Fugger the Insanely Rich: A Review of ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ by Greg Steinmetz

Do you ever daydream about what you’d accomplish with endless funds? Would you buy that new car you always wanted? Embark on a month long vacation to the tropics? Eat a hamburger at every establishment listed on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives’? All of these are admirable, but consider this: all that wealth wasn’t enough and it was your gift bestowed by God to make money. Your sole purpose was generating profit for you, your company, and family. If you thought this, then you share a kindred soul with one of the richest men in history: Jakob Fugger.

Greg Steinmetz’s book, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger’ recounts the founding and influence of the powerful Fugger merchant family. At a time when large capitalist enterprises and industrial monopolies were the norm in European economies, Fugger singlehandedly cornered the copper and silver market. His business network reached into several royal households and the Vatican. Merchants, bankers, and businessmen followed his advice and bowed to his financial acumen, believing that he really did turn anything into gold. Steinmetz’s research pulls from a vast archive and the Fugger family papers that have survived for nearly six hundred years. That’s right; Jakob Fugger isn’t your 20th century mogul or Elon Musk style tech entrepreneur. He was 2% of Europe’s GDP in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Portrait of Jakob Fugger by Albrecht Dürer, 1518

Steinmetz unveils the humble origins of the Fugger family and the ascent into the wealthy echelons of society. His grandfather, Hans, was a lowly peasant who moved to Augsburg and entered the textile trade. Textiles was a powerful industry in Europe and its proximity to Italy which produced many of the necessary dyes for colors created a rich market in Germany. The Fugger children and grandchildren worked in various capacities in the merchant business, but others were encouraged to pursue studying theology and become priests. Jakob was one of them, but by the age of fourteen, he was pursuing business interests on the family’s behalf in Venice. The formative Venice years were invaluable to Jakob as he learned the value of building networks, investments, new enterprises, accounting, and honoring contracts. After returning from Venice, Fugger sought out new ventures in Central Europe and his greatest windfall occurred with mining. Through a series of deals with Hapsburg nobility, he secured rights to silver and copper mines throughout Austria. The mines made the Fuggers rich beyond comprehension. When Jakob died in 1525, the vast majority of copper and silver used for minting coins and commercial use came from his vast mines.

Material wealth was only part of the Fugger fortune. The family was closely allied with the Hapsburg royal household and were early supporters of their claims to titles of nobility. They provided many of the contracts and rights for the Fuggers to operate in their territories and given Jakob’s ability to raise funds, the Hapsburgs came to rely on him for loans and credit. Whenever the Hapsburgs needed funds to raise armies or influence elections, they went to Jakob. Border disputes or problems with the Catholic Church? The Fugger network had agents strategically placed in key positions that allowed them to resolve disagreements. Nothing was without its cost and Fugger routinely made a profit from different ventures. Steinmetz took no shortcuts in emphasizing the relationship between the Fuggers and Hapsburgs. Banking and nobility were tailor made for each other during the Renaissance and Jakob certainly capitalized on this political network.

Augsburg in the 15th century. This prosperous German city was the center of much of the wool and textile trade in Central Europe making many families enormously wealthy. Augsburg would be Jakob’s home for most of his life and many in the city were impacted by his financial and political influence

Steinmetz makes another salient point in his analysis of Jakob Fugger and the merchant family. Fugger was traditionally seen as the poorest family member who made his fortune from nothing, but that’s far from the truth. His father and grandfather made important in-roads with the textile industry and built valuable relationships with German and Italian markets. His mother, Barbara Basinger, managed the Fugger bank following the death of his father Jakob the Elder. She was just as shrewd and enterprising as her husband and sons. She exponentially increased the size of the family fortunes and by her death, she left vast inheritances and dowries for her children. Steinmetz’s study of the family relations sheds light on the centrality that the business had with the Fuggers. Outside members worked as agents or informants throughout Europe, but the Fuggers alone were the only ones who managed the money and allowed to learn the art of accounting. Traditional historians emphasized the importance of Jakob, but he wasn’t a one man operation; the extended family made it all happen with him.

Fugger’s profit-generating skills weren’t entirely for selfish reasons though. Steinmetz recounts the Fuggers’ generosity with local churches and impoverished citizens, all of which was motivated by his devout Roman Catholic faith. Originally destined for the life of a priest, Fugger donated large sums of money to St. Anna’s Church and paid the salaries of many parish priests. In 1512, a chapel designed by Renaissance artists Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair, Jörg Breu the Elder and Hans Daucher was dedicated to the Fuggers and later a mausoleum for Fugger brothers Ulrich and Georg. The most iconic fixture of Fugger’s legacy was the Fuggerei. In 1518, Jakob established a trust funding the building and maintenance of a large social housing complex for struggling laborers. These apartments had modern features for the time, complete with private kitchens and bedrooms, all within an enclosed community where residents lived under a specific set of rules. Rent was set at one guilder and residents were to pray for the Fugger family several times a day. The Fuggerei exists today with the same rent of one guilder (equal to 0.88 euro) and houses around 150 people.

The Fuggerei, Augsburg, Germany

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ is a perfect book for those who enjoy reading about larger-than-life personalities and biographies of influential people. Medievalists would appreciate the historical research and contextual evidence Steinmetz uses throughout the text. In conclusion, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived‘ is a fitting testament to a man who if he went bankrupt, could have singlehandedly sent Europe back to the Dark Ages just as they were entering the enlightening Renaissance.

American Baronetcy: A Review of ‘The House of Morgan’ by Ron Chernow

The Gilded Age is a staple of middle and high school social studies classes in the United States. Students learn about the great robber barons who commanded American industry. The rapid transformation of the economy from a rural agrarian landscape to factories, foundries, and railroads signaled the shift in American life. The captains of industry who instigated this transformation amassed financial and political fortunes that could give Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires a run for their equity. We hear of men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt when thinking of that Gilded Age, but one personality evolved with the economy and was a critical component of the U.S. economic engine. From humble roots in England, the House of Morgan grew into a global financial institution that bankrolled industries and foreign governments. One name was synonymous with banking in the Gilded Age; he was John Pierpont Morgan.

Ron Chernow’s book ‘The House of Morgan‘ explores far beyond the biography of J.P. Morgan and his legacy. Rather, in true Chernow fashion, the book runs a fine comb over the rise, dominance, splintering, and restructuring of the most influential corporate financial company in the 19th and 20th centuries. Examining the role of the House of Morgan in American finance is akin to researching the role of Jonas Salk and the development of the polio vaccine; it’s impossible to discuss it without them. What Chernow illustrates is how pivotal the House of Morgan became in the banking world and how that power transferred between generation. Coupled with the family history, Chernow examines the company, J.P Morgan & Co., and how throughout various times in history was at the center of economic growth, government crisis intervention, controversy and scandal, and the diversification of high finance.

The office of J.P Morgan & Co. at 23 Wall Street. This corner was both powerful and mysterious in the world of high finance with J.P. Morgan and the numerous partners consolidating industries and giving banking security to the most influential companies and men in the U.S. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Chernow’s narrative follows a round-robin pattern focusing on the multiple offices and personalities connected to the House of Morgan over period of 120 years. Imbedded in this structure is the rise and fall of what he called the ‘Gentleman Banker’s Code’. Throughout the 19th century, banks were private institutions and we do mean PRIVATE. The House of Morgan never advertised its services, publicly listed client names, or dealt with the rabble of early Wall Street. A bank like that wouldn’t likely survive in today’s fast finance world powered by vast digital databases. But the House of Morgan was a product of its time; the bank served institutions and business and not the public at large. Chernow’s in-depth research reveals how the Morgan enterprise amassed its fortune through acquisition, controlling interest, and issuing bonds and loans to corporations and governments. Each branch in North America, England, and France conducted business in slightly different fashions, but the all followed the Banker’s Code.

Obviously J.P. Morgan dominates the early narrative–his face is on the book cover. The Morgan name began with his father Junius Spencer Morgan who started J.S Morgan & Co. with George Peabody, his business partner. Through intensive training, J.P. rises as a powerful figure who takes the company beyond what his father could have dreamt. Renamed J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1895, the bank quickly became the focal point for corporate finance. Captains of industry came to respect Morgan’s financial acumen because it produced results. His method of consolidating fractured businesses and controlling interest was trademarked as ‘Morganization’. It became a synonym for the House of Morgan’s novel future practice of mergers and acquisitions.

The story of Morgan isn’t only limited to Wall Street. Morgan branches in England such as Morgan Grenfell illustrate the dichotomy between the American and European methods of banking. While the Bank of England and Morgan Grenfell formed an integral component of the state economy, J.P. Morgan & Co. maintained an independent streak, occasionally interceding on behalf of the U.S. federal government. The relationship is not always a happy one as Chernow recites. The Progressive period aimed to reduce poverty and controlled the unrestrained capitalism of the robber barons. Morgan was a prominent target which became a trend that followed the company for years. They appeared in court cases, Congressional hearings, and were the subject of numerous federal investigations ranging from illegal price fixing to underwriting loans to belligerent foreign nations. The Glass-Steagall Act forced the bank to re-evaluate its business model now that they were prevented from intermingling commercial and investment banking. The result was the spin-off of multiple Morgan entities that later evolved into the modern offices we know today: Morgan Guaranty, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley.

The House of Morgan didn’t survive by the Morgans alone. An army of junior and senior partners came and went through the 23 Wall Street office bringing with them their education and prejudices. Figures like Tom Lamont, Russell Leffingwell, and George Whitney, were instrumental in expanding Morgan’s reach into new territory according to Chernow. The stresses of such a job however were evident in Chernow’s writing: they all died young from heart attacks, strokes, overexertion, and alcoholism. Racial and ethnic prejudices were not absent either as an unspoken code prevented Jewish, black, Hispanic, and other non-white hires, unless they served lunch in the private dining halls. Chernow wastes no paper in examining the darker side of the dominant banking business.

The immensity of Chernow’s work speaks as a testament to the changes that impacted the House of Morgan. Chernow’s analysis illustrates the remarkable shift in policy and public connection that discarded the old Gentleman Banker’s Code and was replaced with younger proteges working harder and faster. Gone was the smoked filled, leather armchair partners room where deals were finished over brandy and cigars. In the 1970s and 1980s when information technology altered Wall Street, the various Morgan entities adapted to the times, but its historical provenance never faded. ‘The House of Morgan‘ is a bold history that highlights the best and worst of American finance, but doesn’t deny or revise its legacy. Chernow’s trademark intensive research doesn’t ignore scandal or the trivial and is truly an enthralling read for those who know the name of Morgan.

The Flight Stuff: The Wright Brothers Ingenuity

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina is positively dead in the winter. Tourists have departed, taking the warm weather and sunshine with them. What remains are local residents and cold Atlantic air racing across the beaches. Business owners look forward to spring and summer returning with visitors who enjoy the sea air, fishing, and sailing. The remoteness and wind patterns were ideal for a different pair of tourists though. They scoured weather patterns finding the right conditions for their scientific experiments. After a lengthy search, the Wright Brothers selected Kill Devil Hills. Since the area was unincorporated, the brothers relied on the nearby town of Kitty Hawk for transportation and commercial needs. History would soon make its mark on this remote stretch of North Carolina coastline.

Beaches at Kill Devil Hills. The North Carolina coast features numerous small island chains, lagoons, and reefs creating the ‘Outer Banks’, a popular tourist spot. The wind patterns from the Atlantic Ocean provided excellent conditions for the Wright Brothers flight experiments.

Rather than delve into the brothers’ history and their aerial achievement, it’s important to understand the ingenuity they showed throughout their venture. Scientists and engineers before them were classically trained students with years of mechanical experience. Neither Wilbur or Orville graduated from high school; they dropped out to pursue business interests and support their family. They taught themselves in advanced mathematics and engineering concepts, a majority of which came from their work with bicycles. They relied heavily on the work of predecessors and applying their innovations. Orville and Wilbur were well known in Dayton, Ohio with their bicycle business and made a comfortable living. This wasn’t enough for either of them though. They were obsessed with powered flight since childhood after receiving a crude model helicopter (a bamboo shaft with a cork top, paper wings, and a twisted rubber band) inspiring an aeronautical career.

