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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wyoming in the Civil War

I posted this item on our other blog, Lex Anteinternet, very recently for a variety of reasons:
Lex Anteinternet: The Stars and Bars as viewed from outside the Sout...: As everyone is well aware, there's been a controversy over the Confederate battle flag, the Stars and Bars, brought about by the recent ...
In doing this, it occurred to me to link this item over here, as I mentioned Wyoming's role in the Civil War in the post. 

Now, given that I've started this sidebar in this fashion, this will be a bit of an odd one, in that it has commentary inserted in it.  Nonetheless, this is an important story that I've omitted, and should not have.  As this blog isn't updated daily, like it once was, omitting a story like this is a defect that is easy to carry forward, but I really should remedy it, particularly as we're coming up on one of the seminal events of that story, the Battle of Platte Bridge Station.

But, before we do, some added commentary.

In recent years I've seen something around here that I never saw when I was young, which is the flying of the Stars and Bars by some people here locally.  People who do this are, as a rule, people who have moved in, and I think the battle jack of the Confederacy has some relevance to them, that it does not to those of us who are from here.  Indeed, for Wyomingites, the Confederate battle jack can be offensive.  We don't associate it with regional pride the way some people do, but rather with a foreign otherness of which we were not part. This, in no small part, has to do with our regional history, which is not Confederate.

So to that story.

Wyoming didn't exist as political entity until 1868, but the land which became Wyoming certainly did.  Residents of what became the state wouldn't have conceived of it a geopolitical entity during the war, but the region that became the state definitely participated in it. Wyoming was active during the war.

When the Civil War broke out a large part of the Army was located in the American West engaged in guarding the frontier, principally against Native Americans but also against border incursions and threats from the south and potentially from the north. The big exception would have been coast artillery, which was the glamour branch of the Army, concentrated as it was in ports, which typically featured major cities.

 Ft. Laramie in 1858, by which time it had been a U.S. Army post for nine years.  Almost all of the structures seen in this photographs were built by the Army, even though the post was purchased as an existing establishment.  The large building in the center of this photo, Old Bedlam, is the oldest structure in Wyoming.

The Army entered Wyoming for the first time in a series of exploratory expeditions, but for our purposes, it's first significant presence came when it purchased in June of 1849.  Purchasing the long existing fur trading post served the purpose of guarding the Oregon Trail (by whatever name a person might choose to call it).  While we'd consider it today perhaps the easternmost of the classic frontier era Wyoming posts, it was a major post on the trail for those who had struggled across the Nebraska plains, and it served to allow pioneers to restock for the long trail ahead.  Heading out from Ft. Laramie there were basically no more Army installations until pioneers reached what is now southeastern Wyoming.  All posts on the trail were, which were exceedingly few in number, were garrisoned by regulars of the U.S. Army.

Ft. Bridger in 1858, the year the Army first occupied what had been a civilian trading establishment in southwestern Wyoming.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 the Federal government largely withdrew the Regular Army from the Frontier, although contrary to what is sometimes asserted a few troops remained.  Added to this massive change was the fact that not only did the Army leave, for the most part, the West, but the officer corps of the Army suffered a partial breakdown as officers with Southern sympathies were allowed to depart their Federal service without hindrance, an act that may have been gentlemanly, but which did not serve the interest of the country well.  This left policing the Frontier, or protecting immigrants and other interests, or however a person might conceive of it, to the Western states, where they existed, or to other means where they did not.

Wyoming, of course, was not a state. But to the south Colorado was, and Colorado immediately set out raising state troops who in turn actually did do some fighting, in New Mexico, against Confederate forces.  Nebraska was a territory and raised some troops to contribute to the war effort, and Utah, which had an existing military history of service in the Mexican War, but also of rebellion in the Mormon War, also did.  Wyoming, with virtually no European population to speak of, did not and could not have, and of course it wasn't a political entity. But the long Oregon trail needed protection.

This fell to state and territorial troops from other regions, and these forces dramatically altered the military presence in the state. Whereas the U.S. Army had been content to police the Oregon Trail with very few troops who covered massive distances, the forces that came in from the states with state troops, or territorial troops, during the Civil War did not take this approach at all.  Soon an entire chain of posts were constructed every few miles along the Oregon Trail so that small bodies of men were basically always a half day or perhaps a full days ride from each other.  On much of the Oregon Trail these posts came to be manned by the 11th Ohio and the 11th Kansas Cavalry, troops raised to fight in the Civil War against Confederate forces but sent instead to Frontier West.

