Modern history

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Chapter 30

TIME AT LAST SETS ALL THINGS EVEN

Jessie Benton Fremont met Carson at the Washington train station late one night near the end of May 1847. Although she had never seen a photograph of his likeness, she recognized him immediately when he stepped off the train. Her husband’s descriptions of Carson had been accurate: The dry smile and leathered face, the bandy-legged gait, the twinkle in his gray-blue eyes. How many men in the nation’s capital fit that description? She greeted Carson warmly and led him to her carriage.

Jessie Fremont, then twenty-three years old, was not a beautiful woman in the traditional sense. She had her father’s overlong nose, her face was round as a moon, her neck stalklike, her shoulders slumpishly sloped. Yet something about Jessie Fremont was immensely attractive to men and women alike. She was exuberant, defiant, opinionated, original. She approached people with a bearing of confidence so complete it was disarming. A friend once parsed her personality as “so much fresh breeze and so much sunlight,” but like her father, Jessie also had the musty erudition of a life spent among great books.

She and Carson rode back to her father’s house on C Street, and there he stayed for most of his three-week sojourn in Washington. She took him around to the sights, introduced him to her circle of friends, and carted him to dinner parties in which he sat awkwardly in the hotseat of attention and ate unfamiliar continental dishes. He was bewildered and flattered and, at least at first, mildly intrigued.

But in truth, there wasn’t much to do in Washington. The nation’s capital was then a tiny Southern city that closed up shop in the sultry summer months. L’Enfant’s grand plan of broad avenues and circles was very slowly taking shape, but the rutted streets were mires of mud and horse manure. The National Mall was little more than a cow pasture by the swampy margins of the Potomac. The great monuments of today were conspicuously absent—construction on the Washington Monument would not begin until the following year. Only a month before Carson’s arrival, crews had broken ground for a new museum to be called the Smithsonian Institution.

Carson liked Jessie Fremont and was grateful to have her escorting him around the town. He found that, temperamentally, she was very similar to her father. Of the four Benton children, Jessie was Tom Benton’s favorite, his pet, and the devotion was mutual. Growing up, she never wanted to be away from her father’s side. When he enrolled her in a prestigious girl’s boarding school in Georgetown, she protested by cutting off her hair so that she would look like the son she thought her father wished her to be. The senator relented, and so Jessie Benton quit “society school” and pursued her education under his tutelage. He set a regimen of books for her to read by lamplight in his formidable study; other times he would “pasture” her, as she liked to say, in the Library of Congress.

She eloped with John C. Fremont at the age of seventeen. Her father fiercely opposed the marriage at first but soon became Fremont’s staunchest advocate and sponsor. In an odd way Fremont was the real-life avatar of Benton’s designs for the West—a bold young explorer with the training and drive to make the senator’s ideas a reality. By marrying Fremont, Jessie had pledged herself to someone whose ambitions were in peculiar alignment with those of her father.

Jessie utterly hitched herself to her husband’s career. She furthered Fremont’s glory and ran interference for him in Washington while he was off in the wilderness, where, as she once put it, “not even the voice of Fame can reach him.” She wrote his letters. She tirelessly pressed and pleaded on his behalf. To a remarkable extent, she grafted her own interests and desires onto her husband’s to the point where the couple’s ambitions were indistinguishable. She told her husband that she was his “most confirmed worshiper.” She kept a daguerreotype of him hanging over her bed. “It is my guardian angel,” she once wrote him, “for I could not waste time with that beloved face looking so earnestly at me.” Many acquaintances thought her devotion to Fremont unhealthy. Said her closest friend Lizzie Lee: “She belongs to him body & soul & he does with her as he pleases as much as he does with his own right hand.”

Though it was not then widely known, Jessie Fremont had actively collaborated on all his expedition reports. Some said she had actually written them—or at least the best parts. (Carson didn’t realize it, but she had, through her skillful pen, done as much as Fremont to make the scout famous.) She was an accomplished phrasemaker, someone who knew how to make an image stick, and she had the desk discipline that her peripatetic husband lacked.

