How the Civil War played out in Washington Territory

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Last week was the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Pa. I used to think of the Civil War as two sides battling “back East.” But no part of the country escaped the political conflict.

Ron Maxwell, who directed the movie “Gettysburg” (1993), has a new film, that portrays the war away from the battlefields. A copperhead was a Northern Democrat who opposed the war. Maxwell’s copperhead isn’t proslavery but believes it’s wrong for Northerners to settle the issue by conquest. When asked if he loves the Union, he says he does, but he loves his family and neighbors more.

It is a film about loyalty, and what to be loyal to. It is set in upstate New York, but the same passions were here in the Pacific Northwest.

In the new state of Oregon, U.S. Sen. Joseph Lane was the 1860 vice-presidential nominee of the Democrats — the Southern Democrats. Unionists said “Jolane” was a treasonous snake.

In Washington Territory, the governor, Richard Gholson, was a Southern Democrat who had been appointed by President James Buchanan. Gholson resigned effective the day of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, writing that he was “unwilling even for a day to hold office under a (so-called) ‘Republican’ president.”

Lorraine McConaghy, historian at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry, says Gholson died in Tennessee as a guerrilla fighter for the Confederacy.

My roots are northern. I would have been for the Union. But how fervently? “Copperhead” the movie makes you think about that.

As part of a read-in for the museum, I have been skimming the newspapers of that time: one-man, four-page weeklies.

The two sides hurled abuse at each other. In 1865 The Washington Democrat, based in Olympia, charged that Asa Mercer, the pioneer who had famously brought unmarried women from Boston to wed Seattle’s bachelors, was hatching a plan to bring freed black men to work in Puget Sound sawmills ”and fill this country with colored laborers.”

The Seattle Weekly Gazette, a Republican paper, called this a copperhead lie. Later it printed a letter allowing that Mercer had been presented with the idea and appeared to favor it until he sensed the feeling in the Legislature against it.

The roughest I’ve read was on the side with the government behind it. The Union side was free and easy with the word “treason” and talk of hanging the disloyal. In 1861 former Washington Gov. Isaac Stevens, a supporter of ”Jolane,” was hung in effigy at Port Townsend.

In 1865 the Seattle Weekly Gazette said the Democratic candidate for territorial representative to Congress, James Tilton, who was president of the University of Washington, had stretched honor, decency and the truth, but had “not stretched hemp.”

This kind of talk comes out of war. When the paper made that comment, the war had ended and Lincoln had been assassinated. The cause of his killing, in the paper’s view: “The spirit of the copperhead party.”

All this seems distant. There have been other wars, and in the more recent ones “isolationists,” “peaceniks” and the like have been attacked politically but not usually threatened with the rope.

Still, in a war you are expected to go along with the government, and you will face difficulties if you publicly object.

Maxwell’s film is a reminder of that. So far, “Copperhead” is not scheduled to show in theaters, but it can be streamed on demand via online, cable and satellite services. It’s worth seeing.

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