Research was needed to see what contemporary aeronautical engineers were accomplishing. The brothers followed men like Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, Octave Chanute, and Sir George Cayley. Gliders was the preferred method in calculating heavier-than-air flight and the brothers debated ideas on control and resistance. Fixed wing aircraft would provide the necessary lift power, but the brothers puzzled over how to maintain control and account for airborne stability. While working in their bike shop one day, Wilbur was twisting an inner tube and they had a sudden realization; wings required warping and therefore a flexible frame design was needed. They studied the flights of birds, closely observing wing contours, banking different directions, and using airflow for lift. Testing this theory proved difficult as the brothers consistently tried to find the correct combination of control and lift, all while accounting for the addition of weight. The Wright brothers are prime example of trial and error and consistent testing when it comes to scientific research. Aeronautics was a novel scientific endeavor in the late 19th century as engineers tested new gliders, airships, and dirigibles. Humanity’s quest to fly presented infinite engineering possibilities, but created a slew of failed attempts, poor data results, and accidental deaths. The Wright brothers were no exception in this respect; they faced their own string of failures.

Rear view of Wilbur Wright making a right turn with the Wright Glider (“in glide from No. 2 Hill, right wing tipped close to the ground”) (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wilbur and Orville refined their glider designs throughout most of the 1890s and by 1900 they were ready for field tests. U.S. Weather Bureau data and recommendations by other aviators pointed the brothers to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills with the soft sandy beaches and ample gale winds providing ideal environmental conditions. The brothers worked first on gliders because they would be critical in proving the brother’s theory of airflow lift and three dimensional axis. Between 1900 and 1902, the Wrights redesigned, rebuilt, and retested their glider in dozens of trials, but they never achieved the necessary lift. What was wrong with their glider?

Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning to see where things are going wrong. Wilbur and Orville thought what if the Lilienthal data they relied on so heavily was incorrect? The lift co-efficient, which relates the lift generated by a lifting body to the fluid density around the body, needed to be double checked. How did the Wrights test this concept? They built their own wind tunnel. The apparatus was attached to a bike and as air passed by the airfoil, the lift it generated, if unopposed, would cause the wheel to rotate. The flat plate was oriented so its drag would push the wheel in the opposite direction of the airfoil. The brothers used different sizes of airfoils made of various materials based on existing data. This experiment confirmed their suspicions; Lilienthal’s data and lift co-efficient were all erroneous. Not to be deterred from their work, the brothers now had their own testing method for achieving lift with their glider. In a conversation with a colleague George Spratt, Orville said:

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.”

Reconstruction of the Wright Brothers’ air lift apparatus, i.e. wind tunnel at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The wind tunnel tests were a pivotal moment in the pursuit for powered flight. Contemporaries described them as ‘the most crucial and fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted.’ What the brothers may have realized is that gliders and powered aircraft required different degrees of lift and incorporating a control system would maintain said lift. The structural design of the brothers’ glider changed as a result of their wind tunnel tests and they began to see major improvements in their test flights. They installed a rudder and recorded observations on lift, pitch, and yaw. From this, the brothers made a final critical breakthrough on their flight experiments: three-axis control. The three axes: 1) Wing-warping for roll 2) Forward elevator for pitch 3) Rear rudder for yaw.

Aviation historians claim that this development was far more significant than adding engine power to the glider. Simultaneously, how astounding is it that these two who never completed high school calculated an equation that became the basis for achieving flight? Their innovative mathematics did not end there. Before building an engine, they devised another equation that produced the necessary power to weight ratio and propeller efficiency. In 1903, the brothers were ready to test their new flyer, the Wright Flyer. They built a small-purpose engine in their bike shop, hand carved the propellers, and tested the rudders in their wind tunnel. Throughout these experiment years, the brothers also delivered lectures to the Western Society of Engineers detailing their process. Newspapers did not initially cover the brothers heavily, waiting until they produced something genuine.

Four flights changed the world on December 17, 1903. The brothers alternated turns flying the machine, with the last flight recorded as the longest and furthest launch. Years of research, experimentation, glider construction, and test flights boiled down to 59 seconds. From that moment on, the brothers refined their flyers and took the world by storm with their paradigm shifting accomplishments. Their persistence and ingenuity paid off immensely. The Wrights brothers spent their remaining years involved in patent battles with other manufacturers and other business disputes. While they were not as successful in their business pursuits, they demonstrated how a person could make strides in scientific experimentation through repeated processes, observation, and accurately recording data. They were an ingenious duo, without a doubt.

The original Wright Flyer now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. where a plaque perfectly summarizes the Wright brothers achievements and ingenuity.

“The world’s first power-driven heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight, Invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, Flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903, By original scientific research the Wright brothers discovered the principles of human flight, As inventors, builders, and flyers they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation”

Oklahoma Bat: The Military History of Fred Laverne Richardson

For as long as I can remember, hearing stories about my grandpa’s World War II service was part of my childhood. They were my first history lessons outside of school. I spent many weekends and holidays with my grandparents and often heard older relatives bring up his time in the Philippines, Japan, or just talk casually about the war. Hidden at the top of one of grandma’s bookshelves was a thickly bound brown book with large white lettering; ‘WARPATH’, showing a Native American wearing a war chief’s headdress. It was a chronicle of the 345th Bombardment Group and its achievements in the South Pacific. On many occasions, I grabbed it off the shelf and thumbed through the pages looking for grandpa’s face. I knew which unit was his and when I found the respective section, no headshot or group photo. Family lore did say that in one photo taken from behind showing two men rushing out to check on a damaged plane, he was one of them (recognized by his flipped up hat bill, before Gomer Pyle made it fashionable). He very rarely shared some personal war stories and for a long time, all I told others at school or work was he served in the Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-25 bomber over the Philippines.

He passed away in 2006 and that was when I began to learning more. He received medals he never mentioned before and soon there was a cache of old photos and documents filling in the gaps. Since working for the National Archives stirred my history passions and learning about military records, I spent last year and all two months of this year putting together a narrative of his military service. An unexpected miracle happened yesterday when in a vain attempt to find his discharge documents (see the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire) finally paid off. I randomly placed a call to the Garfield County records office in Oklahoma asking if they had any copies. To my surprise they did! Returning WWII veterans normally filed a copy of their discharge documents with the county they returned to in order to receive VA or other government benefits. Thankfully his was still intact and that completed the narrative. My grandpa’s war record here is the best that I have researched with all the available materials. While some information will be lost forever because of the 1973 fire, this is an obstacle facing all military history and genealogy researchers.

Technical Sergeant Fred Laverne Richardson (Service Number 38563209) served in the U.S. Army Air Force from July 20, 1943 to January 14, 1946. Throughout his World War II service, Fred served with the 499th Bombardment Squadron under the 345th Bombardment Group in the V Bomber Command with the 5th Air Force. While overseas, Fred was stationed in Biak, the Philippines, and Ie Shima, participating in aerial combat operations throughout the South Pacific and Sea of Japan. At the end, Fred took part in a handful of major battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II and in the American occupation of Japan. He was twice decorated with the Air Medal for heroic achievements in aerial flight and was later awarded multiple medals for his part in the liberation of the Philippine islands. 

Researching World War II-era service records presents a unique challenge because a significant number of records were destroyed in a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center. Approximately 80% of Army records from 1912 to 1960 were affected with varying degrees of damage. Fred’s record was substantially affected by the fire and only a handful of documents survive attesting to his military service. The information given here is extracted from surviving records in Ancestry, Fold3, FamilySearch, Army unit records, local county records, and WWII reference materials. 

Fred Laverne Richardson was born on April 26, 1925 in Enid Oklahoma to Fred Richardson and Millie Pearl LeGrand. They lived at 508 N. 9th Street and Fred was a senior at Enid High School when he registered for the draft. Local Board #1 in Garfield County recorded his entry the day after his eighteenth birthday on April 26, 1943. Sometime in June 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to report to Oklahoma City, where he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army on July 20, 1943. During World War II, inductees were required to serve for the duration of the conflict, plus six months after. This meant that for as long as the war went on, Fred remained in the Army unless he was dishonorably discharged, critically wounded, or killed. Following induction he was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was placed on active duty on August 3, 1943. According to family history, he completed basic training at Amarillo Army Airfield in Amarillo, Texas. Aerial defense, air artillery, and forward observing courses were taught at Amarillo AAF and if Fred was later assigned to an Army Air Force unit, he would have received physical and aerial warfare training there. The airfield trained recruits on B-17 Flying Fortresses; four engine long range bombers capable of flying hundreds of miles and dropping thousands of pounds of bombs individually. 

Aerial combat training was tremendously harsh and a small percentage completed the physical battery. Those who passed went onto flight education and armament training. Fred’s recently discovered Notice of Separation (discharge summary) shows he attended two service schools: Aircraft Armament Training School at Lowry Field, Colorado, and Aerial Gunnery Training School at Fort Meyer, Florida. One family story is that his aerial gunner training consisted of shooting skeets with shotguns out the back of a moving truck. Service schools offered specialized training for enlisted personnel. Enlisted men did not serve as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Commissioned officers served these roles. 

Fred completed all training by approximately July 1944. From family photographs taken before shipping out, he received his assignment to the U.S Army Air Force and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. This is shown by the chevrons on the sleeve and shoulder patch. The separation document lists his military occupational speciality as Airplane Armorer Gunner. The job duties included inspecting, repairing, and maintaining all aircraft armament, including bomb release mechanisms, airplane cannons, machine guns, and auxiliary equipment. He made daily inspections and repaired equipment such as bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on airplanes, and placed bombs in bomb racks. The last portion was to man a machine gun position if combat occurs during flight. 

Family history states that Fred was originally ordered to report to the European theater and while in New York, his orders changed and was transferred to the 345th Bomb Group. Fred traveled to Camp Stoneman near San Francisco, California. This was a staging area for servicemen joining their units in the Pacific. On October 17, 1944, Cpl. Fred Richardson departed the United States.  By the autumn of 1944, the U.S. had pushed the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy out of the southern Pacific and began prepping for the liberation of the Philippines. The country had been under Japanese occupation since May 1942 after the Battle of Bataan. Invasion plans had been in the works since 1943, but the outlying territories needed to be retaken first. 

(Fred while on furlough. He left shortly thereafter to join the 345th BG)

History of the 345th Bombardment Group

Air warfare changed drastically since the First World War. Technological innovations created larger and faster planes with increased carrying capacity. Long and medium range bombers were capable of dealing out tremendous damage. The new B-25 Mitchell debuted in 1941 and the Army Air Force was eager to use it in combat. It was a medium range bomber equipped with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 75mm cannon, and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Each plane carries five crew members; pilot, navigator / bombardier, gunner / engineer, radio operator / waist gunner, and tail gunner. On November 11, 1942 the 345th Bombardment Group was activated under the 3rd Air Force and trained until April 1943 when they moved to Camp Stoneman and entered combat in New Guinea in June 1943 where it became part of the 5th Air Force. The group comprised of four squadrons:

From Left to Right: 498th Bomb Squadron ‘Falcons’, 499th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats Outta Hell’, 500th Bomb Squadron ‘Rough Raiders’, 501st Bomb Squadron ‘Black Panthers’

The unit was intended for service in the European Theater of Operations, but U.S. Army General George Kenney specifically requested them to redeploy to the south Pacific following successful bombing campaigns near Australia. New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water similar to skipping a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines. 

(Fred and his squad mates; he is on the far right with the cigarette in hand)

They took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. Biak was the next step in the unit’s path and after taking the island, could run missions over the Celebes Sea. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepared for invasion. 

(American pilots and aircrews were issued chits like these wearing them on their jackets. If they bailed out or were shot down, this would message any friendly persons that they were an American pilot and needed to return to their outfit. Fred had this one and was pinned in his WWII photo album.)

