About Randolph Barnes Marcy
Randolph Barnes Marcy (April 9, 1812 – November 22, 1887) was a career officer in the United States Army, achieving the rank of Brigadier General before retiring in 1881. At the start of the Civil War, he served as chief of staff to his son-in-law, General George B. McClellan. Before the War ended, he was appointed as one of the four Inspectors-General of the U. S. Army.
Marcy’s 1859 book, The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook for Overland Expeditions, with Maps, Illustrations, and Itineraries of the Principal Routes between the Mississippi and the Pacific, written at the direction of the Department of State and published by the U.S. government, has been called one of the most important works in making possible the great Western overland migration of the United States in the last half of the 1800s.
Marcy was born at Greenwich, Massachusetts, in April, 1812. He graduated at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1832 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the 5th U. S. Infantry, and served with the 5th in the Black Hawk War in Illinois and Wisconsin. In 1846, he was promoted to Captain and fought with the 5th in the Mexican War at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.
He was then assigned to duty in the in Texas and Oklahoma, escorting emigrants, locating military posts, exploring the wilderness, and mapping routes, during which time he met his future son-in-law, George B. McClellan. In 1857, Marcy accompanied Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston on the expedition against the Mormons in Utah. It was during this period that Capt. Marcy led his men safely from Utah to New Mexico on a forced march through the Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter, during which his troops ran out of provisions the last two weeks of their journey, in extremely harsh weather. Nonetheless, Marcy led his men to safety without loss of life, an extraordinary accomplishment which Marcy partially recounts in The Prairie Traveler.
Marcy was promoted to acting Inspector General of the Department of Utah, but his exploits and his well-written military reports had attracted attention in Washington, and he was recalled to work for the Department of State (which at this time had responsibilities much beyond the conduct of foreign affairs), preparing a guidebook on Western travel. There were thousands of emigrants heading west, but many of them were poorly informed and ill-prepared for the journey, and alarming numbers were reported to be perishing.
Marcy’s Prairie Traveler quickly became an indispensable guide to thousands of American overlanders in their arduous trek to California, Oregon, Utah, and other western destinations, and was a best-selling book for the remainder of the century. Andrew J. Birtle, author of U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine 1860-1941, has described The Prairie Traveler as “perhaps the single most important work on the conduct of frontier expeditions published under the aegis of the War Department.”
Marcy provided the overland pioneer with literally life-or-death advice on, packing, choosing the best routes to California, wagon maintenance and the selection and care of horses, food supplies, packing, traveling, fording rivers, tracking, and bivouacking on the plains, finding and treating water, building a fire, avoiding quicksand, treating snakebites, and other first-aid procedures. Marcy also conveys information "concerning the habits of Indians," including Native American tracking and hunting techniques, smoke signals and sign language, and battle tactics.
Marcy explicitly states in the Preface that his goal is to assist his reader in escaping unforeseen disasters and maintaining relative comfort during the journey, adding that the intrepid pilgrim "will feel himself a master spirit in the wilderness he traverses, and not the victim of every new combination of circumstances which nature affords or fate allots, as if to try his skill and prowess." the book was essential to the westward traveler, and no doubt saved many lives with its practical and experienced advice.
Marcy was extremely well-read and observant, and The Prairie Traveler is replete with references and quotes from Turkish and French experiences colonizing and pacifying North Africa and the great Sahara, as well as Marcy’s own personal experiences in the American West. Marcy describes portable Indian lodges, advice from French and British medical journals, Norwegian saddling techniques, Mexican pack practices, African methods for carrying rifles while riding, and so on. It is evident that Marcy took great care to record pains-taking details on matters he considered most important to survival out West.
After completing The Prairie Traveler, Capt. Marcy was promoted to major and posted to the Pacific Northwest, where his talents were wasted by making him a paymaster. At the start of the Civil War, he returned East and serve as chief of staff to his son-in-law, General George B. McClellan. Before the War ended, he was appointed as one of the four Inspectors-General of the U. S. Army, and as brigadier general of volunteers. After the War, he continued to serve as inspector general, but the Senate failed to confirm his wartime rank of general before it expired. Not until 1878, when he was appointed to brigadier general as the Inspector General of the U. S. Army, was he finally given the rank consistent with the extraordinarily important services Marcy had rendered to his country. It is more than likely that had Marcy not been able to convey his wisdom and insight when called upon, the great Western overland migration of the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century might have been recorded in history as a great disaster of needless suffering and death, rather than the great and epic struggle – and success – we celebrate today