PCS Blog

Oregon in the Civil War

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 26 February 2013

Many Oregonians (until today, myself included) probably think of the Civil War as a geographically removed event, seemingly taking place a world away from the newly-minted state of Oregon. Either that, or the annual football matchup between the Ducks and the Beavers.
But did you know that Oregon raised two Union regiments, and that more than 10,000 Union and Confederate veterans made their way to Oregon after the war? Today, their monuments and graves are sprinkled throughout the state. As it turns out, Oregon has some rather impressive Civil War ties, including the battle death of Senator Edward Baker, the Long Tom Rebellion in Eugene and famous figures like U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp. Before we open our Civil War-era drama The Whipping Man (which takes place in Richmond, Virginia), let’s explore Oregon’s involvement in the infamous War Between the States.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861. When it became apparent that the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy would not be short, regular U.S. Army troops in Oregon were withdrawn from their posts and sent east to fight for the Union.  Federal and state officials scrambled to find replacement troops to maintain a military presence and keep the peace in Oregon. So volunteer cavalry and infantry were recruited from Oregon and California to join the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 1st Oregon Cavalry.
A map of Civil War-era military outposts in the Pacific Northwest.
Why was there such an urgent need for replacement soldiers in Oregon? During the Civil War, there was still a huge influx of miners and settlers to the region, hoping to get lucky in the new found gold fields of Oregon, especially near Canyon City and on the John Day River. These gold seekers often clashed with the Paiute, Shoshone and Bannock tribes, who were tempted by the easy pickings of settlers' clothing, food and horses. These conflicts demanded military intervention. So after establishing Camp Watson in 1864, the volunteer units in Oregon were used to guard travel routes and Native American reservations, escort immigrant wagon trains, and protect settlers from Native American raiders. Units also built roads throughout Oregon and engaged in lengthy and often fruitless explorations searching for elusive Native Americans.
But for many of the soldiers the Civil War in Oregon was a monotonous, numbing assignment. Officers recorded desertions, suicides, and bouts in the brig because of drunkenness and misbehavior. The rain was predictable and depressing. Royal A. Bensell, a solider at Fort Yamhill, often wrote in his diary that "nothing transpired of importance."
Secessionist sympathizers, who were in support of the Confederacy, also surfaced in Oregon before and during the Civil War. According to the Oregon Blue Book:
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. But 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.
There were several Oregonians who actively engaged in the War Between the States.
Oregon's second U.S. Senator, Colonel Edward Dickinson Baker, was killed while leading Union troops at the Battle of Ball's Bluff in Virginia on October 21, 1861. He was the only sitting senator to be killed during the Civil War. His death shocked Washington and led to the formation of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Baker's death in battle occurred exactly one month after another Oregonian, Captain James W. Lingenfelter, was killed while on the picket line. In civilian life, Captain Lingenfelter had been a practicing attorney in Jacksonville, Oregon. He had been visiting in the East when the war started and enlisted to serve with Colonel Baker.
Poet Joaquin Miller has been called "The Poet of the Sierras" and the "Byron of
the Rockies." But before he published his first book, Songs of the Sierras, Joaquin
worked in Eugene City as a newspaper editor.As a Quaker he was morally opposed
to war, so he used his newspaper, The Eugene City Democratic Register, to plead
for an end to the Civil War conflict. When he was accused of being a Southern sympathizer, he left the paper and escaped to Port Orford on the Oregon coast. He
later relocated to Canyon City, where he served as Grant County Judge until 1870,
then spent the remainder of his life in Europe (where he found success as a writer) and Oakland, California.
Old West lawman, involved in the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral. So why is he buried in Portland? In 1860, Virgil married a woman named Ellen Rysdam. She bore their only child, Nellie Jane, just two weeks before he left to fight in the Civil War. He was badly wounded in 1861, but Ellen was told by her parents, who had never approved of their marriage, that he had died in battle. Believing them, she packed up and moved to Oregon. When Virgil was discharged from the military at the end of the war, he returned home and found that his family had vanished. Relieved of his domestic duties, he spent the next 33 years serving as a U.S Marshal throughout Arizona and California. In 1898 Virgil received a letter from a Mrs. Levi Law, who turned out to be his daughter Nelle Jane. She was living in Portland with her husband, children and her mother, now Ellen Eaton.
The next year, Virgil traveled to Portland to see them. The Oregonian reported that Virgil "...is now enjoying a very pleasant visit with her and his two grandchildren at her home, which is near that of Mrs. Eaton, in North Portland." When he finally died in 1905, Nellie Jane requested that his remains be sent to her, and he was buried in Portland's River View Cemetary.
Other notable participants include Hartwell B. Compson, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism in the Civil War, then moved to Oregon and became Brigadier General of the Oregon National Guard. Rodolph Crandall served in the Fifth Iowa Cavalry during the Civil War before he moved to Oregon and became a two-term mayor of Hillsboro! And Benjamin Lee Arnold served in the Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee, then moved to Oregon and became the second president of Oregon State University (now we've come full circle, back to the Ducks and the Beavers!).
Click here to read more about Oregonians who were involved in the Civil War, then see The Whipping Man at PCS!
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