Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review - "On Duty in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War: Correspondence and Reminiscences of the First Oregon Cavalry Regiment" by James Jewell, ed.

[ON DUTY IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST DURING THE CIVIL WAR: Correspondence and Reminiscences of the First Oregon Cavalry Regiment edited by James Robbins Jewell (University of Tennessee Press, 2018). Hardcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xlix,244/403. ISBN:978-1-62190-367-3. $45]

In January 1861, the prewar Oregon and California military departments were merged to form the U.S. Army's Department of the Pacific. The new administrative entity was a vast geographical expanse with initial boundaries encompassing, in part or in full, the modern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, and Arizona. Though critical to the future plans of the country and prominent source of sectional antagonism, the Far West and its fast-growing population, burgeoning economic stature, and military contributions have until recently been largely neglected topics in the Civil War literature. In recent years, however, there has been a noticeable uptick in scholarly interest in the region's Civil War era history, with diverse studies and essay collections from authors and editors Andrew Masich, Glenna Matthews, Virginia Scharff, Tom Prezelski, Adam Arenson, Andrew Graybill, Richard Etulein, and others. On a related front, traditional resistance among scholars toward drawing significant connections between the distant Civil War and the many concurrent Indian conflicts of the frontier West has also lessened somewhat over this same period.

In terms of published books, Aurora Hunt's now quite dated The Army of the Pacific: Its Operations in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Plains Region, Mexico, etc., 1860-1866 (1951) remains perhaps the closest representation of a widely available Pacific Department history. A much greater influence upon modern scholars of the Civil War in the Far West has been Glenn Thomas Edwards's pioneering unpublished 1963 dissertation "The Department of the Pacific in the Civil War." Edwards's earlier University of Oregon Master's thesis "Oregon Regiments in the Civil War Years: Duty on the Indian Frontier" (1960) was similarly pathbreaking. One can certainly see parallel interests in the current scholarship of historian James Jewell, whose own doctoral work* addressed the Department of the Pacific. A further outgrowth from Edwards, Jewell's newly released On Duty in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War: Correspondence and Reminiscences of the First Oregon Cavalry Regiment is the only press published book of any kind that explores the soldiers, field service, and legacy of that regionally indispensable unit of volunteers.

With the departure en masse of frontier Regular Army officers and men to points east in 1861, state and territorial governments under the umbrella of the Pacific Department were largely left to their own devices when it came to self defense. To fill the vacuum, the states of California and Oregon and the territories of Washington and Nevada (the last achieving statehood in 1864) committed themselves to raising volunteer regiments. Generally speaking, the response from citizens and authorities was strong, if a bit slower in places where threats seemed most distant. California alone raised well over 15,000 troops for service throughout the West and more sparsely populated Oregon, Washington, and Nevada also contributed units of their own. Oregon's non-native population was concentrated in the Willamette Valley, where the absence of real local threats (Confederate, Indian, or otherwise) combined with, in Jewell's opinion, the foot dragging of the state's Democratic governor made recruitment a lengthy process. Nevertheless, by mid-1862 six mounted companies were organized for three-year service and attached to the First Oregon, with others to follow down the line.

Bands of Western Shoshoni, Northern Paiute, and Bannock (the last linguistically linked to the Northern Paiutes but more geographically and culturally associated with the Shoshoni) had been raiding emigrant trails, ranches, and mining camps beyond the Oregon Cascades and into Idaho throughout the 1850s, and it was these so-called "Snake Indian" enemies (a collective term for the tribal groups living in the Snake River Valley and surrounding areas) that comprised the First Oregon Cavalry's primary military target during the Civil War years. As was the case throughout the western states and territories, there were always rumors of pro-Confederate plots and potential uprisings in Oregon, but none of those threats proved credible. The primary hope of many Oregon enlistees was to fight Confederates, but most accepted that their lot would be the remain in the region and assume the military roles previously performed by the frontier Regulars. Most of the Oregon troopers were shipped to Fort Dalles (OR), Fort Klamath (OR), and Fort Walla Walla (WA) in 1862-63, where they would use those posts as bases of operation for Indian expeditions into the rugged river basins of eastern Oregon and across the border into Idaho.

