Authors: Richard S. Wheeler
RICHARD S. WHEELER
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To Tom Doherty,
who asked me to write about the Pathfinder
I shall never forget the months I spent as a spectator in the Washington Arsenal watching the fiendish glare that Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny directed at my daughter's husband, John Charles FrÃ©mont. I had never seen anything like it. General Kearny had fixed his unblinking scowl upon my son-in-law with the full intent of intimidating the young man.
The court-martial of Colonel FrÃ©mont began on November 2, 1847, and ran eighty-nine days. General Kearny had brought the charges, including mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudicial to good order. These sprang from the period when FrÃ©mont and his battalion of irregulars, along with Commodore Robert Stockton, had largely conquered California with little help from the regular army. Commodore Stockton, the senior United States officer in the region, had appointed Colonel FrÃ©mont the governor of the newly conquered province, a position he ardently defended against the meddling of Brigadier General Kearny, until the malice-soaked Kearny stripped him of the office, accused him of insubordination, and then hauled him east as a prisoner.
Kearny must have seethed, for the young and celebrated conqueror of California was neither a veteran line officer nor a West Pointer but a junior officer, an explorer and map-maker with the Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers,
who happened to be near the Pacific coast when war broke out. Not only that, but FrÃ©mont and Stockton had won California with minimal bloodshed, and FrÃ©mont had made a generous peace with the conquered Californios.
It didn't end with that, either, for the young man was also a national hero, well known to his countrymen as the Pathfinder. In previous explorations he, along with a company of gifted scientists and cartographers, had mapped large portions of the little-known West, and the accounts of these journeys had been published by the government and made available to pioneering Americans bent on settling the West. Thus the Pathfinder had been a great instrument of westward expansion, an enterprise dear to my heart, and one to which I had devoted my entire career in the Senate.
But all this success, which seemed to wrap my son-in-law in a golden aura, was too much for the old guard in the army, and in General Kearny it found the means to ruin the most celebrated young officer in the republic. I knew, even as the two sides prepared for the trial, that Colonel FrÃ©mont would have to endure a special burden, the rage of envious senior officers who vented their rank hostility and contempt toward my son-in-law at every opportunity, sometimes stating their case in the sensational daily press.
I took steps in my own fashion to salvage my son-in-law's career, one day interviewing President Polk about the matter. I noted his tepid response, and I marked him as a pusillanimous opponent of the Bentons, though we had made common cause for many years. I took to the Senate floor, where I still commanded a faction of my Democratic party, and did not hesitate to let the whole body know of the malign effort to disgrace Colonel FrÃ©mont, and by extension, bring ruin upon my family.
How I ached for my daughter Jessie, who was forced to
listen day after day to the most disgraceful and base accusations against her beloved husband, even while she bore his unborn child. It was plain to the whole world that the charges against my son-in-law were utterly without merit, concocted by a vindictive old general who had arrived in California too late and with too little force and had suffered the mortal indignity of defeat by the Californios. Was it any wonder that a bilious stew began to boil in the bosom of the old soldier or that it was soon to spew over the true conqueror of California?
I took my own measures as I watched the trial progress through the weeks and months. When General Kearny took the witness stand, I stared back, as relentlessly and unblinkingly as he had glared at my son-in-law, and my steadfast gaze had its effect. The general exploded in rage, and the tribunal directed its attention toward me, even as I sat with glacial calm among the spectators. But the conduct that was perfectly acceptable to the tribunal in Kearny's case was not acceptable to them in my case, and I suffered the rebuke of its presiding officer, Brevet Brigadier General G. M. Brooke. That gave me the measure of the thirteen members of that tribunal. I knew where the Bentons stood with them, and some things I do not forget or forgive.
I like to think that the whole lot of them were recollecting an earlier utterance of mine that still follows me around, much to my advantage: “I never quarrel, sir, but I do fight, sir, and when I fight, sir, a funeral follows, sir.”
