Deep political division, violence, a nasty, partisan media. This year we remember the so-called "Secession Winter" of 1861 as the United States fragmented and fell apart in what was the most tumultuous time in our nation's history.
While nothing since has matched it for intensity and the resultant bloodshed, it resonates today where issues like states' and civil rights are fought over in legislatures and the courts, where race is still a great unhealed wound, where Blue and Red states (as opposed to Blue and Gray) squeeze citizens in the ideological middle, where the Constitution and guns are frequently waved.
This year is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. While most of the politics and fighting happened from the Mississippi River on east, Pacific Northwesterners would do well to use the occasion to review what happened here in the 1850s and '60s, a critical period in the settlement of the region and the formation of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Indeed, Oregon's statehood was hotly debated: Should it be a slave state, or free? The region's newspapers were as nasty as the blogosphere, so virulently vituperative and partisan that such journalism became known nationally as "Oregon style." When a person got to the end of the Oregon trail, they could still be in the thick of things.
War politics helped carve Idaho out of the Washington Territory, which in 1861 consisted of the current states of Washington, Idaho, and large chunks of Montana and Wyoming. It played a role in the birth of Oregon in 1859. As a whole, Oregon Country was remote but still involved in conflicts over slavery, popular sovereignty, territorial rights, and federal control. Many major players in the political conflict and Civil War itself had starring, or at least cameo roles here, especially military men doing frontier service.
Ulysses S. Grant was stationed for a while at Fort Vancouver, where it is said his drinking problems began, in part due to the damp and loneliness. George Pickett, later the Confederate officer famous for Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, a moment called the "high-water mark of the Confederacy," helped hold the San Juan Islands for America against Great Britain during the Pig War. Phil Sheridan, Winfield Scott, and George B. McClellan were also here fighting Indians, surveying road and rail routes, or negotiating agreements.
On the political side, the campaign of 1860 featured the Northwest's first-ever candidate on a national ticket. The southern-born Joseph Lane, first territorial governor then senator from Oregon, was the vice presidential candidate along with presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge, one of the two competing Democratic tickets that year (the other Democratic ticket was headed by Lincoln's rival, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois).
The Democratic party had split, mostly north and south, on the subject of the expansion of slavery into the territories. Breckinridge/Lane was the preferred ticket of the South: They won 11 southern states and came in second in the electoral college.
Running that pro-Southern, slavery-friendly campaign was Isaac I. Stevens, Washington's territorial delegate in Congress and the man, more than any other, who is the state's founding father. He served as territorial governor, scouted railway routes, negotiated — sometimes with brutal force — the region's Indian treaties. In 1860, many of the Northwest's leading political actors, our stars on the national stage, were sympathetic with Dixie, not abolitionists or "Black Republicans" like Abraham Lincoln.
Thanks to a divided vote that split Democrats between Breckinridge and Douglas, the young Pacific Coast states of California and Oregon went for Lincoln. Yet the Republican vote did not mean racial enlightenment. Historian Robert Johannsen described the debates over race and slavery in his book Frontier Politics and Sectional Conflict: the Pacific Northwest on the Eve of the Civil War. Oregon's citizens voted to reject slavery by a wide margin, but by an even wider margin they voted to ban all blacks and mulattos, free or slave, from the new state, which joined the union in 1859. Many urged that the Pacific Northwest become an all-white enclave.
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