As stated above, no full-length regimental history of the First Oregon Volunteer Cavalry has ever been published and On Duty does not aspire to fill that particular gap, but Jewell's highly informative general introduction (which delves significantly into unit organization, enlistment motivation factors, and select soldier backgrounds) and his incorporation throughout the volume of detailed operational summaries in support of the featured source correspondence mark the book as perhaps the next best thing. Most of the Oregon troopers did not reenlist in 1864, and Jewell also describes the efforts of the remaining few (with the help of the newly raised First Oregon Infantry) to cope with an expanding Snake War. Jewell's supporting text even extends far into the postwar period, where he recounts the impact of First Oregon Cavalry veterans on the region's political and economic development. As a limited unit study of a unique and little-known Civil War regiment, there is much to admire here.

Jewell's expansive introduction, excellent series of contextual mini-narratives, and full transcriptions of the newspaper correspondence of First Oregon soldiers (who wrote anonymously to a number of regionally prominent news outlets, including the Walla Walla Statesman, Jacksonville Oregon Sentinel, Portland Oregonian, and Salem Oregon Statesman) fill roughly the first half of the volume. For their greater historiographical value, the letter compilation will likely be of most interest to scholars and more general readers alike. Posterity is certainly fortunate in that all of the soldier-correspondents wrote vivid prose and were keen observers of both military operations and the natural world they encountered along the way.

The second half of the book is a collection of nine reminiscences, either full or fragmentary, written by ten First Oregon officers and enlisted men (one account is co-authored), all of whom were Midwestern emigrants to Oregon. Revisiting at length many of the events written about in the newspaper articles, they also offer (though colored by the passage of time) additional insights not previously addressed in the correspondence.

After a largely passive 1862, the six First Oregon companies would disperse in 1863 and attempt to coordinate a series of converging operations against the Snakes. But first the government tasked them with reestablishing official contact with the powerful Nez Perces and maintain friendly relations. That particular goal was achieved, but field operations against the Snakes using traditional enemies as scouts and guides still yielded little in the way of military success. In the end, as was the case in so many other frontier campaigns fought by U.S. forces against mobile Indian foes operating within their native lands, the Oregon troopers ended up riding vast distances for little gain.

Frustrated with the general failure to find let alone defeat the elusive Snakes, an even larger First Oregon campaign was planned for 1864. As before, that year's mixture of independent and combined operations met with no great success in engaging the enemy. A small clash on May 18 was notable for resulting in the death of Lt. Stephen Watson, the only officer the regiment would lose to enemy action during the Civil War years. As author Gregory Michno showed in his 2007 book The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864-1868, the Snake War would go on to have a human cost far exceeding the tiny space it holds in the national consciousness. The letters and reminiscences collected and edited in this volume are invaluable resources for those wishing to research and study the early stages of that underappreciated conflict.

Oregon volunteers also had a very prominent non-military role to fulfill during the war. Many Civil War soldiers never saw their service as putting aside their rights and concerns as private citizens. In this way, Oregon troopers viewed wartime exploration of the countryside for potential resource development as going hand in hand with their military duties. Readers appreciated their keenly observed and highly detailed descriptions and assessments of the region's climate, flora, fauna, soil compositions, geology, and water resources. The First Oregon's mounted expeditions could last months and cover a thousand miles or more, and there is such an intense focus on the environment in their newspaper reports that Jewell is almost undoubtedly correct in his interpretation that the soldier-correspondents as a whole felt themselves obliged to inform the reading public about future development opportunities in those newly explored areas. While one might reasonably suppose the Civil War to have briefly postponed western consolidation and expansion, the book also makes clear that those processes were not slowed much by the conflict, if at all.

Complaints are very minor. There are a few too many typos in the book to escape notice. Also, the cartography, which consists primarily of sparsely featured area maps, is less helpful than it could have been. Maps tracing the pathways taken by the many eastern Oregon military expeditions recounted in the text (with notable dates and applicable skirmish locations labeled) would have significantly enhanced reader understanding of those events.

The first venture into the Far West by University of Tennessee Press's venerable Voices of the Civil War series, On Duty in the Pacific Northwest during the Civil War is a unique contribution on a number of grounds. Together with James Jewell's expert editing, annotation, and historical commentary, the volume's extensive compilation of First Oregon letters and memoirs offers readers the best single resource available for learning about the First Oregon Cavalry Regiment. Like other frontier studies before it, particularly those examining the role of Union veterans in the evolution of the Desert Southwest, the book also very appropriately sees Oregon's Civil War volunteers as key forces in the drive to expand U.S. government control over the lands of the Pacific Northwest and further the development the region's abundant natural resources. Highly recommended.

* - Jewell, James Robbins. "Left Arm of the Republic: The Department of the Pacific During the Civil War." Ph.D. diss., West Virginia Univ., 2006. It is currently under development for publication.

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