Platte Bridge Station.  The location of a private trading post and toll bridge prior to the war, it became one of a collection of closely linked Army "stations" during the Civil War.  The reconstructed fort is on the edge of Casper Wyoming today.

Added to these were posts under the command of the Department of Utah under Gen. Patrick Connor, who commanded a force made up of troops as far away as California but as close as Utah and Idaho. 

Connor was a very active campaigner during the Civil War and constructed a post in the Powder River Basin, along the Bozeman Trail, a very early effort of that type.  He was aggressive, but not always discerning, and at least a couple of his battles, that at Bear River and the one in Wyoming at Tongue River are pretty questionable.  They prefigured the battles of the later Indian Wars, perhaps, so they are significant for that, amongst other reasons.

Where Ft. Reno once was.

The Battle of Tongue River, part of the Powder River Expedition, is also an immediate post Civil WAr battle (Bear River, in Idaho, was fought in 1863).  And in this fashion it is also signficant.

A flooded Tongue River battleground, as photographed several years ago.

For almost all of the Civil War state forces patrolled long lonely stretches of trails, and telegraph wires, far from the battlegrounds in the bloody east.  The duty was lonely, alien, extremely dangerous, and often done on very meager rations.  Troops feared stepping outside their isolated posts as it could easily mean death, and during the long Wyoming winters this was all the more the case.  Very few significant battles were fought, but quite a few lonely small actions were.  The state troops on the Oregon Trail were supplemented with Galvanized Yankees, Confederates who opted for Federal service rather than stay in prisoner of war camps, as the war went on, and interestingly there seems to have been little strain between the men as they all endured this duty.

Late in the war, for whatever reason, the commanders of some of these state forces started taking their troops to the field. Connor certainly did, launching the Powder River Expedition against the Cheyenne in the summer of 1865.  Prior to that, however, in November 1864, Colorado and New Mexico troops under the command of Colorado's John M. Chivington, who had previously performed admirably at the Battle of Glorietta Pass,  brutally and without cause attacked a Cheyenne band at Sand Creek outside of Denver Colorado.  A true massacre, Black Kettle's band was at peace with the United States and wholly unwarranted. The attack set the Plains aflame as the Cheyenne fled north, and at war, with the result being that what is now Wyoming was everywhere at war.  They were soon joined by Cheyennes who had remained in the north, and the late Army campaigns of 1865 resulted. They were not successful.

Indeed, in July 1865 the Cheyenne would succeed in defeating the 11th Kansas in what was regarded as two battles but which are really just one, the Battles of Platte Bridge Station and Red Buttes.  The battle, which was caused when a small wagon detail commanded by a solder of the Regular Army refused to head warnings given by troopers of the 11th Kansas, was pretty much a complete route, leading to the destruction of the wagon detail and the force sent to relieve it.  Only the native reluctance to storm an Army post, together with the expeditious deployment of a mountain howitzer, kept Platte Bridge Station from being overrun.  Connor's Powder River Expedition, in turn, would fail to determine the contest.  By that time, of course, the Civil War was over, and the duties that Galvanized Yankees, Kansas and Ohio Cavalrymen, and volunteers from California, Utah and Idaho had taken up during the war were turned back over to the Regular Army. 

The Regular Army, in turn, would find the task of dealing with the Frontier after the Civil War more difficult than it had been before.  In many of the immediate post Civil War battles the returned U.S. Army would do no better than state militiamen had.  During the war, the native population had learned that European American troops were not invincible.

That should as a conclusion to this story, that of Wyoming during the Civil War, but to leave off where we started, what we also learn from that is that the Confederate battle jack, which we see occasionally flying here now by folks who are no doubt from somewhere else, doesn't really have a place in our history directly.  The sons of the South who had started off fighting under it, or under one of the numerous other Confederate flags, ended up here in service to Old Glory, no matter how reluctant their service may have been. Other troops who served here during the war had patriotically enlisted to fight the South, or to serve on the Frontier.  And of course to the native combatants no distinction between North and South would have been recognized at all.

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