For All Nails #259: You Don't Know Jackson
By Johnny Pez
Former Governor Henry Gilpin could not be said to be a happy man. It was not a mental state that came naturally to him. The best he could manage was a momentary feeling of satisfaction when his plans were unfolding smoothly.
As his hack rumbled across the rutted dirt streets of the sleepy little college town, Gilpin could feel satisfaction wash across him. It had all gone like clockwork so far. The Burgoyne Conference had taken a handful of quarreling British colonies and fashioned them into a united nation. Now the Unified Liberal Party was poised to thrash those National Conservative milksops on the hustings, and Gilpin himself was on the verge of wielding more power than any North American had ever dreamed of. It was time to begin preparations for the next phase of his plan, which was why he was here.
The hack halted at his destination, a modest two-story building of red brick. The driver, a lanky fellow bundled up against the cold, jumped down from his seat and opened the door for Gilpin, who alighted on the rutted street and handed the fellow a Northern Confederation shilling. As the hack rattled off, he rang the building's door bell. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman in a gingham dress and a stained apron.
"Good afternoon, ma'am," he said. "My name is Gilpin, Henry Gilpin, and I wish to see Dr. Poe." He handed her a calling card.
"Certainly, sir," said the woman. "If you'll come in, I'll see if the doctor is in."
The warmth of the boarding house was a relief after the chill winter's day. Gilpin hung up his hat and coat and took a seat near the fireplace in the dining room. It was not long before he was joined there by Dr. Poe.
Dr. Edgar Allen Poe was a short, thin man, being like Gilpin himself in that regard. Unlike Gilpin, Poe retained a full head of dark hair. He was a respected naturalist who held the position of Lecturer in Ornithology at Webster College. What was of greater interest to Gilpin was the fact that Poe had traveled extensively throughout the United States of Mexico in the course of his studies, which made him a valuable source of information. Best of all, for Gilpin's purposes, he was a solid, dependable Unified Liberal man.
"Governor Gilpin, sir, it is an honor to make your acquaintance," said Poe as he took Gilpin's hand.
"You're too kind, doctor," Gilpin replied, though of course he didn't believe for a moment that the naturalist was being too kind. It was an honor for Poe to meet with him, and they both knew it.
"So I am, in theory," said Gilpin. "However, I wished to consult with you on a matter of some importance, and I wished to do so in as discreet a manner as possible. Hence, my visit here alone, without my usual entourage. Is there somewhere we might speak more privately?"
"I would suggest my rooms," said Poe, "unfortunately, I fear Mrs. Tarrant does not permit her boarders to bring guests there. However, the college is not terribly far off -- that is why I have taken lodgings here -- and a brisk walk will do me good."
Gilpin would have preferred to remain someplace warm, but when the security of the realm was at stake -- as indeed it was -- there was nothing for it but to make do. He and the younger man both donned their outer garments, and Poe led the way out the front door and down the street.
The two men talked of inconsequential matters in the course of their journey to the college. Poe was full of gossip concerning the other members of the college faculty and their spouses. Normally this sort of thing was of no interest to Gilpin, but Poe's portraits of his colleagues were etched in an acid wit that he found immensely amusing. The former Governor found himself thinking that the only difference between faculty politics and national politics was the breadth of the stage upon which they were played.
When they had reached the gothic bulk of Webster Hall and were securely ensconced within the cluttered office that seemed to be the birthright of all academics, Gilpin finally revealed his purpose. "Dr. Poe, the reason I've chosen to call upon you is because I wish to avail myself of your experiences traveling among the benighted inhabitants of our western neighbor. I may tell you in the strictest confidence that General Scott intends, in the event of our gaining a majority of Grand Council seats in next month's elections, to appoint me to the position of Minister of War within his Cabinet." The truth, of course, was that Gilpin's commanding position of authority within the party ensured that he could dictate to Scott which ministry would be his.
"Then you anticipate war between ourselves and the Mexicans?" said Poe. There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the prospect in the naturalist's tones that Gilpin found faintly disturbing.
"As Minister of War," he replied, "it will be my duty to prepare for war with the Mexicans, whether I anticipate the possibility or not."
"I entirely understand, sir," said Poe. "Very well, then. What is it that you wish to know about the United States of Mexico?"
"What, based upon your knowledge of the country," said Gilpin, "would be the optimal means for us to ensure a speedy victory over the Mexicans, if a war between us were to break out?"
