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Civil War Wests
Testing the Limits of the United States
By Adam Arenson, Andrew R. Graybill
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Thwarting Southern Schemes and British Bluster in the Pacific Northwest
James Robbins Jewell
FOUR MONTHS BEFORE JOHN BROWN seized the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, events in the far northwestern corner of the United States also brought the nation to the brink of war—not with itself, but with England. The blood spilled in June 1859 belonged to a pig, leading to one of the most bizarre episodes in U.S. diplomatic history. After Abraham Lincoln's election as president, the tensions from decades of mutual suspicions between the United States and its northern neighbor, compounded by the presence of a vocal group of southerners in the regional capital of Victoria, took on overtones of the Civil War.
As the Civil War began, the Pacific Northwest presented very real concerns for the Union government. Royal Governor James Douglas was openly belligerent toward the United States. Therefore, he might have ignored British neutrality and launched preemptive strikes into Washington Territory, or ignored attempts by southern sympathizers on Vancouver Island trying to outfit a raider with which to attack U.S. commerce in the Pacific. Miners in the Fraser River region with Confederate sympathies might have launched paramilitary attacks into Washington Territory.
A new northern front of the Civil War opened in December 1863 when Confederate agents seized the S.S. Chesapeake off Cape Cod and sailed it to Nova Scotia. A second cross-border operation occurred in September 1864 when twenty Confederate agents attempted to capture the U.S.S. Michigan, the sole Union warship patrolling the Great Lakes. The attempt was foiled when one of the conspirators was captured and revealed the plot. Most famously, on October 19, 1864, a Confederate lieutenant and twenty men crossed from Quebec into Vermont, robbing three banks in the small town of St. Albans, making off with $200,000 before fleeing back across the border. That no military (or paramilitary) operations emerged in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War demonstrates how effectively Union officials in the region controlled the situation and avoided another front of the war breaking out on the Pacific Slope.
Long before the outbreak of the Civil War, however, U.S. officials wrestled with the dilemmas posed by their uncertain northwestern border. Political maneuvering between the two countries had dominated the "Oregon question" ever since Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805 at Fort Clatsop, Oregon. In 1818, the United States and England agreed to the joint occupation of the disputed Oregon lands (essentially from 54°40' latitude south to the present-day California–Oregon border, and west of the Continental Divide). Failure to work out a satisfactory division of those lands in 1827 led to an extension of the joint occupancy agreement, a policy that was still in place in the 1840s. Growing U.S. expansionist sentiments in the Pacific Northwest rekindled British distrust and led to rising tension between the British and Americans, reaching a critical level during the 1844 presidential campaign. James K. Polk based his enthusiastic expansionist candidacy on American braggadocio, political rhetoric, and Manifest Destiny. Polk's campaign platform called for the "reannexation of Texas and the reoccupation of Oregon." The British took the hostile political language quite seriously, and prepared to defend the farthest western region of British North America from U.S. expansionism.
Despite the heated rhetoric, which served its purpose in helping to get Polk elected, the president-elect softened his demands. Although in his inaugural address he spoke boldly about pursuing all of Oregon, Polk's initial offer to the British was more restrained. Like his predecessors, Polk's first official proposal to settle the nagging Oregon question was to extend the 49th parallel as a boundary line all the way to the Pacific Ocean. When British officials refused the offer, Polk asked Congress to terminate the 1827 joint occupation agreement. The expansionist House quickly complied, but the measure was shot down in the Senate. In response to the rapidly deteriorating situation, one British official suggested sending naval vessels both to the Puget Sound region and to the mouth of the Columbia River. In March 1845 it appeared the two nations might go to war over the unsettled Oregon question.
By then, with the annexation of Texas underway and war with Mexico looming, the vigor of President Polk's expansionism was evident. Fortunately, the British ambassador returned with a new offer: England agreed to the 49th parallel line, excluding Vancouver Island, with the details regarding the San Juan Islands (between Vancouver Island and the mainland) to be worked out in arbitration. In April 1846, with General Zachary Taylor's forces already south of the Rio Nueces, provoking war with Mexico, Congress agreed to arbitration with Britain and averted war on two fronts.
Relations between the two nations improved after 1846 but remained precarious, as the dispute over San Juan Island made obvious in 1859. Both U.S. and British citizens had settled the island, repeating the pattern of joint occupancy and uncertain ownership. Then came a military showdown that commenced with the death of a pig.