By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. On August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Throughout the Pacific campaign, the 499th squadron carried out its own specific missions. Fred left the U.S. on October 17, 1944 and arrived in the Pacific theater on November 23, 1944. The 499th conducted operations between Biak and the Philippines attacking Japanese shipping convoys and battleships. Between December 1944 and July 1945, Fred and his squadron flew from San Marcelino and Clark Air Fields hitting targets all over the Philippines. The longest range mission that they ever carried out was an attack on Saigon in southern Vietnam in April 1945. It was by far the most dangerous mission they ever undertook, but it earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation. 

(Billboard of the 499th Squadron. These were common at the airfields to show each unit’s war record and list of battles)

While in Ie Shima, Fred became part of the occupation force following Japan’s surrender. An old family photo album containing pictures from WWII includes some unique ones; photos of the Japanese surrender delegation. The images are quite small, but when seen through a magnifying glass, one can see the Japanese wearing traditional garments and presenting instruments of surrender. Unfortunately there are no captions on the reverse side of the pictures making it hard to determine when or where the photo was taken, but from judging the content, many pictures were taken in the Philippines and Ie Shima. Cultural landmarks and buildings place some early pictures in Manila. Fred took a lot of pictures of local people and he even collected a large amount of foreign currency and Army scrip. 

Between Fred Richardson’s personal achievements and assignment with the 499th Bombardment Squadron and 345th Bomb Group, he received a substantial number of awards, both U.S. and foreign awards. The following are the most complete listing of awards he is entitled to from World War II.

Aerial Gunner Badge: this military aeronautical badge was given to those who qualified and endured hazardous conditions as an aerial gunner. A winged bullet fixed on the standard observers badge, Fred received this badge for his military occupational specialty as an Airplane Armorer Gunner a B-25 bomber. 

Air Medal: Established in Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal recognizes acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Flight conditions, combat missions, and the number of sorties were taken into account when determining who received the Air Medal. Between October 1944 and December 1945, Fred received the Air Medal twice, giving him an Oak Leaf Cluster. Both awards were issued by a General Order from 5th Air Force HQ for meritorious service with the 345th Bomb Group. 

Good Conduct Medal: The Good Conduct Medal recognizes servicemen who served honorably for a specific amount of time. Criteria for the Army Good Conduct Medal has changed via executive orders in subsequent presidencies. The medal was also established during World War II and each service branch has its own version. The medal can also be awarded to any servicemen who completes at least one year of honorable service while the United States is at war. Fred met this criteria and received the Good Conduct Medal. 

American Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265, the American Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who were stationed in the American Theater of Operations (ATO). This includes the continental American territory and the surrounding waters of both North and South America. Servicemembers must have served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S., 30 days outside the continental U.S. within the ATO, or 60 days onboard a vessel in American waters. Having served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S. while stationed at Fort Sill, Fred received the American Campaign Medal. 

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265 along with the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who performed military duties in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater (APT). This includes air, naval, and ground operations. Service stars denote participation in a campaign. Because air operations were ongoing from the beginning to the end of the war (with the exception of some isolated campaigns) Fred received service stars for the following campaigns:

Air Offensive, Japan (5 June 1943 – 2 September 1945)

China Defensive (5 June 1943 – 4 May 1945)

New Guinea (5 June 1943 – 31 December 1944)

Bismarck Archipelago (15 December 1943 – 27 November 1944)

Leyte (17 October 1944 – 1 July 1945)

Luzon (15 December 1944 – 4 July 1945)

Western Pacific (17 April 1945 – 2 September 1945)

China Offensive (5 May 1945 – 2 September 1945) 

World War II Victory Medal: Created by an Act of Congress on July 6 1945, this service medal recognizes all personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from December 7 1941 to December 31 1946. No minimum time in service is needed to award the World War II Victory Medal. Over 12 million service members are eligible for the award, making it the second-most awarded medal in the U.S.; the most being the National Defense Service Medal created in 1953. Having served in World War II, Fred automatically received the subsequent victory medal. 

Army of Occupation Medal: Established by the War Department in 1946, the AOM recognizes personnel who participated in any duties in occupied countries following the cessation of hostilities in both Germany and Japan. At first the medal was only for ground forces, but it was later amended in 1948 to include any Army Air Force units. The medal has an accompanying clasp for where the service member was stationed. The 345th Bomb Group served for six months on the island of Ie Shima, technically considered occupied enemy territory. This entitles Fred the Army of Occupation Medal with the ‘Japan’ clasp. 

Philippine Liberation Medal: The liberation of the Philippines was a major moment during the war in the Pacific. They were the first major U.S. possession to fall to the Japanese and thousands suffered as POWs. In commemoration of those who took part in the campaign, the Philippine government created the Philippine Liberation Medal. Initially only a ribbon, a medal was created later in July 1945. The PLM also included service stars similar to the APCM. Stars were awarded for the following criteria:

  1. Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944. 
  2. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on Leyte and adjoining islands during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  3. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on islands other than those mentioned above during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  4. Served in the Philippine Islands or on ships in Philippine waters for not less than 30 days during the period.

The 345th did not participate in the initial landing operation on Leyte on October 17-20 (Fred was also en route to Biak from Camp Stoneman). Fred does meet the other three criteria so he received three service stars on the PLM. 

Philippine Independence Medal: After the Japanese surrender, the Philippine government wanted to recognize all those who served in both the initial defense of the nation and the subsequent liberation. The Philippine Independence Medal was created to recognize those who took part in either one of the conflict stages. Because Fred took part in the liberation campaign, he received the PIM. 

Presidential Unit Citation: President Franklin Roosevelt created this unit citation, (originally entitled the Distinguished Unit Citation) via Executive Order 9075. A unit citation was a new type of award for the U.S. military; it was meant to recognize the gallantry and heroism of a unit that endured dangerous conditions. The 499th received three PUCs for its entire wartime service; Fred served with the squadron when it received its third citation and his only one for actions over Indochina. 

Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: Similar to the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the PPUC was awarded by the Philippine government to recognize the meritorious service and heroic achievements to those who participated in any Philippine operations. Because Fred served with the 499th which operated in the Philippines, he received the PPUC. 

All U.S. Army, Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who were honorably discharged also receive the Honorable Service Lapel Button, nicknamed the ‘Ruptured Duck’. This was given to all those that were honorably discharged during World War II. The award had a twofold purpose: to show proof of military service while wearing civilian clothing [the lapel button was not worn with military uniform] and to receive recognition from agencies and private companies that the wearer was a veteran and could receive benefits such as reduced fares or free services. Since Fred completed his service honorably, he received the Ruptured Duck. A diamond shaped cloth patch was also issued for a veteran that could be worn on their Class A uniform for a subsequent 30 days.

Fred’s separation document (discovered February 18, 2021) shows that he also received a weapons marksmanship badge. Recruits are tested on their weapons proficiency during basic training and are scored on accuracy, technical skills, and speed. There are three categories of badges; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Individual weapons bars are attached on each badge denoting the level of proficiency with that weapon. Fred was awarded the Sharpshooter badge with the Carbine bar on October 7, 1943. 

Fred returned to the U.S on January 3, 1946 and was sent to Fort Leavenworth for separation. The Army was demobilizing thousands of troops a week, sending them to various locations across the country to expedite the process. On January 14, 1946, Fred was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force. His wartime service was over. He served for two years, five months, and twenty-five days; a year and two months of which was overseas. 

According to family oral history, he completed forty-two missions with the 499th and made it out physically unscathed. The path he traveled took him across the United States, the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, and to foreign countries that a regular kid from Oklahoma might never have seen in his lifetime. Seven months after his discharge, he married Roberta Davis on August 18, 1946 and began a career with the Frisco Railroad. On 25 June 2006, Fred Laverne Richardson died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Four years later, Roberta joined him; together they both completed ‘well-finished lives.’

Persons of Exceptional Prominence: Celebrities in the Military

How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?

World Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (Barrow) sews on the stripes of a technical sergeant—to which he has been promoted (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951) View Joe Louis’ OMPF in the NARA Catalog.

The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.

Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).

Identification photo of Bea Arthur. Before she was a ‘Golden Girl’ she was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. View Bea Arthur’s OMPF in the NARA Catalog

Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:

  • Charles Addams (Cartoonist, creator of ‘The Addams Family‘)
  • Spiro Agnew (U.S. Vice President and Governor of Maryland)
  • Alvin York (World War I Medal of Honor Recipient)
  • Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to South Vietnam)
  • Ruth Streeter (U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Director)
  • John Philip Sousa (Musician and composer of American military marches)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (U.S. Representative and Senator from Maine; joined service while serving in Congress)
  • Francis Scobee (U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut; died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, son of President Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Lafayette Ron Hubbard (Science fiction writer and founder of Scientology)
  • Jackie Robinson (Professional athlete, first black baseball player to play for Major League Baseball)
  • Ernie Pyle (Journalist and war correspondent; killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa)
  • Josephine Bowman (Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps)
  • Robert Peary (Artic explorer who reached the North Pole)
  • John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)

OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.

Brigadier General James Stewart. After going to Washington as Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force, served with distinction in Europe during World War II, and retired at the rank of brigadier general in 1968 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Witness to the Fall: A Review of ‘Decent Interval’ by Frank Snepp

Utter chaos. Left behind. Hellish destruction. No hope. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers lived in perpetual agony of whether or not Americans would rescue them from the approaching North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The ensuing battle would be catastrophic if Communists and remnants of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) fought in the streets of Saigon. Meanwhile, fragile agreements, empty promises, and diplomatic false flags swirled around the globe in negotiating a compromise to save what was left of South Vietnam. To say that there were miscommunications and misunderstandings between parties is a definitively gross understatement. Between October 1972 and April 1975, a CIA analyst worked furiously on deciphering North Vietnamese plans while navigating a labyrinth of bureaucratic stonewalling and intelligence mismanagement. Despite signals of non-negotiable settlements and an almost willful denial of reality by senior leaders, Frank Snepp and others did their best to rescue at-risk Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. In 1977, Frank Snepp published ‘Decent Interval‘ chronicling the events leading up to Saigon’s collapse in 1975 and giving stark, graphic details of how competing military and political ideas created a quagmire of biblical proportions. Controversy surrounded Snepp’s book from the beginning as the CIA sued him over breach of contract, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court decision (United States vs. Frank W. Snepp, III). Despite losing his case, Snepp’s testimony sheds light on the tarnished integrity of CIA and U.S. political actions in South Vietnam. ‘Decent Interval‘ is, therefore, essential reading for anyone desiring to know what transpired in the last days of the Vietnam War.

Before delving into specific features of the book, the title phrase ‘decent interval’ references a theory that the Nixon Administration orchestrated plans to allow for a peaceful withdrawal from South Vietnam and avoid a military defeat. The Republic of Vietnam could not survive according to sources in the administration, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, stating:

‘Our terms would eventually destroy him.’ [‘Him’ referring to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu]

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 6 October 1972”. Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. University of Virginia.

Presidential, political, military, and Vietnamese scholars debate this practice and while Kissinger denied the ‘decent interval’ concept, the fact remains that while the United States remained committed to South Vietnam in public, a mirage of hope prevailed privately that many Vietnamese clung to but never came to fruition. President Nixon privately pledged to Thieu that if his country was ever threatened again by North Vietnam, U.S. air power would retaliate with full force. Following Nixon’s resignation from the Watergate scandal, Communists reasoning on U.S. re-intervention changed overnight. Without Nixon or the hope of an aerial defense, the NVA could launch a final assault on the south and finally reunify the country. The south’s fate was essentially sealed. Snepp’s accounting chronicles the events and people who took part.