"Sir," said Poe mournfully, "based upon my knowledge of the country, there is no way to ensure a speedy victory. It is in my opinion doubtful whether we could obtain any victory at all, however long and costly."
"Explain yourself!" Gilpin demanded.
A moment passed while the ornithologist collected his thoughts, staring at the preserved remains of a black bird that rested precariously atop a marble bust. "Sir," said Poe at last, "it has to do with the nature of the nation itself. Its populace, its history, even its geography conspire to make it invulnerable to attack by the Confederation."
"No nation is invulnerable," insisted Gilpin. "Not even the British Isles are invulnerable, and the British Isles are less vulnerable to attack than any other civilized nation. Certainly less vulnerable than those anarchists and half-breeds of Mexico."
"Britain may have been designed for self-defense by nature," said Poe, "but Mexico was designed for self-defense by President Jackson, and of the two Jackson was by far the better versed in the art." He rose from his seat, turned and gestured towards a map of North America that occupied the wall behind him. The political divisions of the CNA and USM were marked in brown, the names of confederations, states and cities in black type.
Poe's voice now became that of the college lecturer. "There are only three routes by which Mexico may be invaded, and Jackson took care to see that all three were made impassible: invasion overland through Jefferson, invasion overland through Mexico del Norte, and invasion by sea from the Gulf coast."
Poe indicated the broad swath of land bounded by the Rio Grande and the Mississippi, Arkansas and Pecos rivers. "The land of Jefferson is made impassible by the Jeffersonians. By fixing the institution of Negro slavery upon Jefferson, Jackson insured that that province would remain in a permanent state of armed alert, much as our own Southern Confederation was before the adoption of Mr. Lloyd's manumission scheme. However, while the slaves made up one part in three of the Southern Confederation's population, in Jefferson they make up but one part in ten, which insures that no invader can overcome the white Jeffersonians by raising rebellion among the Negro Jeffersonians."
Next, Poe shifted his attention to the region west of Jefferson. "The land of Mexico del Norte is made impassible by both the nature of the terrain, which is for the most part both rugged and arid, and by the inhabitants, who include among their number the most savage and ruthless aborigines that this continent has managed to spawn. President Jackson was able to win the complete loyalty of these tribes, a feat which we in the Confederation have proved singularly incapable of duplicating among our own aborigines. Alone, either the land or the people would be sufficient to render passage of a hostile army through Mexico del Norte difficult. Together, they render the feat impossible."
With a sweep of his hand, Poe indicated the seacoast south of Jefferson. "A sea-borne operation against the Gulf coast is rendered impossible by the singular lack of ports through which such an operation can be supplied. The port of Vera Cruz is the logical point of entry into the state of Mexico Central. So Hernan Cortes found it, and so Jackson knew that any future invader would find it. It was for this very reason that Jackson deliberately neglected to develop Vera Cruz into a major entrepot. To the contrary, he deliberately diverted all contact between Mexico City and the Gulf to the more northerly port of Tampico, while his engineers destroyed the roads between Vera Cruz and Puebla. Ordinarily, Tampico would make a poor choice for a major port, for the shallow water makes necessary the long wharfs and piers which extend out into the Gulf. These works are regularly destroyed by the storms which arise annually every summer in those parts, and are just as regularly repaired by the Mexicans. Should a hostile landing force approach, the Mexicans who have so often rebuilt them would have no difficulty in dismantling them, thus rendering the place nearly useless as the staging point for an assault on Mexico City."
Reseating himself, Poe concluded, "In short, governor, Mexico may well be the most heavily-defended country on this earth. It is defended by implacable inhabitants, imposing terrain, and most importantly, by the thought and will of the late Andrew Jackson, whose dead hand still guards the nation he founded."
Gilpin rose from his own seat, and Poe followed suit. "Doctor," said Gilpin, "I thank you for your counsel. I shall take it under consideration."
Poe frowned. "You mean to pursue the contest with the Mexicans, in spite of what I've said?"
"The Mexicans may have the dead hand of Jackson," said Gilpin, "but I have a living will, and the resources of a numerous and industrious people upon which to draw. We shall see which of us prevails."
Forward to FAN #260: Be My Guest.
Forward to 20 August 1846 (Rocky Mountain War): Santa Anna's Coming to Town.
Return to For All Nails.