The British inhabitants, who outnumbered the Americans until May 1859, were employees of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), and they did not recognize U.S. claims to any part of San Juan Island. One interloping American named Lyman Cutler sparked the international conflict when he took matters into his own hands. After building a cabin he planted a garden, which he fenced as best he could. Unfortunately for Cutler, free-roaming HBC livestock easily trampled the garden and uprooted his potato patch. Following unsuccessful complaints to the local HBC official, Cutler shot and killed an offending hog, for which he attempted to pay the pig's owner. The seemingly justifiable killing of the wandering British pig very nearly ignited a war, bringing England and the United States closer to armed conflict than at any time since Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.
Fortunately, the Pig War, as it is now known, did not lead to the shedding of human blood. However, the bluster and maneuvering revealed the complicated international relations that existed in the Pacific Northwest. Soon the bonds between the U.S. Army officers would be cut asunder by the Civil War. As summarized after the fact by Captain L. C. Hunt, an officer with the American contingent on San Juan Island: "I am confident that this whole imbroglio is a disgraceful plot involving General Harney, a dull animal, Mr. Commissioner Campbell, a weak, wordy sort of man; Captain [George E.] Pickett, to some extent, whose main fault perhaps has been bad judgment in allowing himself to be used as a tool by the main conspirators."
Another officer, Major Granville Haller, contended that Harney and Pickett, both southern-born, had conspired to ignite a conflict with the British as part of a plot to help the South in its growing political disagreement with the North; indeed, their Civil War records gave credence to suspicions about their roles in bringing on the Pig War. Pickett, who had served in the Pacific Northwest since 1855 and had fathered a child during that time with a Haida woman named Morning Mist, resigned his commission in June 1861 and left to join the Confederacy. A major general's commission and infamous failure at Gettysburg awaited him. William S. Harney never joined the Confederacy, but while serving as the commander of the Department of the West in April 1861, he failed to prevent the pro-Confederate state militia, commanded by future Confederate general Sterling Price, from nearly taking control of the State of Missouri as part of the Price-Harney Truce. This action led Missouri's Unionist leaders to press for his removal. He was replaced by General Nathanial Lyon in late May and recalled to Washington, D.C.
In an attempt to prevent the pig incident from causing a war, Haller advised proposing a joint occupation to the British authorities that might mollify both sides, at least temporarily. However, the firebrand Pickett would have none of it. According to Haller, "He assured me that if they [the British] attempted to land he would fire on them. He believed they would land, and considered war inevitable." The British authorities had heard that Pickett was encouraging Americans to settle on the island: Pickett "promised protection to any and every American Citizen who might think proper to squat on the Island of San Juan." As Captain Hunt saw it, "Nothing has saved us from a bloody collision but the patient dignity and forbearance of the old admiral [British Rear Admiral Lambert Baynes], who had an overwhelming force at hand."
The mistrust caused by the Pig War was still percolating two years later when civil war broke out in the United States. It was in this atmosphere that pro-Confederate elements in the provinces of British Columbia and Vancouver Island (then separate) schemed to initiate operations against U.S. targets, both on land and afloat, during the war years. In light of the history of periodic cleavages in the relations between Americans and Britons in British North America, made worse by the 1859 Pig War, Department of the Pacific leaders had to craft policies that addressed all the potential dangers that might lurk north of the border while treading lightly on issues of sovereignty.
After the firing on Fort Sumter, the order came for U.S. troops to leave Camp Pickett on San Juan Island and head east for combat service. District commander General George Wright found a way to countermand the order to abandon the U.S. post. Wright's long service in the region enabled him to invoke the ghosts of ten years of white–Native American conflict in the Pacific Northwest (which included a Native attack on the tiny frontier town of Seattle in 1856) to change minds in Washington, D.C. Using the threat of Native American raids as a pretext, Wright gave new orders, nullifying those issued just ten days earlier, thereby ensuring that an American presence remained on the island throughout the war. While at most of the other posts in the Department of the Pacific, where volunteers replaced the professional soldiers, Regular Army forces garrisoned Camp Pickett throughout the duration of the war.
While Americans may have believed in 1861 that the true conflict lay far to the east, Royal Governor James Douglas saw an opportunity to seize the old Oregon country. Authorities in London refused. Undeterred, in December 1861 the pugnacious governor wrote to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Duke of Newcastle, arguing there "was no reason why we should not push overland from Puget Sound and establish advanced posts on the Columbia River." Knowing that U.S. troop dispositions were in flux and that some northern posts were likely to be abandoned, he informed the Colonial office that "there is little real difficulty in that operation, as the Coast is entirely unprovided with defensive works." Furthermore, there was no doubt that the British Navy could easily take control of Puget Sound and the Columbia River. The governor assured his superiors that "with Puget Sound, and the line of the Columbia River in our hands, we should hold the only navigable outlets of the country—command its trade, and soon compel it to submit to Her Majesty's Rule." It was just the sort of move Confederate sympathizers in the Pacific Northwest hoped the British would make.
