Stephen Ambrose: a guide for appreciating our historyStephen E. Ambrose's histories are as vivid as screenplays. One moment you're overlooking the distant battlefield, the next you're huddled head-to-head with the generals in the command tent. That's how it is with Ambrose's latest DeMillean epic, Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. By every measure from the speed at which it was done to the exquisite coordination of effort it required the railroad was a stunning achievement.
First came the dreamers and surveyors, as Ambrose recounts, then the capitalists and their political allies, and finally the hordes of laborers essential to giving substance to the dream.
Even as the Confederate army strove to split the nation apart, south from north, equally determined forces converged to bind it together, east to west by the railroad. The Central Pacific inched eastward over the mountains from Sacramento, California, while the Union Pacific crawled west across the plains and deserts from Omaha, Nebraska. Along the way, the builders had to contend with gargantuan costs and shaky financing, impassible mountains, worker shortages, devastating weather, fragile supply lines, hostile Indians, and the incessant economic pressure to lay track faster. To fathom the enormity of the undertaking, Ambrose traveled much of the railroad's original route, inspecting both the harsh terrain and the engineering marvels that tamed it. He populates his account with figures who, if not larger than life, are made more fully alive by their great ambition and determination. Chief among these are the Central Pacific's "Big Four" Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins and the Union Pacific's wily Thomas "Doc" Durant and his point man, General Grenville Dodge. For years, Ambrose had viewed these men as ruthless opportunists.
"I thought of them as robber barons," says the eminent historian, speaking by phone from his home in Helena, Montana. "I thought they made ungodly profits and then used them in nefarious ways, especially Huntington and Stanford. But I had been taught by men who did their graduate work in the '30s, and they just hated big business." While conceding that the builders did reap huge fortunes, Ambrose now concludes they deserved to. "These guys went deeply in debt," he explains. "They didn't really risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, but they damn near did."Ambrose is equally admiring of the laborers who would accomplish the seemingly impossible one day and better it the next. Chinese immigrant workers, he points out, were absolutely vital to the Central Pacific. They were called in, albeit reluctantly, after American workers kept leaving the job to search for riches in the gold and silver mines of California and Nevada. When James Strobridge, Central Pacific's head of construction, balked at hiring the Chinese, asserting that they were too small to do such physically demanding work, Crocker reminded him that they had been strong enough to build the Great Wall of China. Before long, the company was sending recruiters to China.
Ambrose admits that most historians, like his old professors, write from a political agenda. But does he? "I used to," he says. "It's a different world we're living in now. I mean, I used to care terribly about the Vietnam War. But I don't have a political agenda anymore, other than I want young people in America, now and in the future, to understand that freedom doesn't come free, that the blessings they've got by being Americans were paid for. And I want them to know who paid and how and what they did."Warming to this subject, Ambrose continues, "For a quick example: I want them to know more about Thomas Jefferson than [his relationship with] Sally Hemmings. I want them to know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, and I want everyone else be they Muslim, Buddhist, Rainbow People, Protestant, Catholic, or whatever to know that their right to believe what they want to believe and worship as they choose to worship comes from Thomas Jefferson. I want them to know if they live in Wisconsin or Iowa or any of the other Louisiana Purchase states or any of the other states west of the Allegheny Mountains, the reason they get to vote for senators and congressmen and that their states are co-equal with the original 13 is because of the Northwest Ordinance. I want them to know that, and I want them to appreciate that."A university history teacher until his retirement in 1995, Ambrose concedes that his views of history are now out of fashion on campus. "It's not the way most academic historians teach history," he says. "Most of them teach that Jefferson had a slave mistress and that George Washington was a slaveholder. I want them to know that George Washington led us in war and in peace. In war, he knew if he was captured, they were going to send him to London, they were going to put him on trial, they were going to find him guilty of treason and then they were going to draw and quarter him. I make sure those kids know what drawing and quartering means. Obviously, Washington's being a slaveholder is an important part of his life and of history. But there's a lot more."For years, Ambrose wrote histories and biographies which were well received but which sold poorly. "I badly needed my income [from teaching]," he says. "I wrote books that got very nice reviews, but it used to be I'd be lucky if they sold 20,000 copies. I'd get a royalty check, and I could take the wife out to dinner or maybe pay for a summer off and do some research. But nothing to make me a rich man. And then Undaunted Courage is the one that just burst."Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West was published in 1996. "At first, my editor, Alice Mayhew, didn't want me to do the book," Ambrose recalls. "She said, ÔNobody wants to read about dead white males.' I said, ÔI do, Alice.' . . . Now the book's at two million hardback and two million paperback. So I became a rich man. But it happened to me late in life, or relatively late. I was 58 or 59 years old, and all of a sudden I had a lot of money."He credits Mayhew for suggesting he write his current book. Indeed, he dedicates it to her. "This is the second time Alice has done this to me," he says, with a good-natured laugh. "The first time, it cost me a decade of my life." It was Mayhew, he explains, who talked him into doing what became a two-volume biography of Richard Nixon.
Good fortune has not appreciably altered the way Ambrose researches and writes. "I'm a Luddite, I'm afraid. I came to the computer fairly late in my career. I like to say now because it's true that the ability to move paragraphs around and spell-check is so good that if I'd had the computer earlier, I'd have five more books. . . . My son, who now works with me, uses the computer for research. But I have no idea how to do it. I can't even do e-mail."(In spite of Ambrose's own technophobia, his son has erected a fancy and useful website on his dad's behalf at www.stephenambrose.com.)Next up for Ambrose is a history of the 15th Air Force and their B-24 Liberator bombers. "It came about because George McGovern asked me to write about his wartime career," Ambrose says. "That was awfully tempting because here was the world's most famous anti-bombing advocate who was a bomber pilot. Thirty-five missions. The Distinguished Flying Cross. That part of it fascinated me."As for the Transcontinental Railroad, Ambrose says, our fascination focuses on the mammoth and awe-inspiring construction project, but it is best appreciated at a higher level: "It tied us together," he asserts, "east and west."Edward Morris writes on music, politics, and fiction from Nashville.