To Resign or Not: Southern Officers in Washington Territory on the Eve of the Civil War

  • By Mike Vouri
  • Posted 5/30/2018
  • Essay 20570
See Additional Media

On the eve of the Civil War, United States Army regiments west of the Rocky Mountains were little more than a frontier police force, isolated, undermanned, underpaid, and poorly provisioned. The situation was particularly acute in Washington Territory, another week away by steamer, where a scattering of frontier outposts housed an agglomeration of men swept up from the immigration stations and back alleys of the East Coast and the plain of West Point. With news trickling in about the possible secession of the Southern states, soldiers, especially the officers, were wary both of locals and those among their ranks and worried about the immediate future for themselves and their families thousands of miles away. Although some Southern officers struggled with the decision to abandon the old flag, all but a very few left their posts by either resignation, outright dismissal from the service, or simply not returning from leave. The army responded by dispatching loyal officers and regular army units to those posts considered vulnerable, and by fall 1861 the territory achieved a military stability that would see it through the war.

They "Know Not What Will Become of Them"

The sectional tensions sweeping the United States and its territories were apparent to British Royal Marine Captain George Bazalgette (d. 1885) after witnessing a heated exchange between the camp commander and his second in command during an overnight stopover at the U.S. Army Camp on San Juan Island. It was Friday, February 1, 1861, and Bazalgette was en route to his own camp 13 miles north on the island. Companies of soldiers from both nations had been jointly occupying San Juan Island for about a year in the wake of the Pig War crisis, when the U.S. and Great Britain nearly went to war over possession of the island.

The American commander was Captain George E. Pickett (1825-1875), a Virginian and 1846 graduate of West Point. Second in command was James W. "Tony" Forsyth (1834-1906), an Ohioan and member of the academy's 1856 class. Both officers, who were well-connected socially and politically in their states, expected dissolution of the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November. Six states had already seceded and, unknown to them, a seventh, Texas, had left that very day. Bazalgette later told Anglican Bishop George Hills (1816-1895) of Victoria that the Americans were in "a great state of excitement ... but know not what will become of them" (No Better Land, 53). Pickett and Forsyth, realizing they were in company with a man only recently considered an enemy, quickly rechanneled their anger into a common lament throughout the department: their inability to cash even Treasury bills to pay the men and run the camp. "Here am I of 18 years standing, having served my Country so long, to be cast adrift!" Pickett complained (No Better Land, 53).

"Surrounded with Suspicions and Coldness"

Matters of pay at a peculiar and remote frontier outpost must have seemed trivial with seven states of the Deep South having seceded. Every scrap of bleak news arriving from the East fueled paranoia at the Department of the Pacific headquarters in San Francisco. The unit on January 14 had consolidated the departments of California and Oregon. The latter, which included the state of Oregon and Washington Territory, had been relegated to "district" status. The primary focus by the army throughout was on rumored bands of secessionists ready to either turn the entire Pacific Slope to the South or create an independent "Republic of the Pacific."

Suspicions also swept the department's general staff and the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C, especially after Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861. They were acted on two weeks later when Lieutenant General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) relieved department commander Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862), a Kentucky native with ties to Texas, before Johnston could resign. Knowing that the United States would move with alacrity to protect federal property, the seceding states, abetted in some cases by federal officers who turned them over, had taken possession of arsenals, fortifications, warships, and naval shipyards in the Southern states.

Unlike Brigadier General David Twiggs (1790-1862), who shamefully turned the Department of Texas over to rebel forces, Johnston, who resigned April 9, vowed to remain at his post and enforce U.S. government policies until relieved. Imagine his surprise not two weeks later when Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner (1797-1863) arrived to replace him with orders from Winfield Scott. Johnston was to report immediately to Washington, D.C. Believing his honor impugned, Johnston ignored Scott, who, by June, ordered his arrest -- the only such order issued for a resigning officer. Johnston escaped and was later killed at the Battle of Shiloh.

Johnston's honorable behavior would have a profound influence among Southern officers in the Pacific department, though it did little to allay the uneasiness and even mistrust among companies and detachments located hundreds of miles apart. Family ties and regional loyalty were key issues when it came to choosing sides. Support of the right of secession was regarded by some as treason and an abandonment of the oath taken upon commission. For others, it amounted to an act of conscience and loyalty to the homeland.