The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 signed for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, a repatriation of POWs, and a general ceasefire. POWs returned home, the last regular army troops left in March 1973, but a handful of security and contractors remained behind to guard American consular offices. The ceasefire, however, was never honored and fighting resumed within days of the accords’ ratification (Image courtesy of the New York Times)

Frank Snepp (featured in Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War and the film Last Days in Vietnam) separates the book into sections; the bloody cease-fire of 1973, the piecemeal conquering of South Vietnam, and the final two days of Saigon’s life. The book reads as a play-by-play recalling actions with startling detail of various CIA, State Department, military, and civilian agency operations. In many ways, Snepp wrote the most complex after-action report one could ask for about the Fall of Saigon. The reader can expect to see familiar names reappear consistently and recognize the increasing anxiety as the enemy inched closer to victory. From the outset, ‘Decent Interval‘ sets a bleak tone on what the CIA did during the Vietnam War. This extends to the challenges faced by the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), the State Department, and the United States Information Agency (USIA). Intelligence gathered by CIA sources and surveillance of the South Vietnamese government painted a bleak picture of the ARVN’s capability to combat a serious invasion from the north. A principle actor who exerted disastrous influence was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin entered South Vietnam in June 1973 with the goal of retaining South Vietnamese independence by any means necessary. He was a resolute old guard Cold Warrior determined to keep U.S. aid flowing. As Snepp repeats throughout the book, Martin was more concerned with conforming information and news to his worldview rather than taking facts to heart from trusted sources. His relationship with the media was not stellar either. These facets proved fatal for the South Vietnamese and remaining Americans who became increasingly frustrated with the Ambassadors’ actions. Snepp doesn’t kid gloves in his critique of Martin’s intransigence. Martin refused to even cut down a tamarind tree in the Embassy courtyard to allow for helicopter liftoffs; stating that it would hurt morale and incite panic. By that point, frenzied crowds of frightened Vietnamese should have signaled the oncoming doom. Saving the tamarind tree was akin to throwing furniture off the sinking Titanic.

Critiques about President Thieu’s regime were also harsh and the South Vietnamese army struggled to hold onto to key points in the country. Snepp describes his task to escort Thieu out of the country following his resignation. The unceremonious departure (and potential smuggling of valuables in his luggage) illustrates how reading the writing on the wall came too late. Leaders tried desperately to mount defenses on their own, but over-reliance on the U.S was an Achille’s heel after 1973. The ARVN was plagued with corruption, low morale, and with the evaporation of U.S. financial and military aid, they ran out of money and bullets. That same corruption extended to the government where competing factions constantly jockeyed for power. Disagreements became part of the everyday narrative in South Vietnam, but now with Communists only days away from unifying the country, they assumed larger importance with political settlements. Thieu’s military leadership emphasized a ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom’ strategy where northern provinces bordering North Vietnam were abandoned in order to reinforce more populous centers in the south. The result was mass panic and confusion as Americans still in those provinces struggled to coordinate evacuations and destroy classified information. Disheartening reports about the collapse of ARVN divisions and hit-and-run tactics by the Viet Cong flooded into Saigon, forcing more Embassy staff to prepare for the worst. Snepp cites the DAO’s Colonel Bill Legro as a principle architect for the Saigon evacuation. Pre-arranged rendezvous points around the city would pick up Americans with proper credentials. South Vietnamese, through a mash-up of bribery and American largess, thrusted themselves into the evacuation even if official policy did not include them. Ambassador Martin and for some time, Thomas Polgar, CIA Station Chief, held out hope for a negotiated settlement arbitrated by the Soviet Union and China. As Snepp describes it, the CIA and U.S. Embassy botched a great deal of the evacuation prep work due to misconceptions on intelligence validity.

A U.S. Marine Security Guard watching as South Vietnamese attempt to enter the U.S. Embassy grounds. By the time the evacuation of Saigon began, many U.S. personnel believed that it was too late to rescue everyone who wanted to flee (Image courtesy of UPI)

Snepp evaluates the actions of many people in the last days of South Vietnam. Throughout the book, his criticisms Thomas Polgar increase exponentially over his handling and interpretations of intelligence sources. For a brief time, Polgar shared similar views as Martin concerning a negotiated settlement with the Communists (a tip from Hungarian associates in the ICCS [International Commission of Control and Supervision]). As time progressed and NVA forces captured Xuan Loc and cut communications out of Saigon, hopes of negotiation evaporated into nothingness. Hovering over the Embassy was the political front centered on the U.S. Congress who had the final say on authorizing military and aid funds to South Vietnam. Martin, Kissinger, and others desperately needed Congress to act. If South Vietnam were to fall, Congress, not the White House, State Department, or CIA, should take the blame. Snepp interprets Congressional machinations and their impacts in the broader context of how the U.S. handled foreign relations with South Vietnam. If the U.S. government was unwilling to move proactively in warding off a disaster, people on the ground needed to act swiftly.

April 1975. The month and year where all hell broke lose in Saigon. ‘Decent Interval‘ is only half of the book’s title, but the latter aptly describes the landscape: ‘An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam‘. No one who wasn’t there couldn’t have described it as vividly as Snepp did. Between April 6 and April 29, the NVA hit major points around Saigon, including Tan Son Nhut Air Base and Vung Tau. Evacuation plans were still in disarray as senior leaders argued over how many personnel should be lifted out and when. Americans needed to be rescued, but determining at-risk Vietnamese was problematic and time consuming. Peace was still a far-flung hope, but Snepp cites this the principle obstacle in coordinating a withdrawal:

My imbroglio with Polgar left me bitter and frightened. As long as he and Martin refused to accept the inevitability of a Communist assault, it seemed likely they would continued to subordinate the evacuation effort to their peace gambit. In my anxiety I resolved to try to signal to Washington once again (as I had earlier through Moose and Miessner) how far off-trach I though they were.”

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Worst Case’, pg. 369
President Ford discusses the worsening situation in South Vietnam with from right to left, Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (partially pictured); Graham Martin, United States Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam; Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weyand; and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. In the weeks leading up to the Fall of Saigon, the White House, Congress, Departments of Defense and State debated the best course of action, all while Snepp and his colleagues clandestinely move vulnerable Vietnamese out of the country (Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, White House Photographic Office Collection (Ford Administration), 12/6/1973 – 1/20/1977)

Snepp intimately recalls how he and his colleagues worked outside the system and broke convention to get desperate Vietnamese out of the country. Some whom they knew personally. These chapters and sections make ‘Decent Interval‘ a heart-wrenching read. One is immediately placed in the hot, humid, and bullet ridden Saigon city blocks. Snepp intricately weaves descriptions of civilians facing harsh decisions and finding creative ways to escape the country. Americans with proper credentials were collected at pre-arranged rendezvous points, but many Vietnamese were left behind upon realizing that they would be left behind. On April 29 1975, the North Vietnamese initiated the assault on Saigon. Intelligence reports drafted by Snepp revealed how the Communists were determined to drive onto the city and claim it by Ho Chi Minh’s birthday on May 19th. Cargo ships, commercial airplanes, and military airlifts were swamped with frightened civilians carrying their life possessions. The Ford Administration emphasized evacuating all Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, which resulted in an explosion of Americans claiming ‘dependents’. Since no official evacuation order was implemented due to hopes of a settlement, the best way to describe the scenario was haphazard. The worst description was a shit-show. Operation Frequent Wind, the official military directed evacuation, was initiated the day before, but without guidance from Ambassador Martin or the DAO, the military airlift had to improvise flying in helicopters and ferrying them out to Task Force 76 fleet in the South China Sea. CIA pilots and civilian contractors flying their own helicopters rescued Americans and at-risk Vietnamese as well. The famous image of a CIA officer helping civilians up a narrow ladder on top of 22 Gia Long Street into an Air America chopper was a defining image of the Fall of Saigon. Polgar by this point radically changed his view on the military situation. He scrambled to save personal Vietnamese friends and destroyed classified information. Incinerators ran around the clock destroying burn bags filled with shredded documents. His final cable to Washington D.C. resonated with historic implications:

“It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost…This experience unique in the history of the United States does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power. The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of manpower and resources which were certainly generous. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Les us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.”

Saigon. Signing off.

Final Message of CIA Station Chief Thomas Polgar, April 29th 1975.

Late into the evening of April 29th, Snepp and the last of the CIA personnel made their way to the embassy roof helicopter pad, boarded a CH-47, and swiftly flew out to sea, landing on the USS Denver. Below them were throngs of civilians clamoring for salvation. Time and again they were reassured that helicopters would pick them up, but they were empty promises as only Americans were evacuated. Within 24 hours of landing on the USS Denver, Snepp finally heard the news he knew was coming; Saigon capitulated and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Personally, this massive tome was startling. Snepp’s inside accounts and direct knowledge of Communist operations made me re-think a few things. First, what I was taught in my U.S. and the Vietnam War class in undergraduate was severely watered down and glossed over the finer points of Kissinger’s double-dealing, the sheer stupidity of Graham Martin, and the South Vietnamese government’s practically non-existent democratic institutions. The enormously perplexing situation inside the U.S. Embassy makes no wonder of why evacuation plans were constantly outdated or rendered useless. Above all, Snepp laments for the thousands of left behind Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. and faced prison, re-education, and execution by the Communists. In testimonies before Congress, Martin claimed that the evacuation was an astounding achievement of American planning and execution. Snepp disagreed:

‘Some legislators, however, were not so sure. Although none disputed the difficulties the Ambassador had faced, there lingered widespread suspicion that he had brought a great many of them on himself. Far from expediting the evacuation during the first weeks of April, he had, it seemed, helped to stall if off-partly by fostering the notion (with Kissinger and Weyand’s help) that one more aid appropriation might avert disaster…Even then it was less Martin’s ingenuity than the imagination and initiative of subordinate staffers that kept the operation rolling along. Without General Smith’s “inspirations” there probably would have been no evacuations at all…the improvisatory and haphazard nature of the evacuation of course had its cost.’

Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Internal Hemorrhaging’, pg. 564, 565

Every bit of intelligence pointed to a non-negotiable Communist victory. Hanoi would not suffer compromise under any circumstances. Why couldn’t Kissinger, Martin, or Polgar understand this notion? Why wait until the last minute to make a crucial decision on saving lives? Snepp points to far flung hopes for negotiated settlements through Soviet channels and constant pressure for Congressional appropriations to foreign aid. Following Watergate and the passage of the War Powers Act, senators and representatives were unwilling to approve any more aid. Reluctance after years of anti-war protests pushed Congress and the White House to focus on domestic issues such as inflation, unemployment, and foreign relations in the Middle East. No one cared for Vietnam any longer.

Decent Interval‘ was an exploration of the mind for any concerned person living in Saigon on April 30th 1975. In later testimonies, Snepp laments the loss of so many Vietnamese who weren’t evacuated. In a way this book memorializes the Vietnamese left behind in the U.S. Embassy. Rescued families were the lucky ones and would always remember the time as ‘Black April’ in their life. ‘Decent Interval‘ set a new bar for my own understanding of the Vietnam War. At great personal sacrifice, Snepp brought to light what many Americans tried to forget and still try to today; so much went wrong with the evacuation of Saigon. Had it not been for a brave, enterprising people, so many more would have lost their lives.

‘Operation Frequent Wind’ – Marine pilots and members of the flight deck crew aboard the USS Hancock, assist Vietnamese refugees from CH-53 helicopters during the evacuation of Saigon (Image courtesy of the National Archives, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps)

The Prophet’s Bodyguard: A Look at the Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell (Part 2 of 2)

Joseph Smith: prophet, seer, revelator, and the first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in the summer of 1844, was dead. He and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob at the Carthage jail. His close friend and bodyguard, Orrin Porter Rockwell, was distraught and his mind was plagued with depression. From out of this anguish, Rockwell thrust himself into a new horizon. H threw his lot behind Brigham Young and began the westward migration to the Rocky Mountains. With another home taken from them with the Prophet’s death, the Saints sought to establish a new Zion far away from the influence of any state or federal government.

