The Blog

Corrections to The First Tycoon

June 14, 2011

Even though I spent about seven years working on The First Tycoon, I made some mistakes. I hate making mistakes, but sometimes they're inevitable. Fortunately, there haven't been many, and none that I've found so far are particularly significant (most are typos). But I try to fix them nonetheless.

The most important error pertains to the military career and death of Commodore Vanderbilt's youngest son, George Washington Vanderbilt. George died young, during the Civil War, and so he was never a central character. Because of that, unfortunately, I stopped my research on him one step short of where I should have gone.

I wrote that he never saw the front lines, that he got sick while on recruiting duty in Boston. This is what the newspapers suggested, and what I gathered from General Cullum's Biographical Register, generally regarded as the authoritative source on West Point graduates. However, in the army's Commission Branch files at the National Archives, I recently found original documents that show that George briefly served as a staff officer to a brigade commander in the Corinth campaign, as often stated in the past. The conventional wisdom was right; I was wrong.

He didn't serve there long. He very soon fell ill with dysentery and "inflammation of the right lung," possibly TB, according to a signed statement by Dr. Jared Linsly, the family doctor. He died in France on January 1, 1864, according to a letter from the Commodore himself, and not on December 31, 1863, as I wrote in my book.

Fortunately, this mistake has no real effect on the narrative or my judgments about these events. But it's important to recognize and correct errors, I believe. Since no one is always right, admitting when you're wrong only helps your credibility. We want the closest thing to the truth we can get—whether it adds a few scuff marks to our reputations or not.