They found FrÃ©mont guilty on all charges and directed that he be thrown out of the army. The miserable Polk affirmed the charges but remitted the sentence, permitting my son-in-law to remain in the service. But that additional rebuke was too much for the young man; he resigned in deepest sadness, and thus the Pathfinder, the young republic's most honored young man, found himself tarnished and
alone. Those were hard days for my daughter Jessie and her husband, and I ached for them.
It mattered not that the American people, along with the press, were solidly behind FrÃ©mont for it was plain to the whole country that sheer spite among senior army officers had brought the Pathfinder to his ruin. It mattered not that this vindictive verdict caused grave illness in Jessie and threatened the life of her unborn child. It mattered not to the Polk administration that it had wrought an injustice and that the American people were aware of it and outraged by it.
But I have my own ways and means, and I thought of an enterprise that not only would regain FrÃ©mont's reputation for him as the nation's foremost explorer but also would open a way for Saint Louis to funnel the entire commerce of the West and the Pacific into the States and to hasten the day when the republic would stretch from sea to sea. I proposed to several Saint Louis business colleagues that they fund a private survey along the 38th parallel, with the intent of running a railroad to San Francisco along the midcontinent route. I received somewhat hesitant backing because the gentlemen feared that FrÃ©mont might once again fail to use sound judgment, but in the end, we raised enough to finance FrÃ©mont's fourth expedition. It would be up to the Pathfinder to restore his name and reputation. But in this case he would not be defying a superior officer; he would answer only to himself. This time there was no one looking over his shoulder.
General Kearny killed the baby. I would never say it publicly, but I knew right down to my bones that it was true. Jessie would come to it also; she thought that Benton was sickly because of the court-martial.
Ten weeks was all the life allotted my firstborn, named after Jessie's family. The ordeal in Washington City was more than Jessie could endure, and it afflicted the child she was carrying, and now the bell tolls.
Stephen Watts Kearny and his cronies brought the charge, mutiny and disobedience in California; put me and my family through the ordeal; and triumphed. He who was a friend of the Bentons, supped at their table, could not contain a raging envy of me, and now the bell tolls.
Benton was a sickly infant, delivered by a worn woman, though Jessie was but twenty-four. Even Kit Carson, almost a stranger to children, said as much. He had visited Jessie in Washington only a few weeks ago, having completed his courier duty for the army, and thought that Benton would not live long.
I watched the pewter river slide past in the dawn. We were aboard the
plying its slow way to Westport from Saint Louis. Most of my men were there, awaiting me, receiving and guarding the expedition's materiel and mules.
I didn't much care to go on this expedition. It would not be the same. A great weariness has afflicted me ever since the verdictâno, ever since General Kearny marched me to the States as the rear of his column, in disgrace.
I had read in the press that I have changed: “Colonel FrÃ©mont looks weary and gray since his ordeal,” according to all reports. I have not changed and nothing bends me, and soon the republic will see what I am made of. The army will see what I am made of. So will President Polk. And their brown claws will not touch me this time.
vibrated more than most river packets do, and I wondered if Captain Rolfe knew his main bearings were out of true. The hooded shores, heavy with mist-shrouded trees wearing their yellow October colors, slid by. I would need to talk to Rolfe; I would need to help Jessie out of her world and into the real one. I had left her in the gloomy stateroom, sitting in her ivory nightclothes on the bunk, crooning to Benton at her breast. The boy was dead. Sometime in the small hours his weak heart had failed. Kitty, her colored maid, had discovered it. Now the infant hung limp in her arms, while she whispered and sang and clutched the still, cold infant.
I would have to disturb her. It is not in me to flee from any duty.
I retreated from the deck rail and entered our dank stateroom. Jessie sat on the edge of the bunk, rocking softly, the child still clamped to her breast. She eyed me, and then the shadows, where Kitty sat helplessly.
“Jessie, it's time to let go.”
She nodded. “He's dead, I know.”
“Yes. May I take him?”
“I had him for such a little while.”
But she handed the cold infant to me. It didn't resemble anyone I knew. I stood, holding it. She turned away, not
knowing what to do or caring to see what I would do with the dead boy.
I found the blue receiving blanket and wrapped it around Benton. The boy should have weighed more. He weighed almost nothing. Did souls have weight? Did a living infant weigh more?