Porter Rockwell did not start his new phase off on the right foot. After a brief stint in jail for the murder of Frank Worrell (leader of the Carthage Grays militia who indirectly permitted the martyrdom of Joseph Smith; see Part 1 of ‘The Prophet’s Bodyguard’) he regrouped with Brigham Young and other Saints in Council Bluffs, Iowa in August 1846. Working in the hands of God to shepherd the church, Young sought out one person who would fight tooth and nail and be a provider to the church. That same year, Young called Rockwell to be his personal bodyguard. But protecting the new president wouldn’t be his only duty. For months, church leaders were assembling supplies and making preparations for a mass westward migration. They expected to battle the natural elements and encounter hostile Indian tribes. Rockwell and a handful of other frontiersmen were the vanguard of the Saints column. After moving to Winter Quarters, Nebraska earlier in the year, companies of Saints were assembled to break out across the Plains in groups of ten. Rockwell was attached to the tenth group in line and was immediately made a chief scout for the entire column. It was during this trek that Rockwell made himself indispensable through his adept marksmanship. He fended off a group of Pawnees, kept the company’s horses from escaping, and managed to shoot a couple of buffalo that provided so much needed nourishment for the pioneers (Schindler, Harold, ‘Orrin Porter Rockwell – Man of God / Son of Thunder’, pg. 155). Even when Brigham Young misplaced his spyglass, Rockwell backtracked through the company, located the spyglass, and return it to Young, “which was a source of joy to all the brethren” (Egan, Pioneering in the West, pg. 35). Continuing on their journey, the Saints also encountered Missourians traveling West, among whom they thought was Lilburn Boggs making his way to California. Despite their animosities, the Church managed to profit from the Missouri wagon trains by charging them for crossing the rivers on Mormon ferries. Cash-strapped church members and leaders would soon need these funds to build their new settlements. By July of that year, the Saints passed into the Rocky Mountains and were winding their way through the labyrinth of rivers, valleys, and deserts to the Great Basin beyond the horizon. Rockwell led a scouting party seeking out the best trail for wagons and on July 22nd, Rockwell and his band led the train to into the valley and here they gazed upon the Great Salt Lake. It’s believed that Rockwell was the first to see the vast basin suitable for their new home and recognized the valley’s potential.

“Entering the Great Salt Lake Valley” by C.C.A. Christensen, courtesy of BYU Museum of Art

There was no rest for Porter Rockwell. Not when more Saints needed protection and guidance crossing the Plains and the church underwent new development in the Salt Lake Valley. Rockwell made multiple treks across the Plains, providing the companies with food and delivering much needed correspondence. His diplomatic skills with local Indian tribes became valuable also as he was pivotal in building friendly relationships through trade. After riding all over the western territories, Rockwell was made an emissary as part of a larger group to gather more supplies and livestock from California. A successful return of cattle, wagons, mules, and other supplies were a life-giving boost to the Saints.

Gold fever hit the nation with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and thousands of prospectors set out for California. A colony of Saints in California led by Sam Brannan reported on the stupendous amount of wealth being claimed by miners, but Young dissuaded people to seek such fortunes, lest they fall into sin. Tithing was needed to conduct church business and some in California weren’t carrying their share. However, profits from more respectable and reliable ventures were more prudent and Rockwell was dispatched to California in the spring of 1849. He and his companion Amasa Lyman spent their time spreading the Gospel and conducting business with the miners. Predictably, business fared much better than religious enlightenment in the mining camps. Rockwell opened an inn, sold hardware, and won prize money with his sharpshooting skills. By the time Rockwell left California in the fall of 1850, he made a generous profit, all of which he donated to the church coffers. His old enemy Lilburn Boggs was also in the gold fields and Rockwell never let his identity be known; using a pseudonym and never traveling without his dual pistols kept him from stirring up any discord.

Thousands of people traveled to California to mine for gold. Rockwell and other Saints focused more on selling mining hardware, providing food and housing, and conducting missionary work in the mine fields.

The next five years were relatively stable and sedentary for Porter. On September 9th, 1850 Brigham Young appointed him the Deputy Marshal for the Utah Territory. Between tracking down criminals and treating local Indian tribes with civility (his belief was to feed an Indian rather than shoot him), he found love again and married Mary Ann Neff on May 3rd, 1854. Young himself officiated the wedding. From 1854 onwards though, it would become the most accomplished yet checkered stage of Porter’s life, one that that could be the subject of many dime-store novels.

By 1857, relations between the LDS Church and the U.S. government were arguably at their lowest. Newly inaugurated president James Buchanan, who was elected on a platform of ending polygamy in the United States, was adamant in restraining Brigham Young’s western theocracy. He appointed Alfred Cumming to replace Young as the territorial governor, but failed to notify him of this change. An expedition of 2,500 soldiers under the command of Col. Albert Sidney Johnston were sent west with orders to forcibly remove Young if necessary. While delivering mail, Rockwell and two other couriers, Abraham Smoot and Judson Stoddard, discovered that the U.S. Army was in route to Salt Lake and quickly returned to inform Young of the pending doom. Church leaders and civil authorities adopted a guerrilla strategy in striking at the heels of the Utah expedition; attacking supply lines, stealing wagons and animals, destroying ferry and river crossings, etc. Rockwell and men like Lot Smith and Daniel Wells led these raids, the first in Mormon attacks against the federal government (Schindler, pg. 255). They roared through camps stampeding animals and setting fires to wagons. Their havoc was not limited to the patrols and scouting parties, but some sizeable forts and supply depots were torched on Rockwell’s orders. When the army reached Fort Bridger in December 1857, the column that arrived was half-starved, frostbitten, and short on everything from cooking lard to gunpowder.

Col. Johnston’s men marched through heavy snowstorms in the winter of 1857, stopping their advance on Salt Lake City. Coupled with Mormon raids on their supply wagons, the Utah expedition was severely depleted and demoralized by their arrival (Image courtesy of Harper’s Weekly, circa 1858)

Sabotage and stealth proved well for Rockwell and other Mormon scouts in the Utah War. Skills that became crucial for the next conflict: The American Civil War. Joseph Smith prophesized that crises over secession would take place in the South (specifically mentioning South Carolina) and the war would engulf the whole nation. Utah’s remoteness did not spare it from the ravages of warfare. Within the first few months of the war’s outbreak in 1861, Confederate columns pushed into New Mexico Territory, signaling the start of hostilities in the American Southwest. [read more about the New Mexico and Arizona Campaigns in ‘The Bleeding Southwest’] Fortunately for the LDS Church and Utah residents, no major Confederate invasion occurred in the region. Raids by local Native American tribes on local farms, army posts, and mail routes were the primary engagements. With the absence of U.S. troops from much of the West, tribes like the Shoshone, Sioux, Apache, and Cheyenne felt emboldened to strike back at white pioneers. People like Porter Rockwell who maintained good relationships with local tribes were employed as mediators to resolve conflicts or relocate individuals. In January 1863, tensions between the Union army and the Shoshone tribes reached their climax at Bear River. Rockwell signed on to work for the federal government again; this time he acted as a scout for the column of Union soldiers moving through the Utah and Idaho territories. California volunteers under the command of Col. Patrick Connor and Major McGarry attacked Shoshone Indians in the Cache Valley, resulting in tremendous losses for the Indians. While Conner was pleased with the destruction of the Shoshone, Rockwell was devastated at the orgy of violence that unfolded. He always believed that Indians should been treated with civility and hospitality, but his role in the Bear Creek Massacre was something he always regretted (Schindler, pg. 331).

Western territories in the 19th century were wide open in opportunities for both pioneers and outlaws. In such as wide swath of land like Utah, Brigham Young’s choice to make Rockwell a marshal was one that he believed would bring all God-fearing criminals to justice. Throughout Rockwell’s tenure as a marshal, he arrested dozens of thieves, scofflaws, vagrants, and other nefarious characters. Stories like these of lawmen catching criminals in the Old West have been so embellished with romantic imagery or severe criticism based on the central character, that it’s almost impossible to determine the hard truth. What really transpired is known only to those directly involved. In 1868, a Overland Stagecoach for Wells Fargo was robbed of $40,000 in gold bouillon. As the robber made his way on foot, Rockwell (who was employed as a coach guard) set out to find the thief. Rockwell tracked the man down for a week and spent another week observing the man’s behavior. The bouillon was buried and when he returned to exhume the treasure, Rockwell swooped in and arrested the thief. He put him under guard at Government Creek, but when the guard fell asleep, the thief escaped on horseback and Rockwell failed to take him out via longshot rifle. When he returned the gold to Salt Lake City, Wells Fargo officials initially believed that Rockwell stole the gold himself when he failed to bring the criminal in for charges. Whether they believed he stole the gold or not, Rockwell was never charged and the Case of the Great Bouillon Robbery inflated the controversial legend of Porter Rockwell.

Stagecoaches with Wells Fargo transported all manner of goods and money across the American West. Criminals and bandits targeted these stagecoaches constantly and gunmen like Porter Rockwell were hired to defend these coaches.

In 1857, a group of gamblers named the Aiken Brothers were apprehended by Rockwell, some of who ended up dead while being escorted out of the Salt Lake Valley. Initially their deaths were blamed on local Indians, but church critics placed blame squarely on Rockwell. Nearly two decades later, formal charges were brought against him for the Aiken Brothers murders and with the recent death of Brigham Young, Rockwell had reason to fear he’d be thrown into jail again. Rockwell died before the trial was held, but the jury failed to conclude whether or not any murder took place. Some historians today believe that the Aiken Brothers actually were killed by Indians, but the true story has been laid to rest in the grave.

When not fighting for or against the U.S. government or tracking down criminals, Rockwell was a savvy businessman. On top of carrying mail for the Overland Trails and hauling cargo for across the Utah Territory, he was involved in the liquor trade, operated a saloon and hotel, sold real estate, and raised livestock. The Hot Springs Hotel and Brewery opened back in 1859 and in that time, the business made Rockwell a substantial amount of money; most of which was re-invested in land and his ranching business.

Rockwell lived a long life filled with adventure, challenges, and spiritual conviction. From his early days witnessing the creation of the LDS Church, to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, and his pursuit of the law in the wild Utah territory, Rockwell was a weary man at the age of sixty-five. Despite his age, he was still a robust figure who regularly rode horses and kept busy with his ranches and other businesses. On June 8th, 1878, he returned from a trip to the theater and sat alone at the saloon drinking. By now, drinking alone was a habit of Porter’s; he regularly drank throughout his life, and despite the church’s abolition against hard liquors, he still imbibed now and then. Later that evening, he began to feel ill and collapsed on his bed. A hostler who ran the nearby livery stable quickly came to his side and called for a doctor. Porter laid in his bed for hours, but no relief from the pain ever came. On June 9th, 1878, Orrin Porter Rockwell, bodyguard of the Prophets, the ‘Destroying Angel of Mormondon’, the Samson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, died of congestive heart failure.

Public reaction to his death was polarizing. People who knew him said he was a faithful defender of the church and a righteous man who protected the innocent. Church critics and other Anti-Mormon persons called him the most vile man to ever kill people without just cause. An obituary in an anti-Mormon newspaper described Rockwell:

“He killed unsuspecting travelers, whose booty was coveted by his prophet-master. He killed fellow Saints who held secrets that menaced the safety of their fellow criminals in the priesthood. He killed Apostates who dared to wag their tongues about the wrongs they had endured. And he killed mere sojourners in Zion merely to keep his hand in . . . Thus the gallows was cheated of one of the fittest candidates that ever cut a throat or plundered a traveler.

Salt Lake Tribune, June 12, 1878

The legacy of Porter Rockwell is a long and complicated one, to say the least. Stories about his life embody a times of persecution, retribution, revenge, endurance, sorrow, and cherishing joy. Critics were always at his heels haranguing him for his vicious deeds, the abominable ‘Chief of the Danites’ they always reminded the public. But his life is not limited to the contemporary critics or the historical revisionists who re-examine the narrative and cast him in a better light. Rockwell, at his core, was a man guided by every mission bestowed upon him with reverence for the Church’s callings. He stood at the Prophet’s side in every ordeal and brought sinners to justice. If these words are apt in summarizing his legacy, Joseph F. Smith (nephew of Joseph Smith) delivered Rockwell’s eulogy on June 12th, 1878, putting to words the impact left by Rockwell on his fellow Saints:

“They say he was a murderer; if he was, he was the friend of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and he was faithful to them, and to his covenants, and he has gone to Heaven and apostates can go to Hell … Porter Rockwell was yesterday afternoon ushered into Heaven clothed with immortality and eternal life, and crowned with all glory which belongs to a departed saint. He has his little faults, but Porter’s life on earth, taken altogether, was one worthy of example, and reflected honor upon the church. Through all his trials, he never once forgot his obligations to his brethren and his God.”

