For the chronicler, the charm of history lies in the fact that—if only he waits a sufficient time before setting down his tale—he can always trace the fall of an empire to the loss of a horseshoe nail. Hermann B. Deutsch, The Incredible Yanqui.
It’s difficult to subscribe to any grand theories of history when examining the historical record. If you zoom back enough, events can appear to have some kind of order, some kind of logical cause-and-effect. However, when you zoom in, it’s more akin to Brownian motion. Chaos seems to rule.
While we are (on some level at least) rational beings, we often pursue irrational courses of action. Plus chance and chaos have played too large a role in the events of history for any grand theory to neatly explain anything.
We can, however, follow a chain of events back to its source. And often the fall of an empire can indeed be traced to the loss of a horseshoe nail, given the requisite distance and perspective. The events described in the (fantastic) book from which the above quote is taken—The Incredible Yanqui by Hermann Deutsch—are a case in point.
Deutsche’s narrative non-fiction account concerns the life of a man who was extremely well-known one hundred years ago, but who has since been forgotten. Lee Christmas, a Louisiana native, was at the beginning of what he hoped would be a long career working the railroad when he fell asleep, drunk, at the throttle and crashed straight into an oncoming locomotive.
The incident led to him being blacklisted, and for three years he could do no better than tramp around the South feeding off scraps of back-breaking labor. In 1894, he finally caught a break. The rapid expansion of the railroad led to a labor shortage and an amnesty was proclaimed. Lee Christmas was in line to get his old job back, and his pride, once he passed the newly instituted color vision test.
To Lee’s great surprise, he was declared color-blind and barred from his chosen profession for life. He had heard that the expanding banana plantations in Honduras were in need of railroad engineers, suspected the Honduran national railroad would have no color vision test, and boarded the next steamer south from New Orleans.
Back behind the throttle, this time a tiny wood-burning train rather than one of the great Moguls he was fond of, Lee carried huge blocks of ice down to the coast from Central America’s solitary ice factory, and hauled bananas back up the narrow-gauge railroad all the way to the provincial capital, San Pedro Sula.
One April day, over two years after he had emigrated from New Orleans, Lee was returning from San Pedro Sula with his usual load. As he pulled into the siding at Laguna Trestle, he noticed some men up ahead, loitering beside the tracks, but was unconcerned. However, as he came to a halt, a further group sprang from the bushes, armed with rifles and jabbering in Spanish. Unbeknownst to Lee, a group of revolutionaries had taken control of Puerto Cortés that morning, and Lee’s little train was required to carry their rebellion inland.
The bandits commandeered the train and ordered Lee to continue on to Puerto Cortés. The revolutionary “general” wanted nothing more from Lee than his services as an engineer. His men were to be ferried to San Pedro Sula the following morning and he left Lee under no illusions about what would happen if he didn’t comply.
Lee figured that if he was going to be shot at, he could do with a little protection. He was up half the night, but was happy with what he had rigged up—a little traveling fort in front of his cab. A Hotchkiss cannon was mounted at the head of the flatcar and the sides were walled in with three-quarter inch scrap iron fronted by a row of sand-bags—protection for a line of marksmen on either side.
The rebels, however, were unaware that news of their revolt had already reached San Pedro Sula. The comandante of the local garrison decided not to wait for orders from the capital, took a company of men and rode through the night down towards the coast.
The following morning, just as the rebels were readying to board Lee’s train, scouts brought word: the federales would be upon them shortly. The train was stationed at the far end of a large lake, and the only route across was the trestle that spanned the water and bore the single line of narrow gauge track that led inland to San Pedro Sula. The rebel leader ordered the mouth of the trestle barricaded with the only thing to hand—the gigantic 200-pound blocks of ice that were still in the back of Lee’s little train.
Behind their icy barricade, the rebels took position, with the armored flatcar affording the sharpshooters both protection and a vantage point. The government troops—instead of waiting for the ice to melt in the sweltering tropical heat—forsook prudence and charged into battle, across the trestle, towards the revolutionaries. Lee sat in his cab, watching the spectacle unfold.
The rebels had given him a rifle but he had no intention of joining the battle, and was just hopeful that his “side” would be victorious. When the shooting began, it’s hard to know exactly what went through his head. He could have sat in his cab and watched it all play out. Lee was no military man and had no experience of combat.
But when the bullets started flying, Lee grabbed his weapon and jumped down from the train, raced towards the barricade and took position, engaging the federales as they charged across the trestle.
To the relief of the rebels, the battle ended quickly; a lucky shot felled the enemy comandante and the federales withdrew. On sight of this, the rebels cheered, embracing the yanqui as one of their own. Lee was promoted to capitan on the spot and the rebel leader insisted on calling off their planned expedition to San Pedro Sula so their victory could be properly celebrated.
Lee Christmas would go on to become the most famous soldier of fortune in an age of headline-grabbing mercenaries. He toppled numerous Central American revolutions, put down several more revolutions in the service of governments, and was regularly featured in the Sunday supplements back home. He was a genuine celebrity, before that term was widely used (and abused).
But a question remains. A horseshoe nail demands our attention.
Why did Lee Christmas leap from the sanctity of that train to join that first revolution? Was it a rush of blood? Was it fear which instigated a surge of adrenaline so powerful that it propelled him into action? Or was he a born soldier, a man of action, waiting for his cue?
A historian can get away with posing these questions, but a historical novelist must answer them. As Hilary Mantel said, it is in these gaps in the record where we truly go to work.
David Gaughran, June 16, 2014