The War in the Pacific

The dramatic events leading up to the secession of the Southern States, the tragedy of the War Between the States and the ensuing final act of the South’s Reconstruction period were, for the most part, staged east of the Mississippi River, as well as in the waters surrounding the East Coast.  A lesser part of the drama was played out in the vast Trans-Mississippi area, while the scenes that took place on America’s West Coast and in the Pacific drew scant reviews in their day and are now little more than footnotes in American history.  That is not to say, however, that the developments that took place on the east side of the Continental Divide did not have just as telling an effect on those in the newer States of California and Oregon, as well as the Territory of Washington.

In the mid-Nineteenth Century, parts of California were decidedly pro-Southern and even a pro-slavery.  Most of this sentiment developed two years before California attained statehood in 1850 when thousands of Southerners, many with slaves, flocked to the gold fields in the Sacramento area.  Within a few years there were as many as a thousand black slaves in the new State.  In the 1850s, Southerners also held a large portion of California’s elected and appointed offices throughout the State, men who reflected the political thinking and policies of their home States.  When the bonds of the Federal Union were finally broken by the Southern States, their counterparts in the West also urged secession from the United States.  While hundreds returned to the East to enlist in the Confederate military when war came, many more remained in California to work and even to fight for the Southern cause. 

In the far north, there was little actual support for the Confederacy in the area furthest from the main theater of the War, Washington Territory.  Furthermore, slave ownership there had been banned, first by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and then reconfirmed in the Territorial Organic Act of 1848.  There were, however, many Southern sympathizers in the Territory and a number of these also went east to join the Confederate military.  In 1904 and 1905, chapters of the Sons of Confederate and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were established in what was by that time Washington State.  

The State of Oregon which had been admitted to the Union only two years before the start of the War was a far different story.  While almost all of the Federal troops in Washington Territory had been kept there to guard against a possible British invasion from Canada, most of those in Oregon were recalled east.  However, they soon had to be replaced with local militia units to counter a wave of Confederate sentiment.  Such activity was mainly carried out by an anti-Union group, the Knights of the Golden Circle, that formed some armed partisan units, one of which planned to seize Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, while another actually occupied the city of Jacksonville and raised Confederate flags there.

There were also groups of Confederate partisan cavalry which carried out a number of raids in California, mostly in the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco.   Two of the most active units were those which operated in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties just south of San Francisco.  One of these was under the command of Captain Rufus Ingram who had reportedly served with Captain William Quantrill’s Partisan Rangers in Missouri and who had been sent to California under commission to form a similar unit.   The other group was headed by a former Kentuckian from Frankfort County, Thomas Poole, who had had been made the acting sheriff of California’s Montgomery County in 1857.  The primary targets of these irregular units were the gold shipments bound for the Federal treasury which they wanted to capture and send to the Confederacy.  In the summer of 1864, Captain Ingram and Poole with a combined force of about fifty raiders were attacked by Federal troops when they tried to raid a shipment from the New Almaden Mines near San Jose.  Ingram managed to escape and return to Missouri where he continued to fight as a partisan.  Poole, however, was tried for treason and hanged a year later.

Civilian secessionist activity continued to be a danger to the Union throughout the War, and became so widespread in the Los Angeles area that the Federal government constructed a large military facility there in which a number of arrested pro-Confederates were held, mostly without the right of habeas corpus.  Others in the San Francisco area were similarly confined at the recently completed fort on Alcatraz Island . . . the first time that facility had ever been used as a prison.  While the pro-Confederates were never able to take the State out of the Union, their post-war political opposition remained powerful enough to deny the State’s ratification of two of the three Reconstruction Amendments, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, which granted citizenship and voting rights to former slaves.  These two Amendments from 1868 and 1870 were actually not officially ratified by California until 1959 and 1962.  Furthermore, the largest number of Confederate monuments and place names outside the South were in California.

The Federal authorities were also fearful of naval attacks on the West Coast by Confederate sea raiders such as the “CSS Alabama” and “CSS Shenandoah” or, in the event of intervention by England and France, by the warships of those nation’s Pacific fleets.  The Union’s only naval force on the West Coast at the start of the War were the six steam-powered warships of the Pacific Squadron commanded by Commodore John B. Montgomery and based at Mare Island north of San Francisco.  His flagship was the three-year old, twenty-seven gun sloop-of-war “USS Lancaster” with a crew of three hundred sixty-seven men.  Two other ships were the newer six-gun sloop-of-war “USS Wyoming” and the smaller, five-gun sloop-of-war “USS Narragansett .”  The remaining three vessels were the thirteen-year old “USS Saranac,” an eleven-gun side-wheel sloop-of-war; the “USS St. Mary’s,” a seventeen-year old, twenty-two gun sloop-of-war, and the oldest ship, the “USS Cyane,” a twenty-gun sloop that was built in 1837.

In October of 1863, seven ships of the Russian Far East Fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Andrei Popov sailed into San Francisco Bay to assist the Pacific Squadron.  Admiral Popov had orders that in the event of hostile action taken by England or France against either Russia or the United States, his ships were to act as commerce raiders against British and French merchant vessels.  The admiral was also ordered to place his ships under Union command in the event of actual war and to defend San Francisco against attacks by Confederate raiders.  The same year, the first ironclad warship was dispatched to the Pacific, the “USS Camanche,” one of the eight Passaic-Class monitors. The vessel’s dismantled components had been loaded aboard the sailing ship “Aquila” in 1863 and shipped around South America to San Francisco.  After the “Aquila” docked that November, a violent storm hit the area which sank the ship and the still-disassembled monitor.  Other reports stated that during the storm the “Aquila” had collided with or was rammed by another ship that some said may have been manned by Confederate agents.  The “Camanche” was salvaged a year later but was not commissioned until a month after the end of the War.

Even though the Confederate raider “CSS Shenandoah” roamed the Indian and Pacific Oceans from June 1864 until September1865 under Commander James Waddell of North Carolina and sank or captured thirty-eight Union merchant and whaling ships, she was never sighted by any U. S. warship.  The same held true in 1863 for the only other Confederate warship to sail in those waters, the “CSS Alabama” commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes of Maryland.  Semmes took his ship around South Africa and into the Indian Ocean in August of 1863 and after sinking only one ship there, he headed for the South Pacific.  Semmes had learned from a British captain that the “USS Wyoming” under Commander David McDougal was waiting in the Sunda Strait in the Dutch East Indies to block his entry into the Java Sea and the Pacific, but felt that the “Alabama” was more than a match for the Union warship.  The two ships did pass in the strait, coming within twenty-five miles of each other.  After sinking only a half dozen ships in the Pacific and badly in need of repairs, Semmes headed the “Alabama” back to the Atlantic in the spring of 1864, only to meet his ship’s end on June 19 in its fatal battle with the “USS Kearsarge” off the coast of France.

Prior to its close encounter with the “Alabama,” the “Wyoming” had been captained by fifty-year old Commander John Kirkwood Mitchell of Virginia.  When war broke out, Mitchell and a few fellow Southerners attempted to sail the vessel to Panama where it would take on a full crew and be commissioned as a Confederate warship . . . which would have posed a serious threat to Union shipping all along the West Coast.  The plot, however, was discovered and Mitchell was stripped of his rank and dismissed from the Navy.  He immediately left California and headed east to offer his services to the Confederacy.  

Mitchell was made a commander in the Confederate Navy and sent to New Orleans to take charge of the Lower Mississippi River Squadron which contained the ironclads “CSS Louisiana,” “CSS Mississippi” and “CSS Manassas.”  In April of 1862, he was in overall command of the small Confederate naval force that opposed the forty-three ship Union fleet led by Admiral David G. Farragut during the Battle of New Orleans.  Mitchell was later promoted to captain and placed in charge of the Navy’s Bureau of Orders and Detail and in May of 1864, he was made commander of the James River Squadron.  He held that post until February of the following year when he was succeeded by Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes of “Alabama” fame.  Mitchell was promoted to commodore just prior to the end of the War and after his death on December 5, 1889, his collection of over five hundred official documents, letters and other papers from 1862 to 1865 was donated to the Virginia Historical Society Library.

