Civil War in the Pacific Northwest

Document - Voices of the Past: Bluecoats and Copperheads

Above: Dr. Joseph K. Barnes served in Vancouver before becoming Surgeon General of the U.S. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Voices of the Past: Bluecoats and Copperheads, by Donna Sinclair, from the Vancouver Voice, Volume 3, Issue 6, February 12, 2009.

Vancouver played an unforeseen, and oft-forgotten, role in one of the nation's bloodiest, most significant conflicts -- the Civil War. The Pacific Northwest produced many leaders whose names you might recognize. Some will surprise you. Others will not: Benjamin Alvord, Benjamin Bonneville, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry C. Hodges, Rufus Ingalls, George McClellan, August V. Kautz, Phil Kearney, Alfred Pleasonton, Joshua W. Sill, and George Wright. These men all served in a frontier army that provided little opportunity for advancement. As one historian put it, before the Civil War promotion occurred only by seniority and was "glacially slow."

An extraordinary number of soldiers who became generals, both Confederate and Union, served in Vancouver in the decade before the war. Many were friends. Some were not. This was a small army and their Northwest connections sometimes continued on a national level. As a young lieutenant in the 1850s, Ulysses S. Grant came to Vancouver. He lived at "Quartermaster Ranch" with Rufus Ingalls, Captain Brent and Henry C. Hodges. The latter was quartermaster for the 1853 McClellan Expedition that mapped one segment of the potential Transcontinental Railroad route. At that time, Grant worked for Hodges, filling supply orders to outfit the expedition. Later, when Grant led the Union Armies, Hodges worked for him. Hodges became a colonel during the Civil War and Quartermaster of the Army of the Cumberland. Grant, George Pickett and Rufus Ingalls attended West Point together. Ingalls served as aide de camp to General McClellan during the war and Grant later made Ingalls Quartermaster General of the Army, as well as a frequent guest to the White House.

Others who served in the Northwest of the 1850s built reputations as Indian fighters, including Union General Philip Sheridan, who was instrumental in forcing Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Many Indian foes and Civil War heroes served in Vancouver before the war. George Crook, best known for his conflict with Geronimo, served in the Northwest of the 1850s. During the War Between the States, he became a Union general and prisoner of war. The brutal Indian fighter William Selby Harney, one of only four generals in the Army in the late 1850s, commanded Fort Vancouver during the Yakima Indian Wars in 1858. He then brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Great Britain in 1859 in the "Pig War." Harney sent George Edward Pickett to command American troops on the British San Juan Islands in a conflict over land. Harney's tense term ended in 1860, when Colonel George Wright relieved him.

Some well-known soldiers who served at Fort Vancouver joined the Confederate Army and became generals, including George B. Crittendon, George Pickett, and Nathan Wickliffe. William Wing Loring, who led the Mounted Riflemen to Vancouver in 1849, resigned from the U.S. Army in 1861 and joined the Confederates. He quickly became a Confederate Brigadier General. His first assignment pitted him against George McClellan. Gabriel J. Rains, Sheridan's Northwest commander became a Confederate Brigadier General. He also invented the Civil War incarnation of the land mine, sub terra shells or "land torpedoes."

When news of secession arrived in April 1861, some Northwestern Americans called for an independent republic. Others strongly supported one side or the other. Confederate sympathies ran high in Oregon. The state solved the dilemma of slavery in its 1859 constitution by banning both "free Negroes" and slaves. In 1862, Oregon also imposed a $5.00 tax on all Blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians and "Mulattos," in an effort to deter settlement by the multicultural communities formed during the fur trade era. The state also banned marriages between whites and anyone more than one-quarter black. Washington Territory did not become a state until 1889, long after the Civil War, and thus did not adopt racially exclusionary laws.

Vancouver's Civil War story is one of generals and volunteers, settlement and conflict, opportunity and despair. When the war began, Vancouver's regular soldiers immediately headed east to fight. They were gradually replaced by volunteer troops from Oregon and California. Those troops made up the First Oregon Cavalry, which was stationed at Vancouver throughout the war. At times, these volunteer soldiers lamented their plight. Some longed for bloody battles, rather than dreary drill. One volunteer soldier, William Hilleary, described daily life: "My appetite is hard to satisfy or the fare is scant today. Eatables demand high prices. A soldier can eat up all his wages and not be a glutton eater." Sometimes the food was spoiled or barely edible: "Some still would say that you were a copperhead if you did not eat it without grumbling." Of Vancouver, Hilleary wrote: "the observer is forcibly struck with the beautiful situation for a city, but alas every alternate house that he passes is a grog shop or house of ill fame." Volunteer recruits were hard to find. Pay was poor, conditions were bad, and many headed either north or south. Others still headed to the goldfields of California and Eastern Oregon.

Those volunteers who remained left a legacy that contributed to further Western settlement. Not only did they guard emigrant and supply routes along the Oregon Trail, they also explored the Northwest and left maps, roads, and new forts behind them. By the end of the 1870s, the second round of Northwest Indian wars had been fought, this time led by Civil War General Oliver Otis Howard, whose name still lingers in the region. There are many others, whose stories have been less noted, but whose connections to the Northwest continue. August V. Kautz served in the Northwest in the 1850s. He lived with an Indian woman named Kate and also advocated for Chief Leschi of the Nisqually, who was executed in 1858. Kautz became a Brigadier General of Volunteers during the Civil War. When he left the Northwest for the Civil War, he, like many others, left a different kind of legacy--his two children. Kautz returned to the Northwest and to Vancouver as commander of the military Department of the Columbia from 1892 to 1892. He then retired to Seattle with his wife, and died in 1895. [Vancouver Voice, Feb. 12, 2009]

The Center for Columbia River History is sponsoring a regular feature column in the Vancouver Voice. To read "Voices of the Past," pick up a Vancouver Voice or click here.