Confederates and Yankees in the Pacific Northwest, 1861-1865: Mainstream or Menace?: A Talk by Junius Rochester

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 5/03/2008
  • Essay 8538

Junius Rochester gave this talk on Southerners resident in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War on March 1, 2008, at the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild Annual Conference, Museum of History and Industry, Seattle.

Mainstream or Menace

If you’re expecting villains and heroes, we have them.     

For example, look back at the inability of our Founding Fathers to deal  firmly with slavery as a looming threat to the new Republic. Or trace  the burgeoning separate economies of the North and the South.  In the  1850s, most slave states were convinced that they could no longer  remain in the Union. 

The bubble burst with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the  secession of South Carolina on Christmas Eve, 1860, and the April 12, 1861 Confederate attack on Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina.   

As Lincoln had prophesied: “A house divided against itself cannot  stand.”       

The mood of the country was grim.  Here is Samuel Eliot Morison  describing Lincoln’s inaugural procession as it moved up Pennsylvania  Avenue:

 “Under the harsh glare of a March sun, while a blustery wind  blew dust roof-high [the event] might have been a funeral procession.   The Capitol, with its uncompleted dome supporting an unkempt fringe  of derricks ... . President Buchanan, urbane and white-haired, and old,  bowed Chief Justice Taney, seemed symbols of a departed golden age of  the Republic.  President Lincoln, uncouth and ill at ease, inspired little  confidence until his high-pitched, determined voice was heard delivering the solemn phrases of the inaugural address.” 

Among  Lincoln’s words on that occasion: “No state, upon its own mere motion,  can lawfully get out of the Union ... . The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government ...”   

Among those “places belonging to the government” were large chunks of the Far West. Congress reacted to the 1861 secession of Southern states by passing the Pacific Railroad Act, quickly establishing more links to the West. Lincoln, with Secretary of State William H. Seward’s  strong backing, also moved to protect the West Coast from “Dixie  Raiders.”   In 1863-1864, earthen batteries were hastily built at Fort Stevens, mouth of the Columbia River, named for our own Isaac Ingalls Stevens, first governor of Washington Territory.  Lucile McDonald noted that large guns were also installed at Cape Disappointment -- the  Washington side of the river -- but had to be moved after practice rounds shattered windows in the North Head Lighthouse.   

The Columbia River guns failed to deter several wily Confederate ship’s captains. The most famous of those "Dixie Raiders" was the Shenandoah, James Waddell, Captain.  Roaming the Bering Strait, North Pacific, and California coast, the Shenandoah preyed on whalers and other vessels for over a year.  Even as Waddell burned and scuttled  ships, he saved the lives of crews and officers. Several captains of his captured ships tried to tell Waddell that the war was over and the South had lost.  Waddell, finally convinced, called that unhappy news “the  bitterest blow.”  The Shenandoah had taken or destroyed 38 ships, most of them whalers, and captured l,053 prisoners.  Rather than  face American justice, Waddell set a course for England.  Despite a  chilly reception (the British were embarrassed by the arrival of this infamous Confederate pirate) English law allowed Waddell and his  crew their freedom.

In one of history’s strange twists, Waddell, after living in England for  10 years, eventually commanded a mail ship that ran between Yokohama and San Francisco.  He ended his life working as an oyster  warden in Chesapeake Bay.  (The best version of this story was written  by the late Murray Morgan, godfather and mentor to many local  historians, in his 1995 book, Confederate Raider in the North Pacific, 1864-1865: Saga of the C.S.S. Shenandoah.)   

Another Confederate burr under the Union saddle appeared in Victoria, British Columbia.  This “Olde Englishe” bastion attracted  both Canadian and American “Copperheads” -- an emotionally charged designation given to any Northerner who supported the South during  the Civil War. In early 1863, Allen Francis, the United States consul at  Victoria, received information suggesting that an American revenue  cutter was about to be seized by Confederate sympathizers.  The alleged  plot was foiled.  Consul Francis later wrote to a U.S. Naval officer that  “there is still in this city a rebel organization, which has had several meetings within the last few weeks.  They are awaiting, it seems from rumors, the receipt of [instructions] from the president of the so-called  Confederate States [i.e., Jefferson Davis].”  

Several African American residents in Washington and Oregon volunteered their services to British Columbia Governor James Douglas.  Those south-of-the-border volunteers were sponsored by Mifflin Gibbs, a black Victoria merchant and friend of Douglas’s. The all-black Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company (VPRC) was sworn in and then trained by Royal Navy drill sergeants. Members of the  company soon concluded that Governor Douglas had lost interest in  their efforts. When Douglas retired in 1864, and the Company was  refused entry to official B.C. military ceremonies, it disbanded.  One white observer wrote that the VPRC (Company) had been ill-treated  and noted that: “having as much human nature under their dark skins  as others of a paler hue, they cannot readily forget the snubbing they  received ... .”  Most members of the Company returned to the States  after the Civil War ended.

Our Far Corner loomed as a target for both North and South.  Before Lincoln’s election the Democratic Party held key political positions in the West but Lincoln wasted no time in appointing Republican friends  to those positions.  John J. McGilvra, a colleague of Lincoln’s from Illinois (and future developer of Seattle’s charming Madison Park  neighborhood), was appointed to the office of United States district  attorney for the Territory of Washington.  Other Lincoln appointees to  the Territory included Arthur A. Denny, Register of the Land Office  (and a founder of Seattle), and Governor William Pickering.     

Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that the Civil War saw the West  “[break] asunder.”  He points out that the “old” Northwest furnished a  “national hero” (Lincoln) and eventually produced the bulk of the  wartime cabinet: “Vice President, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, Secretary of the Treasury, Postmaster General, Attorney General, General of the Army, and Admiral of the Navy.”  Turner notes that the West soon “took the reins” of Union fighting and government.