Certainly Jessie was John’s intellectual equal—and in some sense his superior. By way of an ambiguous compliment, it was sometimes said around Washington that Jessie was “the better man of the two.”

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Within a few days, Carson had taken care of his business in Washington: He had met with Secretary of State James Buchanan and Secretary of War William Marcy and placed Fremont’s dispatches in their safe hands. Carson was not particularly impressed by either man and scarcely mentioned them in his autobiography.

Wanting to get home to Josefa, Carson packed his things. He had no intention of lingering in Washington. But then he got a message: President Polk wanted Carson to call on him at the White House. The president was quite busy, however, and would not be able to receive Carson until June 14, several weeks away.

So Carson found himself in a miserable holding pattern—more introductions, more newspaper interviews, more society functions. One of the dinners was at Secretary Marcy’s home. Many prominent officials, including two generals, were in attendance. It was reported that Carson only “picked at his fish and fowl drenched in rich sauces” but that he “ate all of the vegetables placed before him and appeared to enjoy his ice cream and cake.” Carson passed on the fine French wine, though he later accepted one of Marcy’s cigars after the ladies had repaired to the drawing room. It was only then, as the men smoked away and drank their brandy, that Carson began to loosen up, relating some of his adventures in California.

Carson’s sentence in Washington dragged on. While waiting for President Polk’s schedule to open up, he left Jessie’s place for a while and spent some time with Ned Beale, whose mother lived in Washington. Beale had grown up in Washington, in fact, and attended Georgetown College. A bon vivant who jerked with odd nervous tics, he dabbled in Islam, wrote verse in the romantic style of Keats and Shelley, and drank to such frequent excess that he created his own recipe for a hangover cure. Beale hailed from a well-established navy family, and he kept Carson busy meeting the leading people of the city. Jessie fondly described Beale as a “witty and eccentric man.” (Attesting to both his wit and eccentricity, Beale would in the 1850s preside over a somewhat quixotic U.S. Army experiment that tested—and advocated—the use of camels in the deserts of the American West. When working with the army dromedaries, he studied Arabic so that he could speak to them, he said, “in their native language.”)

One day, before some particularly fancy engagement, Beale noticed that Carson became anxious and moody. When he asked his friend what was wrong, Carson confessed that he was worried that the ladies of Washington would find out about Singing Grass. He reminisced about his deceased Arapaho wife and told Beale how much he loved her. He seemed to fear that his former marriage would invite ridicule, that people would cast aspersions not only on him, but on the memory of his dead wife. It seemed an odd thing for him to worry about; but such was the public disapproval of Indians, and the perceived taint of “miscegenation” among certain Eastern circles, that Carson assumed his earlier life would cause a scandal. Once the papers got hold of the story, he feared it might reflect badly on the Bentons and the Fremonts, as well as on Beale’s family.

Beale told Carson not to worry, he was getting worked up over nothing. People in Washington would not judge him for this. Society’s rules didn’t apply on the frontier, and his having lived such a wildly different life only made him more fascinating and impressive to people.

Beale was right, of course. Carson had nothing to fret about: His being a “squaw man” never came up. On the contrary, he was the toast of the city. Foreign ambassadors called on him. Generals and politicians wanted to be seen with him—and so did the ladies. He was an exotic curiosity all the more endearing for his social awkwardness, like some Tarzan figure removed from the jungle and paraded before all the town. The Washington Union ran a long, doting profile of him, calling Carson “one of those noble characters that have from time to time sprung up on our frontier.” Carson, the Union went on, “is modest as he is brave, with the bearing of an Indian, walking even with his toes turned in.” (The Union profile was the first full-length treatment Carson had ever received in the press; it was widely suspected that Jessie Fremont wrote the article, or at least substantially contributed to it.)