For First Lieutenant John Mullan (1830-1909) of Virginia, an engineer tasked with building a wagon road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton (in today's Montana), it was clearly the former. In a May 15 letter to the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat, Mullan affirmed his loyalty to the United States, but lamented that the position of the Southern officers was "an unpleasant one being surrounded with suspicions and coldness, sometimes from those in authority" (Pioneer and Democrat, May 17, 1861).

"An Excitement Which Overshadowed All Else"

Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan (1831-1888) of Ohio, in his 1884 memoir, saw it from a different perspective. He had served in the territory as a lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry since 1855.

"The news of the firing on Fort Sumter brought us an excitement which overshadowed all else, and though we had no officers at the post who sympathized with the rebellion, there were several in our regiment -- the Fourth Infantry -- who did, and we were considerably exercised as to the course they might pursue, but naturally far more so concerning the disposition that would be made of the regiment during the conflict" (Sheridan, 44).

Most officers throughout the department, Northerners and Southerners alike, still embraced hopes that cooler heads would prevail, the Lincoln government would guarantee Southern rights, the Union would be preserved, and they could continue their army service.

In a letter to district paymaster Major Benjamin Alvord (1813-1884), Pickett wrote: "The Republicans in their pride, flush of victory will not listen to terms proposed by the Conservative elements from those good & true states when they ask but those rights and no more. No, they are ignominiously rejected. On the other hand, I do not like to be bullied nor argued out of the Union by the precipitating and indecent haste of South Carolina" (Vouri, 230).

"We Were in the Depths of Ignorance"

Whatever their views, officers' unease was exacerbated by the paucity of facts, and geography and transportation had everything to do with that. Pony Express carried limited news from Missouri to California in about 10 days. It was another week by steamer to Fort Vancouver. The quickest way to travel to the East Coast from Washington Territory in 1861 was to catch a steamer to San Francisco, transfer to a Pacific Mail Steamship Line vessel to Panama City, cross the isthmus by rail, then catch another steamer to New York. The trip required six weeks and cost $175 in gold.

The lack of reliable information fueled paranoia locally over how great a threat a revolutionary Southern government posed. Sheridan recalled:

"Most of the time we were in the depths of ignorance as to the true condition of affairs, and this tended to increase our anxiety ... Then, too, the accounts of the conflicts that had taken place were greatly exaggerated by the Eastern papers, and lost nothing in transition" (Sheridan, 46).

Bands of "known" secessionists continued to agitate and a mounted "Bear Flag Republic" parade in the Los Angeles area spurred troop movements there (Hancock to Mackall). But more worrisome was the prospect of a Confederate cruiser appearing offshore to back the cause. This latter option seems ridiculous in hindsight -- such a ship would not appear in the north Pacific for more than three years, and even then it never approached the coast -- but in early 1861 anything seemed possible.

Forces Reduced

Sumner's first task after taking command of the Pacific Department on April 25 was to divine the most effective use of department resources. Johnston had moved quickly in January to protect Mare Island Naval Shipyard and the Benicia Arsenal on San Francisco Bay, gateway to California's gold fields. Fort Point was rushed to completion at the mouth of the bay and Fort Alcatraz reinforced at its center. This necessitated transfer of munitions and two companies of artillery from Fort Vancouver with more scheduled to be sent. To the national government, the Oregon district was considered more secure in view of Colonel George Wright's (1803-1865) decisive victory against a tribal alliance in the Spokane Plains fights of 1858 and the peaceful resolution of the 1859 San Juan crisis with the British.

Politically speaking, Lincoln had won Oregon by a bare 264 votes. But although the state's pro-slavery governor, Democrat John Whiteaker (1820-1902), made noise about not supporting the new administration, the state remained stable. In Washington Territory, public sentiment, as expressed in newspapers of both parties, was anti-Republican on the one hand but pro-Union throughout. Territorial delegate Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), who had campaigned for John Breckinridge, the pro-slavery presidential candidate, had written in January urging compromise and reconciliation between the sections, proclaiming that, as the "public mind cannot possibilities seize and seasonably adjust itself to the times," the Congress "must give up pride of opinion to prevent the shedding of fratricidal blood" (Johannsen, 433)

But Wright, as district commander, remained alarmed to see his forces reduced from 24 to 13 companies and six posts closed by June despite numerous entreaties to his superiors. With his rapidly depleting ranks and only 50 men to hold his headquarters at Vancouver Barracks, he complained that his command was vulnerable to attack up the Columbia River and Puget Sound. A Confederate steamer could enter either waterway and "lay waste all settlements to the Cascades up to 150 Miles. Even this post [Fort Vancouver] and the ordnance depot are not prepared for the defense against heavy guns" (Wright to Buell, June 4, 1861).

