The Civil War was so far away from the Northwest’s Washington Territory — that then included Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming, while Oregon was already a state — that people living there chattered about it over a beer but few volunteered to head east and fight.
Perhaps surprisingly, the main topic of conversation was dividing the Union — not slavery. Even President Lincoln said keeping the nation united was more important to him than freeing the slaves.
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” Lincoln said in an 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
The Civil War started with the Confederates shelling Fort Sumter in South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. Washington Territory was almost eight years old; its biggest town was Walla Walla, with 722 people, including 17 Indians and one African-American.
As the war raged elsewhere in America, people in Washington Territory were divided on the issues — as they were in the rest of the nation — and there were heated discussions, but no violence.
The Territorial Legislature refused to declare its support for either side, yet did funnel funds to the Union cause. One report said, “Feelings ran high, yet no significant incidents of disloyalty or sabotage occurred. Most were for preserving the Union and divided on the issue of slavery and emancipation.
Many of the settlers were from the South and maintained their loyalties, but kept a low profile after the war started going against the Confederacy.
Oregon during the Civil War was a strange blend of attitudes. When the regular army troops joined the war back east, Oregon answered the call for establishing local militias to take their place by creating a large number of volunteer units for local duty. Few men headed east to join units at war.
On the surface, it would seem that Oregonians in those days would be pro-South because of the state’s exclusionary “Lash Laws” barring blacks from living there or owning property, while at the same time prohibiting slavery. As early as 1843, slaveholders were required to free their slaves, who were ordered to leave the territory within three years.
Failure to leave would incur a whipping of 39 lashes, to be repeated every six months that the infamous order was not obeyed. In practice however, whippings were almost never enforced, and were later abolished.
In 1859, Oregon became a state — the only one admitted to the Union with an exclusion law written into its constitution.
The effect of all this was to discourage African-Americans from elsewhere moving to Oregon.
Washington did not become a state until 1889. When the Civil War erupted, many in the territory were ambivalent about slavery, but strongly supported preserving the union. The First Washington Volunteer Infantry was formed, with some men volunteering and others conscripted. Most preferred staying home to protect against the Indians. The volunteer unit never saw battle.
There were Confederate sympathizers in Montana who wanted the territory’s gold to go to the South. That alarmed Lincoln. To make sure that didn’t happen, he created Idaho Territory in 1863 that included Idaho, Montana and part of Wyoming, with Lewiston its capital. Then he appointed his pal, Sidney Edgerton, as Idaho Territory chief justice, with the extra job of preserving the gold for the Union.
This he did by helping organize vigilante groups in Bannack and Virginia City — both gold towns in Montana — to control matters where there was little law and order.
Historian Tom Sargent wrote in “Lincoln’s Vulnerable Treasure Chest, The Civil War in Montana,” that most of the many Confederacy sympathizers — that included drifters and deserters — didn’t want to join the fight, but did want Montana gold sent to the South.
Until March 3, 1863, Idaho was part of Washington Territory. Then Idaho Territory was created that included all of today’s Idaho, plus Montana and all except the southwest part of Wyoming.
The regular army troops headed east to join the war, and — like in Washington and Oregon — the territories were told to form local militias and fend for themselves. The more than two dozen volunteer military units serving in Montana spent the Civil War years battling Indians.
Things weren’t much different in Idaho.
Most of the volunteer soldiers sent to Idaho in 1862 and stationed at Fort Boise and Fort Lapwai were recruited at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, and also never saw action in the Civil War.
Their main job was to protect the Oregon Trail and communication lines to the East. But for three years, gold prospectors poured into Idaho following the discovery of gold in Orofino and elsewhere in 1861. Mixing miners and the Nez Perce brought trouble and the armed volunteers struggled to try to keep the peace.
Since the early 1850s, there had been trouble between incoming white settlers and miners and the Snake Indians — Western Shoshone, Bannock and Northern Paiute who lived along the Snake River. It was called the Snake War — a long conflict of mostly small skirmishes that lasted until after the Civil War.
While not many men from Washington Territory volunteered to fight in the Civil War, a few who served in the Territory did end up in glory:
Philip H. Sheridan fought in the Yakama Indian wars as a young lieutenant, later becoming a general. At Vancouver, Ulysses S. Grant was quartermaster captain who became the top Union general during the war and later president of the United States.
