" A Whiz And A Hail " Across The War, The Pony Express

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
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"A whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows." Mark Twain, who couldn't resist a stagecoach trip and a chance to see one of the famous riders.

What did the Civil War have to do with a short-lived but now legendary enterprise called The Pony Express? Transpires a LOT. It wasn't by happenstance those 16 months of existence shrinking transcontinental mail time coincides with Lincoln's election and the beginning of a 4 year bloodfest. We think of The Pony Express as Old West mustang hoof beats, guns 'n glory, arrows n' ambush, desert 'n sagebrush wide open plain adventure personified and it was. It was also still part of our awfully American argument over who-got-what-and-whom-and-why.

This is just a kind of ' pocket history ', not intended as an in depth look at our famous Pony Express or it's most famous riders. That there was any connection to the war whatsoever was news to me. I have a feeling we have historians here extremely well informed on The Pony Expressed and for them, nothing new here! In fact, it'll probably be a snore of a thread.

" News of the firing upon Fort Sumter was taken through in eight days and fourteen hours. From then on, while the Pony'Ex- press service continued, the business men route," which ran north of that city. There was then no telegraph in operation west of the Missouri River in Kansas or Nebraska. The document was carried through from St. Joseph to Sacramento — 1966 miles — in just seven days and seventeen hours, an average speed of ten and six-tenths miles an hour." The best time was by "Pony Bob" Haslam , galloping 120 miles on one stretch in eight hours and ten minute

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LoC, one of the popular Currier and Ives type images and not an unreasonable one. Buffalo Bill Cody was probably the most famous rider- dozens of young men rode small, amazing swift horses through Native American land and Native Americans understandably annoyed by the intrusion. Only one rider was lost- but his horse and mail made it. The company provided incredibly swift ' blood horses ' first, then mustangs- who add to be thrown and sat on by several large men to be shod.

"...Fort Sumter in April, 1861, did not produce the Civil War crisis. For months, the gigantic struggle then imminent, had been painfully discernible to far-seeing men. In 1858, Lincoln had forewarned the country in his "House Divided " speech. As early as the beginning of the year 1860 the Union had been plainly in jeopardy. Early in February of that momentous year, Jefferson Davis, on behalf of the South, had introduced his famous resolutions in the Sen ate of the United States. This document was the ultimatum of the dissatisfied slave- holding commonwealths. It demanded that Congress should protect slavery.

By 1860, then, war was inevitable. Naturally, the conflict would at once present intricate military problems, and among them the retention of the Pacific Coast was of the deepest concern to the Union.

To the South, the acquisition of California meant enhanced prestige — involving, as it would, the occupation of a large area whose soils and climate migh etncourage the perpetuation of slavery; it meant a rich possession which would afford her a strategic base for waging war against her northern foe ; opportunity might be given to organize an allied republic of the Pacific, a power which would absorb the entire Southwest. By thus creating counter forces the South would effectively block the Federal Government on the western half of the continent.

The North also desired the prestige that would come from holding California as well as the material strength inherent in the state's valuable resources. Moreover to hold this region would give the North a base of operations to check her opponent in any campaign of aggression in the far West, should the South presume such an attempt.

Communication was key. You can't ' do ' The Pony Express ' as a topic in a single thread, suffice to say I still don't understand how it was cost effective to set up stations every 10 or 15 miles, keep them manned ( and horsed ) and defended and still profit from delivering the mail. Read where charges were ' astronomical '. They had to be!

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MARCH 26, 1860, The first courier of the Pony Ex press will leave the Missouri River on Tues day April 3rd at 5 o'clock P. M. and will run regularly weekly hereafter, carrying a letter mail only. The letter mail will be delivered in San Francisco in ten days from the departure of the Express. The Express passes through Forts Kearney, Laramie, Bridger, Great Salt Lake City, Camp Floyd, Carson City, The Washoe Silver Mines, Placerville, and Sacramento.

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A description of the first rider, first attempt at shattering all cross country records for speed-

" All are hushed with subdued expectancy. As the moment of departure approaches, the doors swing open and a spirited horse is led out. Nearby, closely inspecting the animal's equipment is a wiry little man scarcely twenty years old. Time to go ! Everybody back ! A pause of seconds, and a cannon booms in the distance — the starting signal. The rider leaps to his saddle and starts. In less than a minute he is at the post office where the letter pouch, square in shape with four padlocked pockets, is awaiting him. Dismounting only long enough for this pouch to be thrown over his saddle, he again springs to his place and is gone. A short sprint and he has reached the Missouri River wharf. A ferry boat under a full head of steam is waiting. With scarcely checked speed, the horse thunders onto the deck of the craft. A rumbling of machinery, the jangle of a bell, the sharp toot of a whistle and the boat has swung clear and is headed straight for the opposite shore. The crowd behind breaks into tumultuous applause. Some scream themselves hoarse; others are strangely silent ; and some — strong men — are moved to tears. The noise of the cheering multitude grows faint as the Kansas shore draws near. The engines are reversed; a swish of water, and the craft grates against the dock. Scarcely has the gang plank been lowered than horse and rider dash over it and are off at a furious gallop. Away on the jet black steed goes Johnnie Frey, the first rider, with the mail that must be hurled by flesh and blood over 1,966 miles. "

Across the plains, through North eastern Kansas and into Nebraska, up the valley of the Platte, across the Great Plateau, into the foothills and over the summit of the Rockies, into the arid Great Basin, over the Wahsatch range, into the valley of Great Salt Lake, through the terrible alkali deserts of Nevada, through the parched Sink of the Carson River, over the snowy Sierras, and into the Sacra mento Valley — the mail must go without delay. Neither storms, fatigue, darkness, rugged mountains, burning deserts, nor savage Indians were to hinder this pouch of letters. The mail must go; and its schedule, incredible as it seemed, must be made. It was a sublime undertaking, than which few have ever put the fibre of Americans to a severer test. "

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Image meant to depict transportation and communication across theplains- Pony Express, stage, wagon trains and telegraph.


We really do tend to forget the entire war in the west much less the west coast. Stage travel took twice as long as The Pony Express, hazards could be insurmountable but California was as much a prize as the growing fields of the South. While only 16 months transpired between The Pony Express's 1st and last route, it's replacement by completion of overland telegraph lines made it pass into instant legend.
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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
Excellent thread. I always enjoy tales of the Pony Express.


Thanks Donna, kind as ever! I hadn't been aware there was any connection whatsoever with the war until getting into some of the old books. And given the dates it ran, duh.

When I was a kid there was a Pony Express reenactment group that came through our town which was very cool. Smitten? That was before I read the book about Harriet Tubman and wanted to be a spy when I grew up. Before that I wanted to be a Pony Express Rider because that group came to town, read every book I could I could get my hands on.
 
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