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Lee Christmas, Soldier of Fortune

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 akin to witnessing Brownian motion through a microscope. Chaos seems to rule. While we are—on some level at least—rational beings, we often pursue an irrational course of action. 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 troopsinstead 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 the head of Lee Christmas. He could have sat in his cab and watched it all play out. He 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; after a lucky shot felled the enemy comandante the federales withdrew. On sight of this, the rebels cheered, embracing the yanqui as one of their own. Lee was promoted to Captain on the spot, 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 mercenaries. He took part in numerous Central American revolutions, put down several more 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.

His actions were also indirectly responsible for the ascension of one of the banana magnates who would have such a pernicious influence over Central America in the first half of the twentieth century.

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. It is in these gaps in the historical record where a writer truly goes to work.

I’m looking forward to releasing Bananas For Christmas this summer, and sharing the story of Lee Christmas with a new generation.

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About davidgaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in Prague, and author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible and this here blog thing.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “Lee Christmas, Soldier of Fortune

  1. Very. Cool. Story. Can’t wait for yours.

    Posted by tmso | March 11, 2012, 1:21 am
    • I’ve written the first draft already – finished it a couple of weeks ago. The story of Lee Christmas is a cracking one. I just hope I can do the man justice. He’s such a complex figure in some ways, yet viewed the world so simply in others. His head has been an interesting place to be, for sure.

      This post is only a very small taste of the kind of adventures he gets up to. The events above are covered in just one chapter in the book. And there are thirty-three more! He lived some life.

      Posted by davidgaughran | March 11, 2012, 1:27 am
    • (And thank you – how rude of me!)

      Posted by davidgaughran | March 11, 2012, 1:35 am
      • Not rude. The passion you have for this story is clear.

        History is full of interesting characters, and Mr. Christmas sounds like he encompassed more than a lifetime’s worth of character.

        Posted by tmso | March 11, 2012, 2:11 am
  2. David, really like the sound of this. Seems that nowadays all the Soldier of Fortune stories are written by ex special forces guys. It makes me feel tired just thinking of they amount of time they must spend practising their tough expressions for the front cover.

    Good on you for bringing Lee Christmas back, look forward to reading the story.

    Posted by Tom Gold | March 11, 2012, 6:03 pm
    • That’s true, and it’s not an angle that ever drew me in as a reader (but I know they are popular with a certain segment of the reading public).

      A hundred years ago, the world was a very different place. A lot of these guys that ended up fighting in Central America had never left their home town before. Many of them didn’t have any prior military experience – they weren’t battle-hardened vets moving from one conflict to another. Some were runaways, others were jilted lovers, many were seeking fame, fortune, or simply adventure.

      At the time, the idea of running off to Honduras and making your fortune was impossibly romantic. The reality, of course, was often very different, and some paid for their naivety with their lives. Others, like Lee Christmas, found a natural aptitude for this line of work and became influential figures in Central American history. Some were mere guns-for-hire, fighting for the highest bidder. Others had principles of one sort or another, and attached themselves to politicians they believed in. Often, there were mercenaries fighting on both sides of these conflicts. And while they would fight to the death, when required, they would treat each other quite well, if captured.

      And in the background, of course, were a range of American interests from banana companies and mine owners right the way up to the federal government. Corruption was almost as commonplace in the U.S. as in Central America, and often different (U.S.) politicians were backing different players in the innumerable wars which plagued Central America at the beginning of the 20th century.

      Then of course, there was the Brits, and the Germans, and World War 1 to mix things up as well. An exciting time.

      Posted by davidgaughran | March 11, 2012, 6:37 pm
  3. Agree entirely that the world was once a place where boys comic style Adventurers could flourish. Perhaps for the same reason men like Christmas were certainly remarkable in their own time but not unique.

    Its a different story today because for me its hard to think of modern day equivalents who were not in for the money (or the book deal!).

    Recently wrote a piece on my blog about my Great Grandfather who was from the same era as LC and something of a fighting man himself. He served in the Boer War, took part in the last cavalry charge on the Western Front and commanded his local Home Guard unit in WW2. but for me the most extraordinary thing about his story is that it was by no means unusual.

    Posted by Tom Gold | March 11, 2012, 7:17 pm
    • I was just reading your post actually! It’s a wonderful story. The world has gotten smaller I suppose, and perhaps more cynical.

      I would love to hear what you turn up in your further research. Sounds like there is a good book in there.

      If you ever come across a soldier in the Boer War called Guy Molony, let me know. He’s one of the minor characters in my book – ran away from his home in New Orleans at the age of 16 to work on a ship exporting mules to South Africa. On arrival, he quit his job and enlisted with the British. After the war, he enlisted in the US army, and fought in the Philippines, then became a mercenary, fighting in Nicaragua and Honduras. He was an expert machine gunner, earning him the mob-like nickname of Machine Gun Molony. A truly fascinating character. I think he fought in WW1 too (need to check my notes), then became the chief of police in New Orleans and, later, friend of Richard Nixon and associate of various questionable Central American politicians and businessmen.

      If anyone wants to read Tom’s post, it’s excellent: http://www.tomgoldbooks.blogspot.com/2012/03/hanging-in-hall-of-my-parents-home-is.html

      Posted by davidgaughran | March 11, 2012, 8:14 pm
      • David,
        The Boer War probably not the finest chapter in Britain’s history but I’m going to try and find out more about my Gt Grandfather’s part in it.
        Many thanks for the reccomend!

        PS. Lit Agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown recently tweeting about the resurgence of the historical novel. If he’s right looks like your timing is good!

        Posted by Tom Gold | March 11, 2012, 8:36 pm
      • Over half the titles on one of the UK literary prizes’ longlists were historical fiction. That’s a good sign of what is going to be pushed by publishers at least. I wonder if that’s a guess at a future trend, or whether its based on actual rising sales/interest in historical fiction. We’ll see, I suppose, but certainly welcome. I write in several genres, but historical fiction is my favorite.

        Posted by davidgaughran | March 11, 2012, 8:44 pm
  4. Thanks for the interesting post, David. I’m looking forward to reading “Bananas. . .” sometime this summer.

    Posted by sue | March 11, 2012, 9:36 pm
    • Thanks, Sue. The first draft is in the can. I’ll start fiddling with that maybe next week or the week after (need some distance first). The editor is booked for June, but who knows? Maybe I’ll get it done quicker, and she can slot it in somewhere. We’ll see.

      Of course, there’s also the possibility that I will lose my mind half-way through draft 2, and be found whimpering in a closet, having rewritten the entire book with a Sharpie on my emaciated frame :)

      Posted by davidgaughran | March 11, 2012, 9:45 pm
  5. David:

    I just happened to stumbled upon your post. I am a direct descendant of Lee Christmas (he was my great-great-grandfather on my maternal side). I first read The Incredible Yanqui when I was in a teen-ager (even though, I was aware of its presence before that, I was allowed to read until then, because it was considered “too racy” by the standards of the time. Anyway, I look forward to having the opportunity to read your book as well. I’ve started a Facebook page on Gen. Christmas some time ago, where I posted items of interest for other family members and a few “fans” of the General. (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Gen-Lee-Christmas/117566414947443).

    Rodney Hastings

    Posted by Rodney Hastings | March 16, 2012, 9:04 am

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