- Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion
Robert Morgan, a successful writer of many works of fiction and a well-received biography of Daniel Boone, has written a study of American westward expansion from approximately 1800 to 1848 using biographical sketches. These include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Nicholas Trist, Kit Carson, and John Quincy Adams. (The book also includes a substantial amount of material on John C. Frémont.) The author relies for the most part on secondary sources—in most cases modern scholarship, but sometimes outdated or less reliable sources—and deftly weaves them into a very readable narrative.
Morgan peppers the work with many interesting anecdotes and insights. Charles Darwin was born the same day as Lincoln. Kit Carson's family had close ties to Daniel Boone's and migrated with them through the Cumberland Gap to the Bluegrass and on to Missouri. The infant John C. Fremont was with his parents in a Nashville inn the same day Andrew Jackson had his legendary brawl with the Benton brothers. The author constantly makes linkages between his subjects, tying one to the other, comparing and contrasting them, and demonstrating how friendships—but more often rivalries—shaped American expansion.
The Crockett and Houston biographies cover their early lives as well as the Texas Revolution. Once the fighting gets underway the author wraps up the Alamo with a brief discussion—much of it focused on the never ending historical question of how Crockett died—including the accounts of Señora Candelaria and José Enrique de la Peña—and the ensuing historiographical debate. He offers a fuller discussion of Houston and San Jacinto, most of it based on the secondary works of Marquis James and Marshall De Bruhl. All in all the facts are in good order, with the exception of his reference to the widow "Dickerson"—an apparent reference to Susannah Dickinson (181).
There are problems with his coverage of the U.S.-Mexico War. It is the weakest [End Page 320] part of a book that has many strong points. The discussion of the crucial battle of Buena Vista is very confusing and the included map is even worse (and to be fair the battle is confusing). Morgan states that Jefferson Davis and his Mississippi rifles "gave a good account of themselves" (254). But he does not tell how— and misses an opportunity to discuss the famous "V" that made Davis a hero and helped propel him into national prominence. Likewise, he mentions Zachary Taylor giving the order "a little more grape, Captain Bragg." Again, he does not explain why or provide any context. (255). I also question his conclusion that Buena Vista "was probably Santa Anna's finest hour as a commander in the field" (255). Santa Anna's forces outnumbered Taylor's army three to one and left the Americans in control of the field. That part of the battle is not confusing.
There are problems in his account of Scott's campaign as well. At one point the author asserts: "Many Mexicans of all classes hoped to be annexed by the United States as a solution to the chaos and corruption that had reigned since the 1821 revolution. Anything seemed better than what they had endured." (301) I think this is an exaggeration. Likewise the author uses—and too often quotes—T. R. Fehrenbach's Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico. There are far better sources on the history of Mexico.
This is an interesting book, but adding at least one sketch on someone other than a white male would have added balance (he starts an interesting discussion of Tecumseh but does not take it very far). Readers looking for an introduction to the topic will find it interesting and well written. Specialists will find some interesting observations and insights, but nothing that will fundamentally change the understanding...