Which two Civil War battles were fought west of the Mississippi River? Chief Justice William Rehnquist knew the answer, as he knew a myriad of often obscure (but never unimportant) historical and geographical facts, salting many of them into his Supreme Court opinions and books and using others in informal wagers with friends, family, and law clerks. The answer, found in the Chief's opinion in Leo Sheep Co. v. United States, is the Battle of Glorieta Pass (at a strategic location near Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 26-28, 1862) and the subsequent Battle of Picacho Pass (fought on April 15, 1862, near Tucson, Arizona). Both battles, as the Chief emphasized, were more skirmishes than full-drawn engagements, but they helped illustrate the value to the United States of building a transcontinental railroad that could transport troops when needed to protect the western states and territories. The Confederate army hoped to create an outlet to the Pacific but was effectively stopped by the Union victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. The Confederates, however, did not give up easily. When the Union forces at the Battle of Glorieta Pass asked the Confederates to surrender, one Southern commander responded memorably (and perhaps apocryphally), "We will fight first and surrender afterwards!"

The Chief loved geographic and historical facts. Part of this love was his enjoyment of fact games (which in turn was part of the Chief's love of games in general). The Chief relished matching his own memory against the knowledge of family, friends, and clerks. Any attempt to describe the Chief without mentioning his enthusiasm for fact games would be like trying to describe Babe Ruth without mentioning his skill at hitting home runs. At the Chief's funeral, his younger daughter, Nancy Rehnquist Spears, recounted how, early one summer, the Chief bet her five dollars that she could not name the year when Queen Elizabeth I had died. Having just finished a biography of the "Virgin Queen," Nancy readily spouted off the answer of 1603. The Chief quietly cursed and spent the rest of the summer trying to win back the five dollars. Every year, the Rehnquist clerks would hold a reunion at which the current clerks had to present a skit, focused on the Chief and the Supreme Court Term, for the benefit of their predecessors. The game show "Jeopardy" provided a thematic structure for a number of these skits, with the Chief cast in the role of Art Fleming, trying to stump his fellow Justices or others with oblique questions about the Supreme Court, United States geography, and history...

 

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