Oregon Civil War History

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Oregon in the American Civil War

Oregon Civil War History

Oregon American Civil War History Map
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Oregon and the Road to Statehood Map

Oregon and the Road to Statehood

Issues far from Oregon shaped affairs along the Pacific Coast in the 1850s. Sectional tensions heightened during the bumbling presidencies of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. The Compromise of 1850 gained a little time, but its concessions satisfied neither proslavery extremists in the South nor abolitionists in the North. The nation was on its course to the American Civil War (1861-1865). Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, enraged slaveowners as it swept across the country in a powerful indictment of the "peculiar institution." Formation of the Republican Party in 1854, troubles in "Bleeding Kansas" in 1856, the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1858 confirmed the divisions and tensions. The Republicans had drawn the line--no further expansion of slavery. They nominated John C. Fremont, a popular western explorer, for the presidency. Although Fremont lost, within four years their candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was headed to Washington, D.C., as the 16th president. Passions were high. Then came secession and war.
Three parties vied for political control in Oregon. The Democrats were an odd lot, including northerners opposed to slavery and southern diehards who supported an institution barred by the Organic Act of 1848. The Whigs held political patronage in the early 1850s but watched their party disintegrate nationally. The Know-Nothings were opposed to the political clique that had managed territorial government in Salem. These divisions confirmed the heavy hold of old persuasions and attitudes--the intellectual baggage carried by emigrants.

Without enabling legislation from Congress, Oregonians voted in June 1857 to hold a constitutional convention. The delegates assembled in Salem during the summer and drafted a governing document. It was modeled on those of Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan. The constitution limited public debt and placed tight controls on banks and corporations. An agricultural people, the convention delegates argued, had little use for frivolous expenditures or unnecessary institutions. In the fall voters faced three questions. Did they approve the constitution? They voted yes. Did they want slavery? They voted 7,727 no and 2,645 yes. Did they want freed African-Americans to live in Oregon? They voted eight to one against permitting their residency.

The actions in 1857 were predictable. Oregonians hungered for control of their own government and an end to the patronage appointments produced by shifting administrations in Washington, D.C. They also affirmed they did not want slavery in Oregon. The question of driving free African-Americans from the new state revealed resoundingly racist attitudes. They did not see freed slaves, Indians, or women standing equally before the law. In this Oregonians differed little from Thomas Jefferson. Architect of the Declaration of Independence and its gracefully worded affirmations of natural rights, Jefferson was a slave-owner all his adult life. He could not rise to the noble philosophy of personal freedom he articulated in the 1770s. Oregonians in 1857 appeared to have drunk from the same well.
In June, 1858, residents of the territory elected officials as defined by their new constitution. For months the fate of Oregon statehood floated on shifting political coalitions distrustful of changing the fragile balance of power in Congress. It was known Oregon would be a free state, yet its newly elected senators--Joseph Lane and Delazon Smith--were proslavery Democrats. Finally Congress acted and on February 14, 1859, President Buchanan signed the bill, and Oregon joined the Union.

Oregon and Southern Secession Map
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Oregon and the American Civil War Map

Oregon and the American Civil War

The plunge to Civil War exploded on April 12, 1861, in the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. When it became apparent the conflict would not be short, the Army began removing regular soldiers from the District of Oregon. Because of the responsibility to guard the reservations and maintain a military presence, especially in central and eastern Oregon where gold discoveries generated a rapid influx of miners and settlers, Federal and state officials scrambled to find replacement troops. The Department of the Pacific raised recruits and dispatched companies of California Volunteers to Fort Yamhill, Fort Hoskins, and Siletz Blockhouse. The Army abandoned Fort Umpqua in 1862. The First Oregon Volunteer Cavalry and the First Washington Territory Infantry went to central Oregon. During the Civil War, Oregon raised six companies of cavalry. Known officially as the First Oregon Cavalry, they served until June, 1865.
Secessionist sympathizers surfaced in Oregon. The Knights of the Golden Circle, an anti-Union group, reportedly plotted the seizure of Fort Vancouver, military headquarters on the Columbia River. They did not act. When pro-Confederate partisans raised their flag in Jacksonville, they faced opposition and backed down. The Long Tom Rebellion was perhaps the most noteworthy outbreak of secessionist feeling. Emboldened by the assassination of President Lincoln, Philip Henry Mulkey walked the streets of Eugene on May 6, 1865, shouting: "Hurrah for Jeff Davis, and damn the man that won't!" The First Oregon Volunteer Infantry arrested Mulkey, who promptly grabbed a glass of water and toasted Jeff Davis, the Confederate president. A pro-Union mob, wanting to lynch Mulkey, broke down the jail door. Mulkey slashed one of the men with a hidden knife. Mulkey's supporters from the Long Tom district were ready to fight, but the infantry slipped Mulkey out of town under an armed guard, loaded him on a steamboat, and sent him off to three months in jail at Fort Vancouver. Mulkey sued for $10,000 for false arrest. After 14 court appearances over a two-year period, he settled for $200.
For many of the soldiers the Civil War in Oregon was a monotonous, numbing assignment. In their monthly post returns, officers recorded desertions, suicides, and bouts in the brig because of drunkenness and misbehavior. The Indians were quiet on the Siletz and Grand Ronde Reservations. The rain was predictable and depressing. "Nothing transpired of importance," recorded Royal A. Bensell, a soldier at Fort Yamhill. Too many days brought that refrain in his Civil War diary.

East of the Cascades the troops had active engagement. Gold discoveries at Canyon City and other diggings on the headwaters of the John Day River and in the Powder River country on the eastern slopes of the Blue Mountains had drawn thousands of miners. The Northern Paiute, disrupted in their seasonal round and tempted by the easy pickings of clothing, food, and horses, embarked on raids and conflicts that demanded military intervention. The Oregon Volunteer Infantry and Cavalry established Camp Watson (1864) after placing troops at temporary stations: Dahlgren, Currey, Gibbs, Henderson, and Maury. The forces engaged in lengthy and often fruitless explorations searching for the elusive Indians.
Realizing that the problems east of the Cascades were of long duration, the U.S. Army established Fort Klamath (1863), Camp Warner (1866), and Fort Harney (1867). During the summer of 1864 Captains John M. Drake and George B. Curry and Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Drew led troops on sweeps through southeastern Oregon, northern Nevada, and southwestern Idaho. They had little success in finding the "enemy." "These tribes can be gathered upon a reservation, controlled, subsisted for a short time, and afterwards be made to subsist themselves," commented the superintendent of Indian affairs, "for one-tenth the cost of supporting military forces in pursuit of them." In time that happened. The Klamath Reservation and the short-lived Malheur Reservation included various bands of Northern Paiute. The Civil War in Oregon mostly involved guarding reservations or pursuing native peoples who were masters of escape in their own homelands.
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Source: sos.state.or.us


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