Even more critical, of his 123 officers on the rolls in January, 50 were on extended leave. Many would never return to their posts, some formally resigning, others absent without leave. Aside from Johnston's arrest order, there was never a written policy from the War Department on how to treat with these officers, especially after Fort Sumter was attacked on April 12.

Southern Officers Reach the Turning Point

Altogether, there were 1,108 officers In the U.S. Army in December 1860. Of these, 313 resigned, 270 going South, 244 without penalty. Nineteen tendered resignations but were dismissed, and seven were dropped from the rolls without having resigned. A special committee of the House of Representatives had urged the navy as well as army to order resigning officers to justify their requests, but this was never done. Enlisted men as a rule remained loyal to the Union.

Resignations increased exponentially when Lincoln on April 30 ordered that loyalty oaths be administered to all army officers. It took a month for word to reach Washington Territory, where posts were "to promptly report execution of orders requiring officers of the U.S. Army ... to take and subscribe anew the oath of allegiance to the United States of America" -- failure to comply with the order would force resignation or dismissal from the service (General Orders, June 4, 1861).

The order was irrelevant by then for officers of the Deep South, or those from border states with strong sectional loyalties, as expressed by George Pickett that night on San Juan Island. Many of them -- including future generals such as First Lieutenant William Dorsey Pender (1834-1863) of the First Dragoons and Captain Charles Winder (1829-1862) and Major Robert Garnett (1819-1861) of the Ninth Infantry, all combat-seasoned veterans of the Indian campaigns -- were long gone by the time the order was issued, their resignations accepted without question. Winder had been on sick leave for three years, Pender had left for San Francisco on recruiting duty in January, and Garnett never returned from a three-year leave of absence in Europe despite being given command of Fort Dalles.

But the loyalty oath was apparently the final shove in Pickett's case. He had been loath to abandon the Union and the army that had been his home for 19 years. Moreover, his West Point appointment came not from his native Virginia, but from Illinois where his maternal uncle had close connections with Congressman John Todd Stuart (1807-1885), a Whig and kinsman of Mary Lincoln. It was from this connection that his third wife, LaSalle Corbell Pickett (1843-1931), concocted the fiction that Abraham Lincoln had engineered Pickett's appointment in 1842. Still, Pickett waited nearly three more weeks before submitting his resignation.

In June, several other Southern or border-state officers were still serving in the territory, among them Captain James J. Archer (1817-1864) of Maryland, commander of Company I, Ninth Infantry at Fort Colville, but en route to Fort Yamhill, Oregon, via Fort Dalles; Captain Henry D. Wallen (d. 1886) of Georgia, commander of Company H, Fourth Infantry, Fort Cascades; Major Pinkney Lugenbeel (1819-1886), another Marylander, commanding three companies of the Ninth at Fort Colville; Lieutenant John Mullan of Virginia, with the Second Artillery; and First Lieutenant William T. Welcker (d. 1900) of Tennessee, in command of the ordnance detachment at Fort Vancouver.

Wallen, Mullan, and Lugenbeel would stick with the Union during the war, serving mainly in the Far West. Lugenbeel and Wallen would remain in the army and retire as colonels. Newly promoted Captain Mullan completed the wagon road in 1863, despite losing two infantry escort officers to the South. He resigned his commission that year, not to go South but to carry the mail from Chico, California, to Washington Territory under government contract. He spent the rest of his life practicing law in San Francisco.

Events would play out differently for Pickett, Archer, and Welcker.

Pickett Leaves the Union

Pickett is by far the most renowned of the Southern officers who served in Washington Territory. His standoff with the British during the Pig War enhanced his legend here, but nationally he is mostly remembered for leading "Pickett's Charge," the disastrous assault by the Army of Northern Virginia on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

To come up with seven more infantry companies for department headquarters, Wright on June 11 ordered San Juan Island abandoned and Company D sent to California. But acting territorial governor Henry M. McGill (1831-1915) protested the closure to Sumner, raising the specter of northern Indians falling upon helpless coastal settlements. Pickett himself, who was never shy about going over the head of an immediate superior, also wrote Sumner. The result was a June 22 letter to Wright from department headquarters stating that the post should remain open.