The West also did its part as a source of wealth for the Union cause.  For example, Nevada’s silver mines, controlled by Union owners and workers, provided specie needed to purchase armaments and other  equipment for Union armies.  Nevada’s “cooperation” also helped give it an early entry to statehood in 1864.  Lincoln later wrote “ . . . the gold  and silver in the region [mostly from Nevada] ... has made it possible  for the government to maintain sufficient credit to continue this terrible war for the Union.”   

How did our local citizenry react to this commotion?  First, they were exhausted by the Indian Wars in the West.  Second, the initial Civil War battles were fought at remote Virginia crossroads and cow pastures and at strange Atlantic ports.  Third, the winter of 1861 in the Pacific Northwest was unusually cold. When Lincoln’s call came for a  local regiment of infantry, settlers were indifferent.  (Perhaps more than  indifferent: Historian Clinton A. Snowden notes that in Walla Walla County an enrolling officer had a bucket of water thrown over his head.  Firecrackers were set off under the chair of another recruiter. In a separate incident a recruiting officer’s books and papers were  stolen and destroyed.)   

Nard Jones’s novel, Swift Flows the River, refers to a movement called  the Pacific Coast Republic.  What was that?  In the 1840s, Hudson’s  Bay factor John McLoughlin, known to Indians as the “White-headed  Eagle,” mused about creating an elongated nation from Oregon to  California.  (More recent versions refer to a similar area called  “Cascadia.”)  Before the Civil War some West Coast residents imagined  a window to the Pacific from the domain of a new Western republic.  At  the outbreak of the Civil War that old dream of a separate West Coast nation was revived.  Of course transplanted Southerners were among  enthusiastic supporters of this idea -- akin to the breakaway Confederate states.  However, Union sentiment caused the Washington  Territorial Legislature to pass a resolution against the Pacific  Confederacy or Pacific Coast Republic.     

To further confuse the picture, the Washington Territorial Legislature  refused to declare its devotion to the Union, while nevertheless raising  funds for the Union cause: exactly $7,755.33 the first year.  Another  factor at play was that many peaceful, entrenched, and respected  residents had migrated from the South and several of them sat in the  Territorial Legislature.     

Blatant incidents of disloyalty or sabotage in the Pacific Northwest are  hard to prove, but feelings ran high.  After Lincoln Republicans were in place, Southern sympathizers turned to murmuring and gossip, avoiding overt statements and public meetings.  By 1864, after a couple  of Union victories, Confederate sympathizers kept their heads down.   

Who were these “sympathizers”?  Setting aside the errant copperheads  and smattering of Victoria malcontents, most of these citizens were  eminent and peace-loving, and had helped build the Oregon country since the 1850s.     

First, Union heroes with local roots are well-known.  Here are three:  1)    Washington’s first Territorial Governor, railroad engineer and  Indian agent, Isaac I. Stevens, was killed by a bullet through his temple at Chantilly;   2) General Philip H. Sheridan fought in the Yakama Indian  wars as a young lieutenant;   3) Ulysses S. Grant was former quartermaster captain at Vancouver Barracks and later commander of the Union forces.  (Grant couldn’t convince his wife Julia to come West.  She was afraid of  Indians.  He consoled himself by running a store, growing potatoes, and,  it was said, taking a sip of whiskey now and then.)   

On the Confederate side we must cite George E. Picket, onetime  commander in the San Juan Island “Pig War.” Picket led an abortive charge  up Gettysburg’s Cemetery Ridge (and had an earlier relationship with  an Indian woman in the Whatcom/Bellingham area, siring  a son who became a well-known local artist known as “Little Jimmy  Pickett.”).    

And here are four Confederate candidates taken from Marjorie Ann Reeves’s recent history of the Robert E. Lee Seattle Chapter of the  United Daughters of the Confederacy:  1)  William H. Brinker joined the Confederate States Army at age 13, lost two brothers in the war, and in 1893 was appointed by  President Grover Cleveland as U.S. District Attorney for Western Washington;  2) Charles Post Culver served as a doctor for the Confederate  Medical Department, Richmond, Virginia, later moved to Tacoma  where he helped organize the Associated Charities of Tacoma and the  local Humane Society and served on the Tacoma Civil Service  Commission;  3) Louisiana-born John Malcolm Mackenzie joined the Confederate State Navy at age 14, was aboard the ship Virginia when she fought the Monitor, and after fighting wars in Chile and Peru, finally found peace in Tacoma;  4) James Bard Metcalf came from Mississippi, fought for the Confederates at Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Bentonville, and elsewhere, moving to Seattle in 1883 where he practiced law with Junius Rochester (full disclosure: my great uncle) and was appointed the first  Attorney General of Washington Territory by Governor Eugene Semple.  He later helped write the Washington State Constitution.   

Does the story end here?  My contribution does, but reverberations  from the War Between the States continue today with active Union and  Confederate social and patriotic organizations, and ceremonies are  occasionally held at Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery to honor those who  fought for the South and the North.

On the darker side, the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s again reared its head  with meetings and cross-burnings in Issaquah, Seattle, and Bellevue --  albeit most of the later KKK hatred was focused on Roman Catholics.   And, unfortunately, a mindset remains among some of our neighbors  that continues to see a “good” North and a “bad” South.     

Here are Lincoln’s words in an 1862 message to Congress: “Our strife pertains to Ourselves -- to the passing of generations of men; and it can without convulsion be hushed forever with the passing of one  generation.”   I hope our generation and future ones will strive to be understanding  and tolerant when contemplating the wrenching experience of the  American Civil War, a War that reached, as we have seen, even to our  Far Corner.   Thank you.  

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