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Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846–1847, by Winston Groom, Knopf, New York, 2011, $27.95

Although it centers around Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny’s expedition across the American Southwest to California during the Mexican-American War, Winston Groom’s new book is more about a year than a man—specifically the multiple dramas and melodramas that made 1846–47 a seminal moment in the American concept of Manifest Destiny. It was a time when many people were heading west: John C. Frémont on a trek of exploration combined with a campaign, in concert with Commodore Robert Stockton, to wrest California from Mexican control before Kearny arrived; Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor, off to provoke a war on behalf of expansionist President James K. Polk; a battalion of Mormons out to prove their loyalty as volunteers in the U.S. Army; Alexander Doniphan, leading 1,000 Missouri Volunteers on a mission to seize Chihuahua, Mexico; the Donner-Reed party, seeking greener pastures in California, only to find disaster in a textbook study on how not to get there.

Groom is dealing with an all-star cast of characters here, from Charles Bent to Thomas Hart Benton, Andrés Pico to Kit Carson, and he makes the most of it. While doing his best to provide a balanced look at the perspectives of all protagonists involved, he tells a colorful tale that reflects his enthusiasm for an oft-overlooked period in American history.

—Jon Guttman