Carson appreciated the welcome reception, but in truth he had come to hate Washington. He disliked and distrusted most of the politicians he met. “They are the princes here in their big houses,” he told Jessie, “but out on the Plains, we’re the princes.” He found the city in every way confining. At the Beale house, Carson’s bedroom was so stuffy and his mattress so soft that he begged to sleep on the veranda in the open air. He was shocked at the high cost of everything in Washington, and thought it outrageous that carriage operators around the city charged a fee for something so basic as transportation. He fussed about this so much that eventually Jessie secured him a horse so he could trot around the city on his own.

Jessie grew close to Carson. She judged him a “perfect Saxon, clear and fair,” with “a nature as sweet as a clear winter morning.” He was “cool, sagacious, as gentle as he was strong.” She thought he had a “merry heart” and “that most lovable combination of a happy and reasoning patience…so like the simplicity of the Bible.” She discovered to her delight that he liked to be read to. In the Benton library, Carson stumbled upon an illustrated copy of Lord Byron’s poems and turned to an engraving depicting “Mazeppa’s Ride.” The long Romantic poem is based on a supposedly true story taken from Voltaire about a Polish nobleman named Mazeppa who pursued an affair with another man’s wife; when the cuckolded husband discovered their dalliances, he stripped Mazeppa naked and bound him helpless to a horse, turning the animal loose on the steppes. Mazeppa ended up hundreds of miles away in the Ukraine, half-dead from hunger and exhaustion—and nursing a righteous revenge.

Carson looked at the startling image of the naked man cinched across the “foaming flank” of a galloping horse. The picture reminded him of some brand of Indian torture he’d seen in the West. “It looks like Blackfoot, sure enough,” he told Jessie. “They’re devils enough for just such work as that.”

He pretended to mouth the words of the poem, then gave up the sham. “You read it to me!” he said. “You can do it so much faster.”

And so Jessie started reading stanzas aloud while Carson paced the parlor and tried to absorb the meaning. He was, she later recalled, “intensely stirred.” Something about Byron’s description of vengeance resonated with Carson.

Time at last sets all things even

If we do but watch the hour

There never yet was human power

That could evade, if unforgiven

The patient search, and vigil long

Of him who treasures up a wrong

Carson became strangely animated over the last line. Treasures up a wrong. “Now that’s so!” he told Jessie. “That’s the word—he knows how it is!”

Then he told her a story from his trapping days of how a band of Blackfeet once stole a season’s worth of his pelts. To the mountain men, this was an act of war. As Carson recalled the theft, a latent spite welled inside him. The rage seemed to come out of nowhere, as though the insult had just occurred. This was a side of him Jessie had never seen.

He told her, “It was three years before we could get back and thank them. But our time came, and we left mourning in their tribe.”

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Kit Carson and Jessie Benton were ushered into President James K. Polk’s office on the morning of June 14, 1847. The president greeted them as warmly as his mirthless personality would allow. They talked for a time about Carson’s exploits in the West and the battles he had witnessed. The president moved the conversation along efficiently, with a few pointed questions. He drank in Carson’s news but registered no reaction. The master plan he had set in motion was coming to fruition, the United States had by informal fact if not by formal treaty become a continental nation. Everything he had envisioned at the outset of his presidency was taking place. And yet he seemed to take no pleasure in it.

When the right moment came, Jessie Fremont pressed the president for his thoughts on the emerging conflict between her husband and General Kearny over the governance of California. The president was already well aware of that “unfortunate collision,” as he called it. He was willing to hear Carson’s version of the story and take receipt of a long letter that Fremont had written describing his own point of view on the controversy. Polk briskly stamped the dispatch and noted, “RECEIVED FROM MR. CHRISTOPHER CARSON.”

But the president said nothing of substance on the matter and was careful not to give any indication which way he was leaning. In truth, Polk had already made up his mind that Kearny should rightly be in control of California and that Fremont was “greatly in the wrong” to have questioned the general’s authority. He wrote in his diary, “It was unnecessary, however, that I should say so to Fremont’s wife, and I evaded giving her an answer.”