Working for Washington Territory Gov. Isaac I. Stevens, George B. McClellan helped explore a northern route for a transcontinental railway through the Northwest, and during the Civil War became general-in-chief of all the Union armies, but fell out of favor with both Grant and Lincoln for indecisiveness.
George E. Pickett was commander of the 9th Infantry sent to San Juan Island to protect American settlers threatened by the British during the “Pig War” in 1859 — a boundary dispute between the U.S. and Canada triggered by a pig.
He became a Confederate major general, well-remembered for making a costly mistake called “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg that cost 2,655 casualties — 498 killed and the rest wounded or captured.
When the war ended on June 2, 1865, the last of the Washington Territory volunteers were mustered out on Dec. 11.
Sadly, the militia volunteers did not always cover themselves in glory while the war was on.
The Shoshone in the southeastern corner of Idaho’s Cache Valley were starving and in desperation attacked Oregon Trail travelers and local settlers, raiding and killing. Col. Patrick Edward Connor, commander of the 3rd California Volunteer Infantry Regiment stationed at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, was sent to deal with the marauding Indians.
George A. Smith, in the official Journal History of the LDS Church predicted what would happen: “It is said that Col. Connor is determined to exterminate the Indians who have been killing the Emigrants on the route to the Gold Mines in Washington Territory…If the present expedition copies the doings of the other that preceded it, it will result in catching some friendly Indians, murdering them, and letting the guilty scamps remain undisturbed in their mountain haunts.”
The Deseret News said, “…with ordinary good luck, the volunteers will wipe them out.”
At the Battle of Bear River in 1863, the Shoshone fought with tomahawks and bows and arrows. Connor’s soldiers fought back with guns, killing most of the men, raped the women and also killed the children — even babies.
Local resident Alexander Stalker reported the soldiers shooting the Shoshone point bank with their pistols, burning their dwellings and supplies — killing anyone inside.?Casualty reports vary greatly — the highest being 493 dead Shoshone, according to Danish immigrant Hans Jasperson in his 1911 autobiography. The soldiers lost 14.
Newspapers in Utah and California hailed Col. Connor and the California Volunteers as heroes when they returned to Fort Douglas, and he was promoted to brigadier general, and later to brevet major general.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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The Pig War…
The Pig War was a confrontation in 1859 between the United States and Britain over where the U.S.-Canadian boundary line should be through the San Juan Islands between Puget Sound and Vancouver Island. Both countries claimed the San Juan Islands.
The matter came to a head when an American settler on San Juan Island shot and killed a big black pig owned by an Irish employee of Hudson’s Bay Company for raiding his garden and eating his potatoes.
When British authorities threatened to arrest the farmer, American settlers called for protection. The Americans sent men and firepower, and the British rushed in warships. The matter was resolved peaceably however, without a shot being fired.
The only casualty was the pig.
After the Civil War…
In 1866, former Confederates during Reconstruction formed secret societies in order to regain control. They used intimidation and terrorism against Blacks and Unionists. Those societies Pale Faces, Sons of Midnight, Knights of the White Camellia, Southern Cross, and the Ku Klux Klan that was formed in Tennessee to fight the Republicans and their Reconstruction efforts, as well as deny rights to the newly freed slaves.
Many sources claim the Democrats of that post-Civil War era founded the KKK, but other sources deny the assertion.
History.com says, “Founded in 1866, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) extended into almost every southern state by 1870 and became a vehicle for white southern resistance to the Republican Party’s Reconstruction-era policies aimed at establishing political and economic equality for blacks. Its members waged an underground campaign of intimidation and violence directed at white and black Republican leaders.
“Though Congress passed legislation designed to curb Klan terrorism, the organization saw its primary goal — the reestablishment of white supremacy — fulfilled through Democratic victories in state legislatures across the South in the 1870s.”
Vigilantes and the gold…
On President Lincoln’s order, his friend Sidney Edgerton and nephew Wilber Fisk Sanders organized the Montana Vigilantes in the winter of 1863-1864 in the newly established Idaho Territory to battle outlaws and also to stop the flow of gold from mining camps like Bannack and Virginia City — both in Montana — to the Confederacy.
One report said, “The Vigilantes eliminated any and all threats to the flow of gold to the Federal Government, which is a nice euphemism for saying they murdered a lot of people. It worked. Almost all the gold flowed to the Federal Government, thus maintaining the value of greenbacks at home and abroad.”