Sunday, November 4, 2012

McArthur: "THE ENEMY NEVER CAME: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest"

[The Enemy Never Came: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest by Scott McArthur (Caxton Press, 2012). Softcover, map, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:250/286. ISBN:978-0-87004-512-7 $18.95]

Those seeking an education in the Pacific Northwest Civil War experience can point to a number of useful journal articles, theses, and dissertations, as well as other bits and pieces scattered about, but Scott McArthur's The Enemy Never Came: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest is the first book length study to be published. Though McArthur does at times venture to the far reaches of the PNW, his book is largely centered upon the Willamette Valley of Oregon. This narrower focus than the title implies will disappoint some readers, but it is understandable given the valley's population and its political, economic, and cultural significance (e.g. the capital lies in the valley, Portland is located at its north end, and the most important newspapers hailed from the region).

McArthur begins with a brief history of the settlement of the Pacific Northwest and the response of its residents to the outbreak of Civil War. A significant number of settlers were from the border states and the South, and Democratic governor John Whiteaker was not especially keen on participating in the conflict. The author cites the insular political climate, the great distance to the fighting fronts, and the proximity of newly discovered gold fields in Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia as important factors in the generally poor response to the call for troops (at least in Oregon). Only three regiments, the 1st Oregon Volunteer Cavalry, 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry, and the 1st Washington Territorial Infantry, were raised in the Pacific Northwest. Unlike the Washington unit, the Oregon formations did not accept Californians and were only able to recruit in fits and starts, never achieving full regulation strength.

With the departure of all but a few companies of regulars, the most immediate threat came in the form of restive Indian tribes. McArthur describes many small scale punitive expeditions, the most significant conducted east of the Cascade Mountains. Other threats, imagined real at the time, were omnipresent. Authorities feared uprisings by southern sympathizers in the Willamette Valley and below (perhaps fomented by secret societies like the Knights of the Golden Circle), seaborne threats by the British navy and Confederate privateers, and land incursions from Canada and even the Mormons of Utah. In addition to highlighting these largely groundless fears, McArthur covers responses to them like the suppression of Democratic "Copperhead" newspapers in Portland, Salem, Eugene, Albany, and Corvallis.

Civilian and soldier life are also discussed. Frontier existence was isolated and difficult, but the regional economy benefited from the war to some extent. Proceeds from the gold fields enriched both individuals and those that supplied their efforts, and local industries (e.g. wool production, lumber, fisheries, and coal extraction) expanded. The soldiers had the usual complaints of Civil War fighting men, and the usual vices. Exceptional tedium, dreams of mining riches, and the false promise of transfer to the east, all undoubtedly contributed to a high rate of desertion in the Oregon and Washington regiments.

The bibliography offers a nice collection of material (including books, articles, newspapers, theses, dissertations, government documents, and manuscript collections) on a neglected subject. While still leaning on oft used primary sources like Royal Bensell and William Hilleary1, McArthur was also able to uncover other interesting on-the-ground perspectives from the archives.

Beyond the comparative neglect of the Washington Territory2, my main complaint with the book is with its organization. The writing is choppy and the chapters are largely self-contained discussions. The latter is not necessarily bad, but, in this case, significant gaps in coverage emerge. Nevertheless, The Enemy Never Came is easily the most comprehensive introduction to the subject of the Civil War in the Pacific Northwest that one can find in stores. Both author and publisher deserve a great deal of credit for bringing the topic out of the shadows.

1 - Both have been published, Bensell in Gunter Barth's All Quiet on the Yamhill (University of Oregon Press, 1959) and Hilleary in A Webfoot Volunteer: The Diary of William M. Hilleary, 1864-1866, edited by Herbert B. Nelson and Preston Onstad (Oregon State University Press, 1965), the latter much more difficult to obtain.
2 - Happily, historian Lorraine McConaghy plans to publish a study of the role of Washington Territory in the Civil War.

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