Marcy was army general, chronicler of Old West ... and garter snake namesake

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Public domain photo by MATTHEW BRADY

U.S. Army Major General George B. McClellan (1826-1885), Brigadier General Randolph Marcy’s son-in-law who commanded the Army of the Potomac until Lincoln took the command away from him.

There was a lot of glory to be won and lost during the Civil War and one U.S. Army general remembered in American history was Randolph B. Marcy. He roamed the western frontier; dealt with Indians; fought in the Mexican-American War under General Zachary Taylor (later president of the United States); monitored the Mormons in Utah; and was chief-of-staff to George McClellan, who irked Lincoln during the Civil War and lost his command.

He may also have saved thousands of lives during the expansion of the American West by writing an outstanding “How To” guide book for early pioneers.

Scientists remember him in the Dictionary of Reptiles as namesake of a garter snake called “Thamnophis marcianus.”

Marcy was no reptile. There were plenty of military commanders during the 1800s who were, administering their duties unduly harshly — especially toward the Indians. But Marcy was not one of them. He was a fine officer.

Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard praised him as “courteous, handsome and capable.”

Randolph Barnes Marcy was born in Greenwich, Mass., and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1832 and assigned to the 5th U.S. Infantry.

Marcy’s first assignment as a young lieutenant was combat duty in the Black Hawk War of 1832, which pitted more than 6,000 militia — including 630 Army regulars and Indian allies — against the so-called “British Band” of 600 warriors from seven Indian tribes, led by Black Hawk, a Sauk war chieftain.

The Indians were protesting treaties that took away traditional tribal lands in the Midwest and then forced them to relocate in what today is Iowa, in order to make way for the influx of Anglo settlers. Under Black Hawk, they were attempting to reclaim their land.

It was a short but deadly conflict, in which the Army side lost 77 and Black Hawk’s side from 450 to 600. It was the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi.

Lieutenant Marcy had good company in the conflict — future U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor, famed longtime Army general Winfield Scott, and future Confederate States president Jefferson Davis.

After the war, he married Mary A. Mann in Vermont and they had two daughters — Mary Ellen and Fanny.

About three years later a blue-eyed 10-year old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker and her brother John were abducted in Texas by Comanche Indians after they had massacred her family’s settlement. The Comanche called her “Narua.” Marcy didn’t know about it at the time, but years later, he would write about her.

Marcy served early in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) but before it was over was sent to command Fort Towson in the Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory.

Then gold discovery in California changed his career path. Emigrants swarming west needed protection and America needed east-to-west railroads. His job was to investigate both and also to “collect and report everything that may be useful or interesting.”

He carved out the Marcy Trail from Fort Smith, Ark., to Santa Fe, N.M., and built Camp Arbuckle in Oklahoma along the way to protect the settlers.

In 1852, Marcy led an expedition in search of the source of the Red River. His second-in-command was Captain George B. McClellan, who would marry his daughter Mary Ellen years later just before the Civil War.

During their expedition, they succeeded in finding sources of both forks of the Red River; discovered mineral deposits and new species of wildlife, and documented Wichita Indians they met along the way. His report entitled “Exploration of the Red River of Louisiana, In the Year 1852” became a classic on Western Americana.

In that report, he also wrote about Cynthia Ann Parker:

“This woman has adopted all the habits and peculiarities of the Comanches; has an Indian husband and children, and cannot be persuaded to leave them. The brother of the woman, who had been ransomed by a trader and brought home to his relatives, was sent back by his mother for the purpose of endeavoring to prevail upon his sister to leave the Indians and return to her family; but he stated to me that on his arrival she refused to listen to the proposition, saying that her husband, children, and all that she held most dear, were with the Indians, and there she should remain.”

At about age 34, she was finally recaptured by Texas Rangers and returned to white civilization against her will. She spent the remaining 10 years of her life refusing to adjust to life in white society, and in 1871 stopped eating, caught influenza and died.

While serving in Florida during the Seminole War in 1857, Marcy’s regiment was reassigned to Utah, which he later wrote was “for the purpose of aiding the authorities in enforcing the laws of the United States against their infractions by the Mormons.”

Brigham Young and the Mormons had their way of doing things and so did the federal government. Tensions grew and President James Buchanan sent in the troops.

Neither side wanted violence so it wasn’t much of a “war.” The New York Herald said it “Killed, none; wounded, none; fooled, everybody,” and history called it “Buchanan’s Blunder.”

Marcy distinguished himself on that assignment during a forced march through the Rockies in the dead of winter after being out of provisions for two weeks, by leading his troops to safety before they starved to death.

His next assignment was easier: He was sent to New York to write a manual for settlers wagon-training to the West — “The Prairie Traveler, a Hand-book for Overland Expeditions.” It was said his manual saved the lives of thousands of pioneers who were often ill-prepared for survival in a wilderness filled with daunting difficulties and dangers.

He gave sound advice about reconnaissance, field-craft, provisions, health care, hunting and tracking, food and water supply, interpreting smoke signals, Indian sign language and other topics.

In 1859, Marcy was promoted to major and sent to the Pacific Northwest as paymaster. Then came the Civil War and another promotion to colonel. His old subordinate George McClellan — by then a major general and in command of the Army of the Potomac, and also his son-in-law — appointed him as his chief-of-staff, and shortly thereafter promoted him to brigadier general.

Serving McClellan must have been a difficult assignment for him. Ever the efficient staff officer, Marcy no doubt admired his boss’ ability to organize and train troops, but then watched him dither in making battlefield decisions. McClellan was often in conflict with fellow commanders and eventually with President Lincoln.

One report said, “He was insubordinate to his commander-in-chief and privately derisive of him. He was removed from command in November after failing to decisively pursue Lee’s Army following the tactically inconclusive but strategic Union victory at the Battle of Antietam when in a single day, 22,717 died, were wounded, or missing.”

It’s debatable who won the battle. Even though McClellan fielded 84,000 men against Lee’s 38,000, he couldn’t claim victory.

Historian Douglas Southall Freeman in his book “R.E. Lee: A Biography” commenting on the difference between McClellan’s staff which included Marcy, and Robert E. Lee’s staff wrote:

“If McClellan had not relied upon an intelligence service that was immeasurably worse than none, deceiving him with wild lies and wilder guesses regarding the strength of the Confederate forces opposing him, the difference in the two staffs might have been the difference between failure and success, despite the strategy of Lee and the almost incredible timidity of McClellan.”

McClellan never received another field command. His career was over and Marcy’s was on hold until he was appointed Inspector-General of the Division of the Missouri in 1866 and later sent to Army Headquarters. His last assignment was Army Regulation Board president.

After 40 years serving his country, he retired in 1881 and died in West Orange, N.J., in 1887.

Marcy was not a famous general or combat hero, but he was an exemplary Army officer and explorer. He did not hang Indians and massacre their horses — as others did in those violent times. Nor did he treat the Mormons harshly during their dispute with the federal government.

Randolph Marcy deserves to be remembered as an important part of the story of the American West.


Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at

Why didn’t Lincoln like McClellan?

General George McClellan “encountered the same mistakes he made previously, and he did not command or succeed in the way the Committee on the Conduct of War and President Lincoln wanted him to. President Lincoln could not tolerate McClellan’s refusal of orders or his choices to not always pursue the enemy.

“He believed McClellan was only hampering the war efforts. Lincoln made it very clear in his letters to McClellan that he did not approve of McClellan’s attitude and was fed up with hearing McClellan always give reasons on why he should not attack or pursue.

“Lincoln, along with the other war authorities, wanted to win the war. With a strong desire to progress, they were no longer willing to put up with McClellan’s constant belief that the Union Army should take their time and use extra precaution. In addition, Lincoln was also fed up with McClellan always demanding more support.

Before relieving him of command, Lincoln said, “My dear McClellan: If you don’t want to use the Army I should like to borrow it for a while.”

--- John Mandrafina, Pennsylvania Center for the Book

The 1832 Black Hawk War…

Sauk Indian leader Black Hawk and several allied tribes disavowed Indian treaties of 1804 and 1816 that drove them from ancestral lands and sent them to today’s Iowa, and returned to Illinois to reclaim their former lands.

White settlers clamored for new treaties to force Indians onto less desirable lands west of the Mississippi, sparking a one-sided war that lasted from May to August 1832. The U.S. Army and allies won and Black Hawk’s warriors lost—the war triggering even more Indian forced resettlements.

End of Black Hawk War…

After the Battle of Wisconsin Heights in 1832, the Illinois and Michigan Territory militias caught up with Black Hawk's ‘British Band’ for a final showdown at Bad Axe. At the mouth of the Bad Axe River, Army soldiers and Indian allies backed up by a gunboat killed hundreds of Sauk and Potawatomi men, women and children. Black Hawk survived and lived to be about 70.

Utah War tactics…

“On ascertaining the locality or route of the (U.S. Army) troops, proceed at once to annoy them in every possible way. Use every exertion to stampede their animals and set fire to their trains. Burn the whole country before them and on their flanks. Keep them from sleeping, by night surprises; blockade the road by felling trees or destroying the river fords where you can.

“Watch for opportunities to set fire to the grass on their windward, so as, if possible, to envelop their trains. Leave no grass before them that can be burned. Keep your men concealed as much as possible, and guard against surprise.”

---Lt. Gen. Daniel H. Wells, Nauvoo Legion

The vanishing buffalo…

On one of his travels, Randolph Marcy noted with dismay that from Fort Randall on the lower Missouri to Fort Laramie he didn’t see a single buffalo, predicting that they were “rapidly disappearing, and a few years will, at the present rate of destruction, be sufficient to exterminate the species.” He was almost right.

Advice to settlers heading west…

Wagon train drivers must not to be cruel to their animals, Marcy advised. “Drivers should be closely watched and never, unless absolutely necessary, be permitted to beat their animals, or to force them out of a walk, as this will soon break down the best teams. Those teamsters who make the least use of the whip invariably keep their animals in the best condition.

“Unless the drivers are checked at the outset, they are very apt to fall into the habit of flogging their teams.”

He also warned that quicksand is often a hazard in some river crossings and that cattle should be watered first and wagons kept moving. For if either cattle stop for a drink or wagons don’t keep moving, they will quickly sink into the quicksand and disaster.


Major General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), later 12th U.S. president.



Chief Black Hawk (1767-1838), Sauk Indian leader in Black Hawk War (1832).



Randolph Marcy wrote a manual for settlers heading west that saved many lives.



Marcy leading his troops across the Rockies in dead of winter (1857).



President James Buchanan sent federal troops to Utah in a “war” historians call “Buchanan’s Blunder.”



President Abraham Lincoln didn’t like Randolph Marcy’s son-in-law Major General George McClellan.



Cynthia Ann Parker was captured by the Comanche and lived among them for 24 years, shown here in 1861 with daughter Topusana “Prairie Flower,” resisted being returned to white civilization.

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