced of whom 3 million have left Syria for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq).

Conditions have only gotten worse since March. Comparable U.S. numbers in the United States would be 3.1 million dead; 125 million displaced, with 42 million leaving the country. If we put statistics in context, perhaps we can look at the victims as fellow human beings who by the accident of birth are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and deserve our sympathy and meaningful support.

And, of course, in recent months the Syrian Diaspora has spread to Europe, pulling at the world’s heartstrings as we witness a suffering but courageous population unwilling to leave the next generation of Syrians adrift in the Middle East’s increasingly dangerous waters.


  • Keegan, John, The First World War. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
  • Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. HarperCollins, 2012.
  • Website: http://syrianrefugees.eu.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized