- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Students of the Civil War tend to focus on the battles east of the Mississippi, while significant events in the West often are less noticed. Very little is noted, however, about happenings in what later became the Rocky Mountain states U.S. territories during the War Between the States.
The gold-mining towns of Idaho Territory (from which the Territory of Montana was carved in 1864) were critical to the necessary financing to keep the federal government in business. As the Union mobilized to let major contracts for arms, ships, supplies and other materiel, as hundreds of new factories were being built for the immense effort, liquid wealth with which to make the purchases was imperative.
In the South, there was practically none of this capital, while the Union had astounding supplies of necessary assets. The South had bales of cotton standing on the wharves, while the North had wealth primarily in the form of gold.
In 1861, gold was discovered in the area of the Mullen Road, then in Bannack in 1862 and finally in Virginia City in 1863. In Virginia City and the surrounding gold fields, there was an astonishing amount to be mined.
At the beginning of the war, however, there was little population in the region, but as the war progressed, folks flowed into then-Idaho Territory from the gold fields of California and especially from the Southern states, including many former Confederate soldiers. With the prospectors came those who lived off the findings of the miners bankers, merchants, gamblers and prostitutes. Among them were Granville Stuart (with his 12-year-old Indian wife) and Henry Plummer, sheriff by day, bandit by night, whom Stuart's Vigilante associates eventually hanged in Bannack in January 1864 after his gang had accounted for more than 100 murders.
The gold was being mined and managed by a population of mostly active, vociferous and rebellious secessionists. Virginia City had originally been christened "Varina," the name of the wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, but when those favoring "Varina City" went to the Fairweather Mining District officially to establish the town site, the judge G. G. Bissell from Connecticut said, "Oh, no, boys. The closest you will get is Virginia."
A secessionist town in a Union territory was typical of the mix of loyalties and allegiances that existed in the American West at the start of the war.For example, Union "vigilance committees" would execute "criminals," sometimes influenced by political sentiment: One of the first victims shouted, "Hooray for Jeff Davis," and leaped from the hanging box to his death. There are also inferences that an undercover unit of the Confederate army transported gold to support the South, while it interfered with shipments to places with Northern loyalties.
That this essential resource be protected at all costs was obvious to the Union, and taming the unruly enemy forces there was a vital confrontation in the war. Victory would assure the availability of an astoundingly rich prize.The actual amount of gold from Virginia City is difficult to comprehend:The miners were extracting $18 million worth of gold (at today's value) every week.
In September 1862, U.S. Army Capt. James Liberty Fisk brought 130 persons to the gold fields west of the Rockies, although a large number of his party diverted to new discoveries at Bannack. These newcomers were brought from St. Paul at Union expense as part of the federal strategy to protect the gold for the North.
Supported by War Department funds, Fisk continued his convoys. He arrived again in September 1863, and from Denver in that same month came merchant Paris Pfouts (who later was a founder of the Vigilantes and became first mayor of Virginia City), an outspoken secessionist.In that same group was Jack Gallagher, a New York adventurer whom Pfouts was destined to lynch, and Molly Sheehan with her storekeeper father, an Irish immigrant who was a solid Democrat but pro-Union.
Pfouts was angered by the requirement that the party sign a statement of loyalty to the Union, so having arrived in Bannack they immediately set out for Virginia City, about 70 miles away. Other arrivals in Virginia City included 40 U.S. Army soldiers who had deserted their Indian fighting units.
From the Oval Office, the West looked fairly stable. The northern regions were for the Union, the southern part sympathetic to the Confederacy, but the struggles were usually quiet. Montana, however, was the exception, and reports about secessionist activities were unsettling. Nevertheless, President Lincoln would strive to keep Virginia City within the Union fold.
His "man in Montana," the first appointed territorial governor, Sidney Edgerton, was constantly frustrated, and Southern supporters were active and vocal. In any vote, he was completely ignored and defeated. One community of about 150 registered voters turned out 600 secessionist votes.
The governor's daughter would later write, "Threats had been made that anyone would be shot who dared to raise the star spangled banner [sic]. The threats proved to be mere bravado; but drunken horsemen galloping by at night often fired random at the red, white and blue target while hurrahing lustily for Jeff Davis."
At the first territorial legislative session, Edgerton called Southerners "uncultivated savages." But the divided legislature adopted a resolution proclaiming itself loyal to the Union.
To deal with the highly divided sentiments,Union interests supported immigration by loyal northerners toBannack and Virginia City, where they might make their fortunes off the miners and eventually politically control the secessionist, unruly population.
Montana was admitted to the Union in 1889, adding to its turbulent frontier history the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Along with ranching, mining remained a staple of the economy, copper eventually rivaling gold as lodestone for the state. Nearly a century and a half after the Civil War, however, echoing loyalties and memories of the war in the old gold country of Montana, although tamed by time, still exist.
The Virginia City Preservation Alliance, for instance, on Aug. 17 will hold a "Grand Ball of 1864" at which "Hostilities will be set aside for the evening," reads the announcement. "Insults, Fighting, and Profanity will not be tolerated.Weapons will be held at the door. Peace shall reign. Confederate money will not be accepted."

William S. Connery is an editor with the World & I magazine, and has recently written on "Gold Along Grasshopper Creek: Montana's Ghost Towns Cling to Life."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide