Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Kearny's March" by Winston Groom

Where do you start to review a book as expansive in its scope as this one? Winston Groom has taken 4 seemingly different events, and then woven them seamlessly together, presenting a full view of some of the events which eventually lead to the Civil War. It is, as a matter of fact, his contention that the Civil War began with the acquisition of Texas, and California, from Mexico at the end of the War with Mexico. The acquisition of these lands, including Oregon and Washington State, gave urgency to the resolution of the Abolitionist Movement sweeping America at the time. With the new territories the South would be larger and thus have more representation in Congress and the Senate. It was feared that slavery, often called "that peculiar institution", would go on forever.

James Polk was the first of our Presidents to really act on the idea of "Manifest Destiny", which is the belief that this continent was somehow reserved for Americans to settle. And we have; from "sea to shining sea"; done just that. But the remarkable story of how we got there is worth knowing.

In 1846 General Kearny set out for California from Kansas with two thousand soldiers. Their mission was to secure the borders of Oregon against any incursion by the British. The original line of demarcation was 54 degrees and 40 minutes North latitude. Eventually, without going to war with England, the line was set at 49 degrees North latitude, which allowed the British to keep Vancouver. It also secured the Northern half of California, which was too far from Mexico City to be governed effectively by the Mexican Government. At the same time, Mexico was broke after obtaining her freedom from Spain. She was not too concerned with Northern California. But she was very serious about not losing Texas to the United States. And she was prepared to fight for it.

It isn't too often that an author can make history come alive, but that is just what Mr. Groom has done in this sweeping saga of America's growth in the days before the Civil War. Readers of this book, who are students of that conflict, will come away with a much greater understanding of how we were unable to avoid that war, largely due to the acquisition of the new territories and all of the political jockeying which accompanied it. In an effort, on each side, to have it their way, these new territories became focal points of division, as well as examples of our growing power as a nation. To quote Dickens’, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

Peopled with such luminary characters such as Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, General Santa Anna, General Fremont, Brigham Young, the Donner Party, Zachary Taylor, and Jefferson Davis, this book delivers something new with the turn of each page. And though we all know the outcome before we even begin to read the book, Mr. Groom has pieced all the facts together in a lively and even entertaining way.

A good book compels the reader to stay up a few minutes more to read "just one more page." This book has you staying awake to "read just one more chapter." High praise, indeed.

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