Polk did have good news for his visitors, however. At the request of Secretary Marcy, he was commissioning Carson as a second lieutenant in the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen. Carson would get a smart new uniform and a stipend. Polk wanted Carson to return posthaste to California with more dispatches, but first he would like the new lieutenant to come that very night to a White House dinner. His wife Sarah was planning a little soiree in his honor.

Carson accepted. As he and Jessie were shown the way out, Polk returned to his true love—his deskwork.

Polk had aged dramatically during his two years in office. The conflict with Mexico had proven to be a much more ambitious—and controversial—endeavor than he had bargained for. It was consuming the man, and people in Washington could see it in the haggard lines of his ghostly face. In fairness, he brought most of his hardships on himself. His fussy perfectionism made him impossible to please. He had no faith in his cabinet or his generals, and trusted no one. Consequently, he ended up running most of the war himself from the shadows of the Oval Office. Polk was proud to say that he was the “hardest working man in America,” and it was probably true. As one biographer put it, he was so worried about Mexico that he had “virtually incarcerated himself in the White House.”

He had little reason to be so pessimistic. In fact, the tide of the war was going exactly his way—Zachary Taylor had defeated Santa Anna at Buena Vista, Doniphan had taken Chihuahua, Winfield Scott had staged an amphibious landing at Veracruz and was now marching toward the capital with an army of ten thousand men, while an emissary named Nicholas Trist was already in Mexico City making overtures for a peace negotiation. Yet, as with Carson’s news from California, the president took no outward pleasure in any of these developments. He considered Taylor “wholly incompetent,” “exceedingly ignorant,” and “very ordinary,” and Scott he deemed “not fit for command” (even though military historians have consistently given both generals high marks). Nicholas Trist, Polk said, was a “bungling” negotiator with “no ability.” If the president did not openly criticize Stephen Kearny, neither could he find many words of praise. If he could, the micromanager-in-chief would have gone down to Mexico and assumed command himself. He confided in his diary, “I am almost ready at times to conclude that there is no reliance to be placed in any of the human race.”

America’s first war of foreign intervention was uniquely the focused enterprise of a single man; with good reason, it became known as “Mr. Polk’s War.”

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Carson’s farewell dinner at the White House went off smoothly enough. Sarah Polk kept the atmosphere informal, having learned from the miscues that seemed to make Carson uncomfortable at Secretary Marcy’s party a week earlier. The first lady was a dignified and devout Presbyterian whose poise at social functions did much to make up for her husband’s lack of charm. She and the president, both being from Tennessee, knew something about down-home cooking. Instead of rich French dishes, she prepared rare roast beef and had the president carve the meat himself. In lieu of wine she served whiskey, and Carson treated himself to a glass.

Mrs. Polk seemed satisfied that she had put her guest at ease. Still, she could not keep herself from closely analyzing him as he ate.

“His manners at table I found to be faultless,” she wrote in a letter to her mother in Nashville the next day. “Lieutenant Carson is courteous, slow-spoken, and with becoming modesty turns aside suggestions that his deeds have been more valiant than those of lesser men. I must confess I watched him to see how he handled his fork, which he used with dexterity.”

Sarah Polk observed that while Carson got along fine with Marcy, Buchanan, and the other men, he seemed awkward—tongue-tied even—in his few conversations with the women at the party. Mrs. Polk wrote, “He remained the soul of diffidence with the ladies, and replied to…us in so few words as to indicate that our interest disturbed his peace of mind. When I asked him to describe for our edification how he eluded the Mexicans when carrying dispatches to San Diego, he grew red in the face and would not speak.”

To his relief, Carson’s time in Washington was drawing to a close. Within a few days the lieutenant would be on a train bound for Baltimore, wearing his crisp new uniform, his mail pouches bulging with dispatches addressed to BRIGADIER GENERAL STEPHEN WATTS KEARNY in California.

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