Two other ships of the Pacific Squadron were also involved in efforts to capture vessels for the Confederacy.  In the spring of 1863, a group of Confederate sympathizers seized the sloop “J. M. Chapman” while it was docked in San Francisco and planned to arm it for use as a Confederate privateer.  The old sloop “USS Cyane” chased and boarded the fleeing ship as it was leaving the harbor.  The second incident took place the following November when the Squadron’s flagship “USS Lancaster” sailed to the Bay of Panama in pursuit of the passenger steamer “Salvadore” which had been taken over by a group of Confederates posing as passengers.  Their plan was to turn the ship into a Confederate raider to capture gold shipments from California.  When the steamer was sighted, a boarding party from the “Lancaster” rowed to the ship and retook control.  Only one ship from the Squadron, however, was ever actually engaged in battle during the War, but that fight had nothing to do with the War itself.

After his unsuccessful search for the “Alabama,” Commander McDougal sailed the “Wyoming” to Japan and arrived in Yokohama on May 10, 1863, to take on supplies and undergo repairs.  While there, word was received by the American minister to Japan, Robert Pruyn, that on June 25th an American merchant ship, the “Pembroke,” had been fired on in the Shimonoseki Strait, the waterway between Japan’s main island of Honshu and its southern island of Kyushu.  It was further reported that the French mail ship “Kien Chan” had also been attacked in the same area in early July, as well as a Dutch warship, the “Medusa,” on July 11.  Pruyn immediately ordered McDougal to sail the “Wyoming to the strait, and he arrived there on the evening July 15. 

When the “Wyoming” entered the waterway the following morning, it was fired on by several shore batteries, including some armed with heavy Dahlgren naval cannons that had been presented to Japan by the United States.  In addition, McDougal’s ship was  attacked by three armed Japanese steamships that were also American-made, the four-gun steamer “Koshin,” formerly named the  “Lancefield”, the ten-gun brig “Kasei,” formerly the “Lanrick,” and the six-gun bark “Daniel Webster” which, for some reason, had retained its original name.  After an hour long battle, the “Wyoming” had sunk the “Koshin” and the “Kasei,” driven off the bark and silenced all the cannons ashore.  Aboard the “Wyoming,” five seaman had been killed and seven wounded and the ship itself had been hit over twenty times, suffering severe damage to its rigging and smokestack.

The cause of the battle was the growing dispute between Emperor Komei in Kyoto who had assumed Japan’s Chrysanthemum throne in 1846 and the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo) that had actually ruled the country since 1600.  When Commodore Matthew Perry opened up Japan in 1853 after the country’s two and half centuries of virtual isolation, it was the shoganate, not the emperor, with whom Perry negotiated.  It was also the shogun in Edo who signed the treaties with foreign governments, allowed foreign consulates to be established in Japan and who, in 1860, sent a Japanese delegation to the United States to meet with President Buchanan and members of Congress.  The emperor, however, not only resented his total exclusion from all of these momentous events, but decreed that the growing foreign influence should be ended and what he termed the “barbarians” driven out of the country.  While the shogunate ignored the emperor’s demands, he was supported by the daimyos (lords) in western Japan which led to the attacks on foreigners in 1863 and ultimately Japan’s Boshin War of 1868 that overthrew the shogunate and brought Emperor Komei’s son Mutsuhito, known as Emperor Meiji, to full power in 1869.  Both the United States and Great Britain sided with the emperor’s forces during the Boshin War, while France supported the shogunate.

Regarding the “Wyoming’s” 1863 battle in the Shimonoseki Strait, it would be seventy-five years before there was another engagement between American and Japanese naval forces.  In China on December 12, 1937, three bombers and nine fighter planes of the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked and sank the American gunboat “USS Panay” in the Yangtze River near Nanking.  One member of the ship’s crew was killed and over forty wounded in the incident, with no loss of Japanese personnel or aircraft.  While Japan claimed their pilots had mistaken the “Panay” for a Chinese vessel, apologized for the attack and paid two million dollars in restitution, the affair escalated the already poor relations that had been developing between the two nation since the 1920s, conditions that finally resulted in another and far more fateful December attack on American Navy ships just four years later.

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