Wright replied that he too had second thoughts, though not because of the U.S. claim to the island. In his view, that was beyond question. More to the point was the island's "salient and commanding position on our northern frontier, admirably adapted to afford general protection to the settlements on the waters of Puget Sound" (Wright to Buell, June 22, 1861). George Pickett, who had championed the post, would remain in command.

But by then Pickett had made his choice. He submitted his one-sentence resignation letter (by then the less said the better) on June 24. Suddenly, the very man who complained about closing the "salient commanding position" was now himself abandoning it with the barely veiled intent of joining the enemy.

Sumner wasted little time ordering Pickett (and Company D) off the island. A replacement company from Fort Steilacoom was to proceed "without delay" (Special Orders, July 11, 1861). Pickett remained on San Juan until July 25, four days after the first Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), still in the uniform of a U.S. Army captain.

By June 1861, while Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (1802-1878) was cashiering any officer expressing Southern sympathies, the army under the weaker Simon Cameron (1799-1889) mostly continued to look the other way. Pickett was granted an "official leave of absence" pending acceptance of his resignation. However, with the war four months along, he traveled incognito under the name of a Whatcom County friend despite being accompanied by several Northern officers, including his former second in command at Fort Bellingham, Captain Hugh Fleming.

Archer Relieved of Command

That same month Archer was, in a sense, relieved of his command at Fort Yamhill when the brassy Sheridan barred his entry to the post. Scion of a wealthy Maryland family, Archer was an accomplished academic, having earned a degree from Princeton and a law degree from the University of Maryland. He had built a successful law practice in Maryland before volunteering to fight in the Mexican-American War, where he served with distinction, earning a brevet (honorary) rank of major during the Battle of Chapultepec, an action during which Pickett also was cited for bravery. Though a non-West Pointer, Archer remained in the army after the war and was given command of his company when the Ninth Infantry was formed in 1855.

It was well known that Archer also had openly expressed his legal opinion about the right of secession, had submitted his resignation on May 14, and was awaiting confirmation from the War Department.

"I had been notified that he intended to go South," Sheridan recalled, "and his conduct was such after reaching the post [Fort Yamhill] that I would not turn over the command to him for fear he might commit some rebellious act" (Sheridan, 44). Archer was celebrated as a courageous soldier in both armies he served, but his academic mind and penchant for seeing his orders followed to the letter set him apart from his fellows, who found him "'enigmatically ... very uncommunicative and, for a time, one of the most intensely hated of men.' He was neither a 'politician or aristocrat'" (Guelzo, 134).

Welcker Summarily Dismissed

Whatever reservations Sheridan may have had about Archer, he held an entirely opposite view of William Thomas Welcker (1830-1900), whom in 1884, he remembered as "a warm and intimate friend" (Sheridan, 32). Born into an aristocratic Tennessee family, Welcker graduated fourth in his class, which qualified him to enter the Ordnance Department as an engineer. He came west as an acting topographical engineer at Benicia Arsenal, campaigned against the Yakama with Colonel Wright in 1856, and then received command of the ordnance detachment at Fort Vancouver in 1859. Before starting his new assignment, Welcker went home on leave and returned via Panama with his pregnant wife and child.

Welcker should have meshed well with the Department of Oregon commander at the time, Brigadier General William S. Harney (1800-1889), also from Tennessee and a fellow Democrat. However, Welcker and Harney clashed from the start over what Welcker considered a breach of ethics: Harney expected the new ordnance facility on the post to be built on real estate that he had purchased on speculation. Welcker refused. The storm passed when Harney departed. By then Welcker had established a thriving detachment and developed good relationships with superiors, including Colonel Wright, and his peers.

After Fort Sumter, as with Johnston and Pickett, Welcker took added precautions to safeguard munitions and supplies and kept a meticulous record of accounts. With a wife and two children it could not have been a simple matter to resign and head East. Perhaps this is why more than a month went by between Tennessee's secession on June 8 and Welcker tendering his resignation on July 23. However, unlike Pickett and Archer -- whose leaves of absence were granted and resignations accepted without question -- Welcker was summarily dismissed from the service by the Office of the Adjutant General, "having given proof of his disloyalty" ("William T. Welcker").

Underscoring the lack of any formal yardstick for dealing with this officer, or any other, historians to this day have been unable to divine that "proof" while plowing through Welcker's spotless record or any sign of "perfidy" in the orderly turnover his command (Shine).

Not the Most Capable Officer

By the time Pickett arrived in New York City in September, his intentions were public. As an enemy alien or traitor (depending on your point of view), he had to sneak through the city to launch his career in the Confederate States Army. He was made a brigadier general by 1862, and a major general commanding a division of 9,000 men by 1863.