Joseph F. Smith, Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1878
Grave marker of Orrin Porter Rockwell in Salt Lake City. The epitaph reads ‘He was brave and loyal to his faith. True to the Prophet Joseph Smith. A promise made him by the prophet. Through obedience, it was fulfilled.’

The Prophet’s Bodyguard: A Look at the Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell (Part 1 of 2)

Some people become legends in their own time. They’re larger-than-life heroes and tall-tales that live and breathe. Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, Hugh Glass, and Buffalo Bill–they lived in times where their exploits and achievements became the stuff of American legend. We love these stories as they’re about personalities that conquered their shortcomings. They became hardened through life experiences and defeated every adversary that sought to undermine them. They’re part of our national history, but for historians, this is problematic. How can one separate fact from fiction? When does a story become a tall-tale?

Orrin Porter Rockwell circa 1862 (photo courtesy of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University)

The story of Orrin Porter Rockwell is one that reads like a Zane Grey or J.T. Edson novel. A hard-scrabble lawman who pursued criminals with a vengeance and deadly aim. What sets him apart from other Western notorieties however was he spent his entire life with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. From 1830 to his death in 1878, Rockwell witnessed the church’s origins, served at the side of the Prophet and President Joseph Smith, and spent years as a marshal in the wild Utah territory during the church presidency of Brigham Young. When examining his life, you could imagine Rockwell almost as a ‘Mormon Forrest Gump’; he witnessed important moments with Church leaders and sometimes was at the center of pivotal events. Rockwell’s story is ingrained in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah history, but contemporary accounts both praised and vilified the man who became known by an infamous moniker: “The Destroying Angel of Mormondom.” The goal of this post is to deliver a non-embellished account of his life and how his role in the Church cemented his historical reputation. We can’t fully separate out fact from fiction though; even Harold Schindler who wrote the definitive Rockwell biography in 1966 admitted that some crucial details are lost to the ages.

Breaking down Rockwell’s life into chapters is the most manageable way of providing an accurate historical portrait. A majority of the LDS Church’s history is chronicled in a similar manner so the same approach is adopted here for easy reading and comprehension. Examining his life in extreme details means that I’ll be dividing this story into two parts.

Orrin Porter Rockwell was born on June 28, 1813 in Belchertown, Massachusetts to Orin and Sarah Rockwell and within a few years, they moved to Manchester, New York and had new neighbors; Joseph Smith Sr. and family (Schindler, Harold, ‘Orrin Porter Rockwell – Man of God / Son of Thunder’, pg. 3). Living only a mile apart, the Rockwells and Smiths became close friends, especially between Porter and Joseph Smith Jr. Even at an early age, Rockwell was enthralled by Joseph’s accounts of discovering the Golden Plates. He heard the story repeated countless times and Rockwell immediately made himself indispensable to the Smith family. The two men were united by a personal tragedy that gave them a common ground; both suffered from a limp as a result of an accident. Rockwell didn’t spend much time schooling; he barely learned how to read and write. Instead he worked a variety of odd jobs such as berry picking and gathering firewood and much of the proceeds went to pay for the Book of Mormon’s publishing costs. Despite harsh public criticism towards Another Testament of Jesus Christ, Rockwell remained firmly dedicated to Joseph’s work and in April 1830 after the new Church of Christ (predecessor name to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) was founded, Orrin Porter Rockwell was baptized by Joseph Smith.

Baptisms of the first new members of the Church of Christ. Following the baptism of the six founders, extended family and friends like Porter Rockwell were baptized by Joseph Smith

Vitriol was widespread against the new church and the Saints relocated to Ohio to escape the New York critics. The Rockwells for a time did make it to Ohio, but records are scant for this time frame. Instead the Rockwell family joined the first group of Saints to settle in Jackson County, Missouri and Porter quickly adapted to his new surroundings. Missouri offered new opportunities for the Saints; open prairies for ranching, cheap land, abundant timber, and business opportunities in shipping and ferrying. Porter took up a lucrative trade in ferrying pioneers and supplies across the Big Blue River. Not long after moving to Jackson county, Porter married Luana Beebe on February 2, 1832, making it the first Mormon marriage in the state. His life seemed idyllic; a new home, family, wife, and business that provided them with everything. The image of a new Zion was not to last however as the black cloud of persecution followed the Saints wherever they settled. Missourians looked upon the Saints with skepticism, but in the early 1830s as the specter of slavery loomed in every new state’s admission to the Union, events set in motion their eventual expulsion, forcing another exodus. Missouri was divided in its stance on slavery, but powerful legislators and influential public figures made Missouri a predominantly pro-slavery state. The Church took an anti-slavery stance at its founding and when that view was expressed in an article entitled ‘Free People of Color’, Missourians seized it as evidence that the Saints were out to upset the balance of political power. This damage was irreparable. On few occasions in 1833, the Rockwells were harassed by Missourians and given ultimatums to hand over their businesses and leave the state. Lieutenant Governor Lilburn Boggs encouraged much of this sectarian violence against the religious group; his reputation cemented his place in annals of Church history as arguably the most despised man in North America. Porter did not stand idly by as violent retribution was inflicted upon his fellow Saints. He took up pistols and a rifle, becoming a crack marksman and sharpshooter. On October 31st, 1834 another Missouri mob swooped down on the Big Blue ferry destroying nearly all of the Rockwells’ homes and demanded Porter surrender all his possessions. He clashed with dozens of mobsters, leaving a handful mortally wounded and scattered the rest. Despite holding out, the Saints left Jackson country in November, leaving Porter with an intense hatred for Lt. Gov. Boggs, a vengeance becoming the foundation of Porter’s legacy (Schindler, pg. 20).

Porter Rockwell kept his covenants with both his family and church calling (he was ordained as a deacon in July 1838). The Missouri years were never quiet for him though. It’s in Missouri and more importantly in the year 1838 when one of two consequential moments defined both his life and historical reputation; the rise of the Danites.

Charge of the Danites, Missouri-Mormon War of 1838 (William Heth Whitsitt, 1908)

A dark cloud befell the Church in early 1838 with the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society in Ohio and their persecutions in Missouri. Dissenters within the church argued over its next move and changes in leadership as many renounced Joseph Smith’s divinity as a prophet. Distrust between neighbors grew and many sought to take vengeance into their own hands. In a series of clandestine meetings, eighty-three men signed on as part of a fraternal organization founded on Biblical doctrine:

‘Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward’

Genesis, Chapter 49 Verse 17

The Sons of Dan (the Danites) came together to remove dissenters in the Church, but paramilitary activities and anti-Mormon propaganda vilified their cause and became a black mark for anyone remotely connected. Porter Rockwell was among them; he was the sixty-ninth signature. They explained in their manifesto that it was their duty to expel all those who were deemed weaknesses in the Church. Many historians who reviewed Porter Rockwell’s life saw how his affiliation with the Danites followed him like a foul stench throughout his life; even at his death, Porter was labeled a ‘Danite chieftain’ and ‘destroying angel’ (Schindler, pg. 33). One might ask why would a devoted follower of Joseph Smith belong to such a group? The Danite vows included swearing unwavering, dying allegiance to the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, making it probably the only reason Porter Rockwell would have considered membership. Digging through the immense archives concerning the Danites can take even longer that discussing the life of Porter Rockwell, but in summary, historians disagree on whether or not Joseph Smith authorized their creation and their actions [see the Battle of Crooked River, October 24, 1838] were fodder for the anti-Mormon camp who exploited the Danite actions as proof of their ungodliness and warranted their extermination. Both the public and the Saints condemned them, but they were instrumental in facilitating their people’s expulsion from Missouri. On October 27, 1838, Lt. Gov. Boggs issued the infamous ‘Missouri Executive Order 44’ authorizing the forced removal and necessary extermination of the Mormons:

The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”

Missouri Executive Order 44

The violence in Missouri following clashes with the Missouri state militias prompted Joseph Smith to surrender himself and after an illegal court martial, he and other church leaders including his brother Hyrum Smith were sent to the jail in Liberty, Missouri. From here Joseph received numerous revelations and employed Porter Rockwell to act as courier between him and bands of Saints moving eastward towards Illinois. The Rockwells were already en-route to Illinois, but Porter’s skills as a marksman and horseman were used effectively during Smith’s incarceration. Rockwell even managed to smuggle in some tools during one visit to help the captives escape, but this was attempt was thwarted. On April 15, 1839, while being transported to Boone County for sentencing, Joseph and his companions escaped the armed escort and safely made their way into Illinois. Their Missouri years were now behind them as the remaining vestiges of their settlements were burned by rabid Missourians. Among the people’s celebration of the returning Church leadership, coming in behind Joseph Smith was his guardian and loyal friend, Porter Rockwell (Schindler, pg. 57).

‘Liberty Jail’ by C.C.A. Christensen circa 1878. Porter Rockwell served as Joseph Smith’s courier, transporting messages and bringing the prisoners much needed supplies they were denied by the jailers

The Illinois phase of Porter Rockwell’s life was just as formative as his years he spent on the Big Blue and Jackson County. The Saints were welcomed with open arms in Illinois after residents heard about their plights. Here in their new settlement of Nauvoo, Porter made himself as indispensable as never before to the Prophet. Joseph Smith and other church leaders decided to bring their Missouri grievances to Washington D.C. and petition both Congress and the White House reimbursements to cover their financial losses. Porter joined the mission and in October 1839, the party left for the capital. Their journey wasn’t as productive as they had hoped. President Martin van Buren offered no aid to the Saints, stating ‘Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri’ (History of the Church, Vol. IV, pg. 80) [President Van Buren was also preoccupied with the 1837 financial panic that crippled the U.S. economy and was a contributing factor to his re-election defeat in 1840]. Smith and Rockwell then confronted members of Congress, pushing affidavits attesting to the mistreatment and violent reprisals against the Saints. Rockwell’s own testimony of harassment at Big Blue was incorporated, but this was still not enough. Congressional committees refused to act on any of the requests and the men returned to Nauvoo empty-handed. What did come out of the Washington D.C. trip was a strengthened friendship between Joseph and Porter. Each had found comfort in the other by serving a just cause on Earth, received by revelation all done in the name of creating a new Zion for the Church. Porter knew that Joseph was indeed conducting God’s will on the Saints and Joseph saw Porter as his strongest remaining supporter as followers like Oliver Cowdrey, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer fell away from the church. Porter was strong in both faith and body and Joseph believed he could always count on him in difficult times.

Said difficulties were never in short supply for Joseph Smith and the Saints. Following their absconsion from the Boone county escort, Missouri officials threatened Smith with extradition threats constantly. Bounty hunters were tempted with massive rewards for the Prophet’s capture and lawmen tried conjuring up ways to spirit him across the Mississippi River. Although Joseph succeeded in dismissing many of the warrants against him, he did make a riveting prophesy: Lilburn Boggs would die by a violent means. Years later, a harsh critic of Joseph Smith and excommunicated church member, John C. Bennett painted a darker, more ominous interpretation of this prophecy:

The exterminator should be exterminated and the Destroying Angel will do it by the right hand of his power…The Destroying Angel will do the work; when God speaks, His voice must be obeyed.”

Words of Joseph Smith as recorded by John C. Bennett in ‘History of the Saints’

Whether or not the above statement was true, it was a well-known fact that Lilburn Boggs had been responsible for much of the Saints’ sufferings in Missouri. Simultaneously, Porter was going through a rough patch in his and Luana’s marriage and she wanted to visit family back in Independence, Missouri. He obliged and by March 1842, the Rockwells returned and he found various work involving horses before the family returned to Nauvoo. What happened next would shock the region, the Church, and become the defining characteristic of Porter Rockwell’s life.