Fortunately for the Union, officials in London did not share Douglas's enthusiasm for a conflict with the United States. Although England did send five thousand troops to British North America in the aftermath of the November 1861 Trent Affair, they were stationed in the more populated eastern region. Left with few options, the royal governor authorized the raising of two volunteer rifle corps to complement the royal marines and engineers stationed in the region, but for defensive purposes only.
Douglas, however, was not the only threat to the United States north of the border. Ever since the 1858 Fraser River gold rush, thousands of Americans had been roaming the rivers and creeks of British Columbia in search of gold. Inevitably, few found the wealth they sought, and while most drifted back across the border, a sizeable contingent remained in British Columbia or tried their luck on Vancouver Island. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Victoria (on Vancouver Island) was home to a growing southern population. The editor of the Victoria Chronicle noted, "Shortly after the outbreak of the war many sympathizers with the Slave States came to reside in Victoria. Some leased residences, others took apartments at hotels, still others went into business while a fourth class proceeded to Cariboo and engaged in gold mining and trading."
British Columbia and Vancouver Island afforded southern sympathizers a perfect haven. "With few exceptions the English residents sympathized with the rebels," an investigation determined. Union officials worried that Confederate partisans might use the two British colonies as bases from which to launch raids south across the border, or from which to attack Union shipping interests in the Pacific, including the crucial gold shipments (each one worth more than a million dollars) that were leaving from San Francisco.
The transitory population of expatriated Americans on Vancouver Island and in British Columbia worried Union officials; however, it was the royal governor who maintained the southern-sympathizing atmosphere in the region. Governor Douglas's tolerant attitude toward pro-Confederates is intriguing given his background: the governor, who was born in Guyana, was of one-eighth (or possibly one-fourth) African heritage, and his wife was half Cree. The fact that neither of them would have had any rights under Confederate law was, however, less important than the prevailing sense of British opportunism and disdain for the U.S. federal government. During the time that Douglas served as governor of Vancouver Island, there was a small population of persons of African descent in the colonies, most of whom had come from the California gold fields, further adding to the puzzle.
The outbreak of the Civil War brought racial tensions to the fore on Vancouver Island, as demonstrated by an incident in September 1861. During a benefit concert for the Royal Hospital in Victoria, two white men attempted to bribe some of the night's performers to keep them from singing as long as African-descended patrons were in the audience. When the performers rejected the bribe, they were pelted by food, and flour was poured on two of the black audience members. A riot ensued and eventually arrests were made, although no one was convicted. Whatever the nationality of the men who started the riot, the incident illustrates that Victoria was not devoid of racial tension. In such an unstable environment, made more so by a growing populace of expatriated southerners as well as a governor driven by the opportunity that an America at war with itself presented him (and by extension, Great Britain), Union concerns about the Pacific Northwestern border make perfect sense.
The level of concern among officials in Washington, D.C., is indicated by the fact that an American consulate post was established in Victoria in 1862. There had never been any such consulate on the Pacific Coast of British North America, nor had there been much reason for such a post. Once the Civil War was under way, however, and British and U.S. relations deteriorated, President Lincoln needed someone he knew and trusted to keep a vigilant eye on the British governor and southern sympathizers on Vancouver Island and in British Columbia. So he sent Allen Francis. Few people had known Abraham Lincoln as long or as well. Francis had moved to Springfield, Illinois, in 1834 to work for his brother Simeon at the Springfield Sangamo Journal. During their time in the Illinois capital, the Francis brothers became intimate friends with Lincoln and, according to legend, loaned him books on the legal profession and later helped him reconcile with Mary Todd, his future wife. The two brothers left Springfield in 1859—Simeon for Oregon and Allen for California. The presence of trusted friends in a remote region, vulnerable to both internal and external threats, was fortuitous for the new president. When war broke out Simeon Francis was appointed paymaster for the military District of Oregon, and Allen Francis became the first U.S. consul at Vancouver Island Colony.
Excerpted from Civil War Wests by Adam Arenson, Andrew R. Graybill. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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