When Brigadier General Frederick William Lander died in 1862, his death was the occasion of national mourning. President Lincoln attended his funeral, and 20,000 spectators lined a two-mile section of Pennsylvania Avenue to pay their respects to the first Union general officer to die during the Civil War.
At the time of his death, Frederick Lander was one of the most celebrated personalities in the United States. General Winfield Scott called Lander the “Great Natural American Soldier,” but he was more widely known as “Old Grizzly” because of his epic encounter with a monstrous bear in the Rocky Mountains. Despite the fame he enjoyed, Lander was largely forgotten after the Civil War.
Lander graduated from Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., in 1838. He worked for several years for railroads in Massachusetts and Maine before enrolling at Norwich University, one of the few institutions offering instruction in railroad construction. He attended from 1841 to 1842 and left before taking a degree in order to work for his brother’s ice business.
While engaged in the ice business, Lander took on a fourteen-year-old apprentice named Grenville Dodge. While mentoring Dodge, Lander recommended that he consider studying civil engineering at Norwich University. Dodge entered Norwich in 1848 and went on to become the preeminent American railroad engineer of the 19th century.
Early in Lander’s career, there was growing national interest in surveying potential transcontinental railroad routes that could link the eastern states to the Pacific coast. That interest drew Lander to the West. Throughout the 1850s, he played a prominent role in conducting surveys on the Western frontier under often difficult and dangerous conditions.
In 1854, he had a chance encounter on the frontier with his former apprentice Grenville Dodge. Landers stumbled upon Dodge’s homestead when he desperately needed supplies, and the two engineers discussed the prospects of a transcontinental railroad. They agreed on the advantages of a central route to California that would run along the Platte River–the route Dodge would later use during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.
From 1857-58 Lander was first chief engineer and later superintendent of the construction of the Overland Wagon Road. The federally funded road, located north of the Great Salt Lake, was a 350-mile cut off from the Oregon Trail that significantly improved travel conditions for westward moving pioneers.
When Lander returned to the West in 1859 to make improvements to what had become known as “Lander’s Road,” several artists were included in the expedition for promotional purposes. One of the artists was Albert Bierstadt, whose large, majestic Western scenes would become highly prized by collectors. Bierstadt was inspired to paint a six-by-ten foot landscape of an Indian encampment set before an imposing Rocky Mountain panorama in Wyoming. Bierstadt named the tallest peak in the center of the composition “Lander Peak.”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Lander served as a volunteer aide on the staff of General George McClellan. In May 1861 he was commissioned a brigadier general and distinguished himself in the Union campaign in Western Virginia. Following the Union debacle in October at Ball’s Bluff, Lander intervened to assist forces retreating across the Potomac River by holding Edwards Ferry, where he received a leg wound that would eventually cost him his life. Lander remained in the field during the winter of 1861-62, despite suffering chronic pain and recurring fevers brought on by his incurable leg infection.
In January Lander held the town of Hancock against the superior forces of General “Stonewall” Jackson, until ordered to withdraw. He finally succumbed to his infection in March, as he was preparing to attack Jackson at Winchester.
Frederick Lander’s achievements as an explorer, engineer, writer and soldier fell into obscurity by the end of the 19th century, as his exploits were overshadowed by events after his death. It wasn’t until 2000 that a biography illuminated his substance and significance of Lander–a figure his biographer describes as “the prototype of the 19th-century American hero.”
Adapted from article by Professor Emeritus Gary T. Lord that appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of the Norwich Record.