On the evening of May 6th, 1842, Boggs sat in his study reading a newspaper when suddenly a gunshot went through the window, hitting him in the skull, neck, and throat. Family and friends who rushed to the scene thought he was already dead (one obituary appeared soon after) but he survived. The local sheriff investigating the shooting found a discarded revolver, still partially loaded, and learned it had been stolen from a local store. The storekeeper immediately recognized the revolver as his and pointed the sheriff to ‘that hired man of Ward’s’–meaning Porter Rockwell. Eight days later, Rockwell returned to Nauvoo where news of Bogg’s attempted assassination was flying everywhere and at the center were John C. Bennett’s accusations that Joseph Smith had paid Rockwell to shoot the former governor. Conversations between Rockwell, Bennett, and Smith leave an unclear picture on what exactly Rockwell’s actions were. That secret is something Porter took to his grave (Schindler, pg. 73). Later in August, the arrest orders came down charging Porter with assault with intent to kill Lilburn Boggs. Accompanying this charge was arresting Joseph Smith as an accessory ‘before the fact’. Porter subsequently took off and fled east, trying to avoid the heat of his arrest, but he couldn’t stay away for long. His wife Luana returned from Independence to serve him with divorce papers, something he couldn’t ignore. Rockwell journeyed back and by the time he reached St. Louis, he departed the paddle boat to ferry over to Illinois, but on March 4, 1843, Porter Rockwell was finally caught by a Missouri posse who recognized him.

After a preliminary hearing in St. Louis, Rockwell was transferred to Independence to await trial. The conditions in the jail were horrid and no friendly persons were around to assist him. He quickly began suffering from malnutrition (the jailers didn’t bother to bring him food) and he attempted a couple of jailbreaks, but was foiled. The jailers and local sheriff abused his mercilessly, but Rockwell was unwavering in his faith and resolve. He even found ways to humor himself while incarcerated. One popular story tells that he hung a corn dodger (a hard biscuit) out his cell window and when passerby’s asked what he was doing, he exclaimed, ‘Fishing for pukes!’ [pukes was a derogatory term for Missourians] and saying he had a few nibbles. A larger plot was afoot with Porter Rockwell’s arrest though; Missouri officials hoped that it would draw Joseph Smith, their real target, back into the state and easily arrest him. While Smith dealt with problems in Nauvoo persisted (ongoing dissention in the church leadership mostly) he still thought of his friend Porter and eventually raised funds to get Porter a lawyer. Porter’s mother, Sarah Rockwell couriered the money and Porter tactfully chose his defense attorney, Alexander Doniphan. He was a longtime friend of the Mormons during their Missouri years and was famous for having stopped the summary execution of Joseph Smith back in 1838 [see Joseph Smith Papers, December 1842 – June 1844]. Doniphan eventually secured an acquittal for Rockwell as the jury couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that he shot Boggs. He was released and after a grueling return journey, Porter finally returned to Nauvoo, emaciated, filthy, and exhausted. When he burst into the Mansion House where Joseph Smith was hosting a party, he immediately recognized the destitute man and after hearing about his journey, Smith placed his hands on Rockwell and blessed him:

I prophesy in the name of the Lord, that you — Orrin Porter Rockwell — so long as ye shall remain loyal and true to thy faith, need fear no enemy. Cut not thy hair and no bullet or blade can harm thee”

Joseph Smith’s Blessing of Porter Rockwell

The story of Rockwell’s blessing was foreshadowing indeed [he would never again be physically harmed or injured in a knife or firefight] and those in the room believed that he was now the Samson of the Mormon Church (Schindler, pg. 102).

As Smith’s bodyguard, Porter traveled everywhere by his side and heard much of the political intrigue, extradition rumors, and anti-Mormon sentiment that plagued Smith’s life. A local newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, consistently published articles making false charges against Smith and accusations that the church was involved in nefarious schemes. Smith became irate and ordered the Expositor printing press destroyed; Porter led the group that kicked down the door and tore the machine apart beyond repair. Many citizens saw the Prophet’s actions as a violation of the freedom of the press and they reacted harshly (Schindler, pg. 117). The threat of a mob from nearby Carthage was calling for Joseph’s lynching and while prepping for another trip to Washington DC and laying plans to remove the Saints to the Rocky Mountains, Smith became convinced that his life was nearing the end. He knew very well that if he entered Carthage to answer questions about the the destruction of the Expositor, he might very well be killed by the mob. Wracked by what to do, he asked Rockwell ‘If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself. What shall I do Port?’ (History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day-Saints, Vol. 6, pg. 549). Rockwell told him to that whatever decision Joseph made, he would stand by him. On June 25th, 1844, Joseph and his brother Hyrum surrendered to the Carthage constable. Two days later, both men were dead.

Martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith in Carthage jail, June 27th, 1844, by G.W. Fasel circa 1851, Nagel & Weingaertner, N.Y. (Library of Congress)

Porter waited anxiously to hear back from Joseph, but three days without a letter was strange. Suspicious of what transpired, he rode out of Nauvoo the next day and soon encountered George D. Grant (a fellow Saint) who described what happened to the Prophet and his brother. Porter turned about and rushed back to Nauvoo bearing the awful news, acting like the Mormon Paul Revere. A guard at the Nauvoo temple saw Porter racing into town at a full gallop, shouting the terrible words, ‘Joseph is killed–they have killed him! Goddamn them! They have killed him!’ Joseph’s death threw the church leadership into a power struggle that was precipitated by a succession crisis. While church members debated the crisis, Rockwell was anguished over the loss of his friend and vowed revenge. He soon fulfilled that during a violent encounter with the Carthage Grays (local militia) and killed Frank Worrell, the Grays’ leader who was charged with protecting Joseph while incarcerated at the Carthage jail. They simply stood aside, letting the mob into the jail.

For the Saints, salvation lay west in the Rockies. Brigham Young, who would emerge as the new President of the Church nearly three years after Smith’s death, arranged to have all the necessary temple work completed before the Saints left Nauvoo. Porter was endowed on January 5th, 1846 and then began assembling everything needed to make the inevitably long and rough journey ahead of him. While ferrying messages between Illinois and the church’s forward camp in Iowa, Porter made his last contact with the Smith family in the form of Joseph’s teenage son, Joseph Smith III [Following the succession crisis, Joseph Smith III became the Prophet-President of a new branch labeled the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known modernly as the Community of Christ]:

‘Extending my hand, Rockwell shook it warmly, put an arm affectionately around my shoulders, and said, with much emotion, “Oh Joseph, Oh Joseph, they have killed my only friend I have ever had!”… I tried to comfort him, but to my astonishment, he said “Joseph, you had best go back. I am glad you came to meet me, but it is best that you are not seen with me. It can do me no good and it may bring harm to you.”‘

Joseph Smith III and the Restoration, pg. 76-77

Another chapter of Porter Rockwell’s life had closed. His life, defined by the heroic and violent struggles of a man dedicated to his faith, showed him a blank future slate. Whatever he could do now lay ahead. For a man whose identity was tied directly to the Prophet’s vision of a new Zion on Earth, he felt directionless without Joseph Smith. From the moment he mounted his horse and put Nauvoo behind him, Porter Rockwell was determined to make himself an instrument in the hands of God and the Church. Hands that would strengthen his already legendary persona in the place where a man could achieve anything with discipline, resourcefulness, faith, and a quick draw of the pistol; the American West.

The Marvelous American Autodidact: A Review of ‘Alexander Hamilton’ by Ron Chernow

Music has conveyed messages throughout history, sometimes in novel and ingenious ways. In 2015, the critically acclaimed musical ‘Hamilton‘ debuted on Broadway and took the entertainment world by storm. For approximately two-and-a-half hours, the life of one of the United States’ most prolific writer, statesman, politician, and public servant was thrust into the spotlight and viewed like never before. Critics from the artistic and academic communities exhausted their energies reviewing the powerful impact of the music, lyrics, and imagery that chronicled the rise, reign, and legacy of Alexander Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda commented that while on vacation, he obtained a copy of the Hamilton biography by the historian Ron Chernow and within a short time, Miranda contemplated on how Hamilton’s life could be conveyed through song. The end result? A musical that set a new golden standard for Broadway.

Alexander Hamilton didn’t deserve to languish in historical obscurity following his meteoric rise and infamous end according to Chernow. In the meticulous biography ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the reader plunges into the chaotic colonial life of the Caribbean, the American Revolution, and the formative years of the early United States republic. As any historian of the period can tell you, these were tumultuous times for the country as people wrestled to capitalize on their newfound freedoms and political leaders dueled in the most vicious partisan rhetoric. All the while, leaders are trying to make their democratic experiment flourish with Europe standing as witness. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ blends the biographical with the historical and interspersed with facts are eloquent asides showing Hamilton’s humanity and enigmatic personality. Chernow’s crusade into debunking the myths sheds light on the man who arguably saved the country’s financial institutions and defended the Constitution to his dying breath.

John Trumbull portrait of Alexander Hamilton, circa 1805

Hamilton’s celebrity life was a far cry from his origins. Chernow’s labor intensive research on Caribbean primary sources explores Hamilton’s ancestry between his mother, Rachel Faucette, and father James A. Hamilton. His mother’s life was hellish and inflated charges of infidelity and bigamy branded her children as bastards; a mark that Hamilton would zealously conceal throughout life. At first he tried to build some form of paternal relationship with James, but contact between the two men degraded until nothing was left to be said between them. His illegitimate origins extends to his birthday; it’s unsure whether he was born in 1755 or 1757. Chernow and other historians speculate that he changed his age to be accepted into college and the armed forces. What we do know is that from the moment he could walk and talk, he possessed a fiery drive to learn, apply, and improve his station and the world around him. The idyllic tropical life in the Caribbean was a glossy facade on the brutal world of slave labor and class stratification that defined Hamilton’s views on slavery, individual rights, and the importance of commerce. He criticized merchant ship captains for not providing adequate protection against pirates during his job as a shipping clerk (talk about confrontational). When reading about his childhood, it’s hard not to weep at the harsh predicaments of his mother or tricksters that conned their way through Hamilton’s family. This is one origin story that gets overlooked in the traditional historiography of America’s Founding Fathers, but one we should take to heart as it defined the man who shot right to the top. With a little help from his friends, Hamilton received the funds to travel to Boston and made his way to New York to become a new man.

New York became the center of Hamilton’s new world and quickly took advantage of his newfound surroundings. Enrolled at King’s College, he acquainted himself with members of the Sons of Liberty and other supporters of the American Revolution. The spirit of revolution presented a dual-blade personal controversy for Hamilton: he believed in the honorable causes of representative government, denounced unfair taxation, and liberty for all, but unfettered mob mentality and anarchistic violence would destroy the very same causes he championed. Hamilton internalized this belief and defined his course of action with the future establishment of the U.S. Constitution and the Treasury Department. There had to be order, not mayhem, for democracy to function.

Alexander Hamilton in uniform with the New York Artillery. Military duty was a glorious endeavor for Hamilton, who began his service with local militia units and eventually secured an aide-de-camp position with General George Washington.

What many people forget in traditional historiography was that Hamilton served as the right hand man of George Washington during the Revolution. Chernow covers Hamilton’s military service in exacting detail by elevating the importance of Hamilton’s writing and eloquence in addressing the Continental Congress. Washington’s army suffered from chronic shortages of food, ammunition, clothing, and Hamilton drafted letter after letter urging for the desperately needed supplies. Chernow spends a majority of the Revolution chapters focusing on this special kinship between Washington and Hamilton, but the conflict produced other valuable friendships with figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, John Jay, and Aaron Burr. For the duration of his position in Washington’s general staff, Hamilton begged for a field command; leading his own troops into honorable, battlefield glory. He was finally given command over a handful of battalions during the final Siege of Yorktown in 1781 and witnessed the collapse of the British army and General Cornwallis’ surrender. In the famous John Trumbull painting of Cornwallis’ surrender, on the right, standing to the far left in the line of officers is Hamilton clutching his sword, and looking on as the British file out past the combined French and U.S. officers. Now that the nation fought victoriously for independence, now began the task of building a government. A task that Alexander Hamilton eagerly confronted.