Pickett was by no means the most capable officer of his rank in either of the vast citizen armies. In fact, because of a debilitating wound suffered at the Battle of Gaines Mill in June 1862, he had been untested in high command until Gettysburg. But, contrary to popular belief, he was not responsible for the "charge." That order was given by General Robert E. Lee.

Before the war was out Pickett suffered a nervous breakdown, saw his division destroyed again in 1865 in a charge led by now-Major General Philip Sheridan, and returned to a family home razed by Union soldiers. But the bitterest cut of all was that his soldiering days were over. He died in 1875 on a business trip to Norfolk. He was an insurance salesman.

Archer rose to brigadier general in the rebel army, fighting alongside his old territory comrades Charles Winder and Dorsey Pender. After establishing another solid combat record, he was captured on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, where he was serving under Major General Henry Heth (1825-1899). Heth and his first cousin, George Pickett, held the distinction of graduating last in their West Point classes in successive years. True to form, Heth blundered into the battle that eventually cost Archer his life. A year in a Northern prisoner-of-war camp ruined Archer's health, and he died a few months after being exchanged in October 1864.

A Happy Ending and a Fatal Decision

Welcker's story had a happier ending. The Tennessean remained in Oregon long enough after his dismissal to be admitted to the bar and start a law practice. It wasn't until 1864 that he ventured East and became an artillery officer in the Confederate Army.

He survived the war and returned West, where he taught mathematics at the University of California, was in 1883 elected (as a Democrat) California's Superintendent of Public Instruction and, like his fellow Southerner John Mullan, practiced law in San Francisco. He also wrote books on military instruction and advanced algebra.

Washington Territory, meanwhile, remained a Democratic stronghold throughout the war, and while largely supporting the Union, its citizens never warmed to the arrival of Lincoln appointees. Isaac Stevens, a West Pointer with old army connections to those who had served in the territory, abandoned his conciliatory stance and urged force to preserve the Union. Lincoln restored his commission in the U.S. Army, but the decision would prove fatal. As a brigadier general of volunteers, Stevens was mortally wounded leading his unit in 1862 at the Battle of Chantilly in northern Virginia.

Among the brigadiers opposing Stevens that day were James J. Archer and Dorsey Pender.

They undoubtedly mourned his death.


Mike Vouri, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, 2nd Ed. (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest and University of Washington Press, 2013); No Better Land: The 1860 Diaries of the Anglican Bishop George Hills ed. by Robert L. Bagstraw (Victoria, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 1996), 52-53; "William T. Welcker," from George W. Cullum's Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy, Bill Thayer's website accessed May 30, 2018 (; U.S. Army Register (Adjutant General's Office, 1861); George T. Ness, The Regular Army on the Eve of the Civil War (Baltimore: Toomey Press, 1990); William S. Dudley, "Going South: U.S. Navy Officer Resignations and Dismissals on the Eve of the Civil War," Naval History and Heritage Command website accessed March 1, 2018 (; Pioneer and Democrat, May 17, 1861, p. 2; John Haskell Kemble, The Panama Route, 1848-1869 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990); Philip Henry Sheridan, Personal Memoirs of P. H. Sheridan (Germany: Jazzybee Verlag, 2012); Winfield Hancock to W. W. Mackall, May 7, 1861, in Official Records of the Rebellion, Serial 105, Chapter LXII, "Operations on the Pacific Coast," 0001-0566, copy available at Ohio State University Department of History website (; George Wright to D. C. Buell, June 4, 1861, Ibid., (; Wright to Buell, June 22, 1861, Ibid., (; Special Orders, July 11, 1861, Ibid., (; General Orders, June 4, 1861, Ibid., (; Robert W. Johannsen, "The Secession Crisis and the Frontier: Washington Territory, 1860-1861," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, December 1952, pp. 415-440; Gregory P. Shine, An Indispensable Point: A Historic Resource Study of the Vancouver Ordnance Depot and Arsenal, 1849-1952 (National Park Service: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, 2008); Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War ed. by Patricia L. Faust (New York: Harper & Row, 1986); John H. Eicher and David L. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002); Leslie J. Gordon, Pickett: General George Pickett in Life & Legend (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2013); William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803-1863 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991); Richard F. Selcer, "George Pickett: Another Look," Civil War Times Illustrated, July/August 1994.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You