The Surrender of Cornwallis by John Trumbull, circa 1820. Key figures of the American Revolution are in this painting (George Washington, mounted on the horse to the immediate left of the U.S. flag. The Marquis de Lafayette, on the right side, second from the left in the line of officers next to the U.S. flag. Alexander Hamilton, also on the right side, standing on foot furthest to the left, and his friend John Laurens standing to Hamilton’s immediate left.)

Before reviewing the mammoth chapters encompassing Hamilton’s role in the Constitutional Convention, tenure in the Treasury Department, and illustrious private law practice, it’s important to mention the personal relationships that Hamilton developed, including his wife, Eliza, and sister-in-law, Angelica. When one watches the Hamilton musical, initial thoughts analyzing the connection between Angelica and Alexander lead to the conviction they pursued an affair; they would never be satisfied. Chernow argues repeatedly that while they had an intimate connection, it never ventured into the physical realm. Contemporary gossip spread a plethora of rumors that they were lovers, but Chernow makes a compelling argument that only maintained ‘a friendship of unusual ardor.’ Hamilton’s unquestionable love was Elizabeth Schuyler. Their relationship began during his service on Washington’s staff and he was so taken with her that its said that he forgot the password back to the officers quarters. Their courtship lasted roughly a year and they married on December 14, 1780. For the nomadic Hamilton, Chernow marks this celebration as a major turning point in his life. With the loss of paternal and maternal figures, home abandonment, and the constant reminder of his illegitimate heritage, there was always uncertainty over where he belonged. From that day forward, Hamilton felt grounded with a family, with security, and finally starting his own dynasty. Eliza shared much of Hamilton’s personality; a powerful drive for knowledge and love for helping others. Their marriage was a bedrock that buoyed them through sad times and Chernow makes it clear through vast correspondence and personal documents that Eliza and Hamilton’s affection never wavered throughout their 24 years together.

Elizabeth Hamilton, nee Schuyler circa 1787. Elizabeth came from the illustrious and wealthy Schuyler family, an old Dutch dynasty that lived in New York for over a hundred years prior to the Revolution. She and Alexander would eventually have eight children together: Philip, Angelica, Alexander Jr., James, John, William, Eliza, and Philip II

‘Alexander Hamilton’ certainly combs every facet of the subject’s life in a manner that if reviewed in every way here, this post would go on for another 20,000 words. In summation, it behooves to say that Hamilton never stayed put or calmed himself in any fashion. After returning to New York in 1783, he began a private law practice defending remaining Loyalist and Tories who had their properties violated during the war. A year later he founded the Bank of New York, then restored King’s College now renamed Columbia College and all the while, he orchestrated plans to convene the Constitutional Convention and push for restructuring the country’s finances and reinvigorate commerce and legal justice. The chapters analyzing Hamilton’s time at the Constitutional Convention are not only physically immense, but historically also. A majority of anti-Hamilton rhetoric that swirled around his life and well after his death accused him of being a closet monarchist; a person who wanted a powerful tyrant in control of the government and individual rights were trampled. After all, he argued cases before the New York Supreme Court on behalf of Tories and created quasi-aristocratic institutions (the Bank of New York and the fraternal military order, the Society of the Cincinnati). Plus his views on having a President-for-Life and Senators-for-Life only lent credence to this monarchist speculation. Rather than debunk these accusation, Chernow makes a slightly different approach; rather than vilify the haters, he deconstructs Hamilton’s statements and places them in the larger context of how divisions between supporters of central government emerged. There was no denying what Hamilton said, but his intentions were seen through in building a strong governing body where rights were guaranteed by the government. He wanted people to be held accountable for their actions in public office, but seemed to favor it more as a personal choice rather than face investigation and criticism from other departments and branches.

Despite some reservations with the proposed Constitution, Hamilton embarked on the massive writing campaign that modern historians claim was the key to ratifying the document; the Federalist Papers. Hamilton’s exemplary skills as a writer and orator are unchallenged according to Chernow and he cites it magnificently in this book. The power or argument and persuasion were the tools to achieve great respect, power, and achievement for Hamilton and many of his contemporaries would extol his writing prowess. When he produced fifty-one essays for the Federalist Papers, Chernow frames the works not only as a testament of Hamilton’s skills, but as a cunning approach to win over undecided supporters and subsequently dismantle the previous confederation that proved too weak to handle the demands of a central government. The impact of Hamilton’s literary skills resonate within the early years of the United States and much of his writing is still cited today for arguing cases with the federal government, including the Federalist Papers.

Official portrait of Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795 (Bureau of Printing and Engraving)

As the first Secretary of the Treasury Department appointed by George Washington, Hamilton inherited a country in financial shambles. Farms and businesses were lost during the Revolution, state debts ballooned, back pay for the military was halted, and each state suffered from inflation affecting their respective currencies. Here is where traditional historiography on Hamilton’s achievements with the federal government emerges; even Chernow admits this is where the history is recorded, but not all of it was spared from the continual vitriol that Hamilton’s opponents spewed at him. Here we see the machine-link energy characterized him as a relentless public servant using government to improve the lives of the people: establishing public credit, creating the National Bank, the U.S. Mint, and the Revenue Cutter Service (known today as the U.S. Coast Guard). His proclamations, Reports on Public Credit, Report on a National Bank, and Report of Manufactures, shaped economic policy by covering topics from public debt to designing gold coins. Not every proposal Hamilton put forth received ringing endorsements however. His revenue plan including a whiskey tax was poorly received, resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion. This crisis was significant not only for asserting government control on domestic economic issues, but for strengthening Hamilton’s friendship with President Washington. Since their army days, Washington and Hamilton were close friends, almost serving as a counterbalance to each other’s shortcomings as Chernow describes. This was critical for Hamilton as he positioned himself in close proximity to great political power and economic influence. That same closeness made him the target of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Democratic-Republican acolytes. Partisan politics between the two men festered into the national audience and their rivalry became one of the most well-documented contests in early U.S. political history. What Chernow provides in addition to the insights of the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry is how Hamilton was able to balance the weight of public scrutiny with his personal realm and commit to his children and Eliza. Despite always working and writing like he’s running out of time, he always made time for his family. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ describes not only his accolades and political victories, but the darker stains contrasting his impeccable public face.

The scandalous Reynolds Pamphlet written by Hamilton. Responding to allegations of wrongdoing in the Treasury Department, he provided evidence exonerating him from financial crimes, but openly admitted and apologized for having an affair with Maria Reynolds. The first political sex scandal in the first few years of the new republic.

In 1791, Hamilton and a woman named Maria Reynolds began an illicit affair that lasted for six years and when it became publicly known, it was the first sex scandal that the country faced from its new government. The biography’s chapters outlining the affair are a combination of searching for reasons behind why it started and how it affected Hamilton’s public and private life. For someone like Hamilton, Chernow recognized the contrary behavior that seems out of place for his character and personality. Hamilton prided himself on acting justly to both man’s and God’s laws, so why did this affair happen? What we know from the research is that Hamilton succumbed to his own frailty for women in dire situations and that Maria was engaged in a long-term extortion racket with her husband James (Yes, she was a married woman, making the scandal all the more, scandalous). Chernow speculates that once James realized potential blow-back if the story became public, receiving ‘loans’ from Hamilton was too good of an opportunity to connect with a high-profile figure. Years later when Hamilton faced charges of speculation and misuse of his federal office, he revealed the affair by showing his checkbook of payments to James Reynolds instead of financial speculators his enemies had hoped to find. To preempt any more rumors, enter the Reynolds Pamphlet; a hundred page booklet that detailed the entire affair. Eliza forgave Alexander, but it took years and the Democratic-Republicans used the affair as political fodder at every opportunity.

Washington’s departure from office did not end Hamilton’s influence in the Cabinet. President John Adams heavily resented the fact that his department heads were under Hamilton’s sway, shuttling his ideas through Adams’ administration policy. Timothy Pickering and James McHenry felt the full force of Adams’ wrath at discovering this ideological betrayal by sacking them both. Chernow examines the 1796-1800 time period by delivering analogous comparisons between British and French sentiments in the United States. Opposing views on fulfilling promises made during the American Revolution to the French; who were now engaged in their own albeit bloodier, more anarchistic revolution, intensified partisan divisions in the U.S. government. These splits are eloquently analyzed by Chernow to show how Hamilton began to slip from being the political prodigy and slump into a more reserved status of an elder politician and shadow adviser. His writing skills never wavered, but Chernow recognizes that Hamilton’s infinite enery reserves were running low (his eldest son Philip was killed in a duel in 1801, facilitating depression that Chernow claims Hamitlon never fully recovered from). The crisis in American government devolved into bitter political partisanship and Hamilton was no exception when it came to expressing his ire for both Democratic-Republicans and his own Federalist party. By the 1800 election, Hamilton endorsed Thomas Jefferson for President, disavowing Aaron Burr as the greater evil; someone who held no solid principles and exploited situations for personal and political gain.

Portrait of Aaron Burr. Burr served as Vice President from 1801-1805, but his failed bid for Governor of New York led him to challenge Hamilton to a duel

Burr reappears throughout the biography as this counterbalance to Chernow’s Hamilton. Whereas Hamilton was outwardly expressive and courted challenges in public, Burr shied away from confrontation in many respects, but always felt that others challenged and belittled him. Contemporary readers might classify him with an INFJ personality type. He and Hamilton both served in the Continental Army, practiced law, and partnered with him on numerous public works in New York. The antagonism however lay with their interpretation of federal government power. Burr’s machinations with New York politics made him a prominent figure, but Chernow revives many of the same suspicions that Hamilton and other Federalists harbored about him. There were accusations of subverting legal codes, using public works for personal gain, and in general just acting dishonorably (see the Manhattan Company water controversy). Popular historical legend tells that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel following Burr’s loss to Thomas Jefferson, but in Chernow’s writing, the more likely tipping point occurred during the New York 1804 gubernatorial election. The two men already had their public disputes beginning in 1800 while Burr engaged in the first public election campaign and conversations in New York political society alleged that Hamilton consistently degraded him, resulting in his loss. This makes sense as Burr had been ousted from the White House by President Jefferson and all his remaining political capital in his home state was expended. Burr found himself without prospects for almost any political office now.

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. After the painting by J. Mund.

The fateful duel ignited an internal conflict within Hamilton unlike anything he ever experienced. He abhorred the dueling ritual since his son Philip was killed in one years earlier. His family’s welfare was put at risk because of the possibility of his death. However, Chernow recognized that Hamilton felt honor bound to address the infraction and he couldn’t argue the fact that he made negative remarks about Burr long before the 1804 election. One the fateful day of July 11, 1804, the two men left Manhattan for Weehawken New Jersey with their seconds (witnesses) and a physician. Differing accounts as to who shot first have survived through the generations (maybe the inspiration for Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina?) and historians, including Chernow, have argued this point over who had the most to gain from the duel. Did Burr know that Hamilton would throw away his shot, thus giving him time to aim precisely? Did Hamilton grossly miss and that’s when Burr took his shot? Witnesses agree that both men shot, but others disagree on the time lapse between each. Personal writings by the duelists illustrate their own desires for shooting; Burr was blatant in his desire to shoot to kill, but Hamilton was more complex in his stated beliefs and intentions. It’s really up to the interpretation of the reader; Chernow delivers a compelling argument that Hamilton agreed to the duel to address attacks on his honor, but he couldn’t overcome the sin of murder. Hamilton was carried back to New York where he died the on July 12, 1804.

The biography’s physical size is itself a testament to the precise, detailed, and all-encompassing research that Chernow delivers on the life of one of country’s most accomplished, self-made men. Whether you examine ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from a political, economic, or biographical lens, there was no doubt that this American autodidact shaped government theory, set legal and economic precedence, and saw the American Revolution within himself; a young, scrappy, and hungry force meant for a greatness.

Statue of Alexander Hamilton, erected by Carl Conrads in Central Park