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A battle of ideas: The Civil War in the Pacific Northwest

TACOMA, Wash. — Not all of the battles of the American Civil War were bloody. Some skirmishes took place far from the battlefields and used ideology, not bullets.

A new exhibit at the Washington State History Museum sheds light on the role that the Pacific Northwest played in the War Between the States and how the war, in turn, affected it.

Civil War Pathways in the Northwest” opened on Monday and runs through July 6. It uses 150 artifacts, along with stories, to portray the mindset of citizens and politicians as they dealt with the 1861-65 conflict and its aftermath.

“This is an exhibit about ideas,” said Redmond Barnett, who heads the museum’s Exhibits Department. “There were no (armed) battles here but there were battles of ideas” – over race, slavery, treason, censorship, state’s rights, federal power and international relations.

“People here in the Pacific Northwest think that this (war) has nothing to do with them, and we think it has everything to do with them,” said Lorraine McConaghy, the exhibit’s curator.

McConaghy used an unusual research method to gather the public discourse and mood in Washington Territory from that time. Almost 300 volunteer researchers across Washington searched diaries, correspondence, ephemera and local newspapers dating from 1857, when the Dred Scott decision was issued, to 1871, when a Pacific Northwest newspaper first published a Ku Klux Klan oath. The citizen researchers funneled their findings into a digital database hosted by the Washington State Historical Society.

McConaghy, who is the public historian for Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, said the “Read-In” led to startling discoveries. Previously, she had curated an exhibit on the Civil War at MOHAI in 2008. “I didn’t know anything compared to what I know now,” she said.

Until the Read-In, only one slave was known to have lived in Washington Territory in the 1800s. Researchers found evidence of two more. Compared to the plantation slavery of the South, “it was a different kind of slavery but slavery nonetheless,” McConaghy said.

The previously known slave, Charles Mitchell, was already well-documented in newspapers of the day. Born in Maryland, Mitchell was orphaned at a young age and eventually came to be owned by the James Tilton family. At age 8, he traveled with the Tiltons to Olympia. In 1860, at the age of 13, he escaped on a ship to the Crown Colony of Victoria with the help of three free black men.

At the time, Victoria, where slavery was outlawed, had a large black population made up of many who had fled from the United States. Tilton, the first surveyor general of Washington Territory, made his case for the return of the teen in newspapers and with legal authorities, but Mitchell was given his freedom in Victoria.

McConaghy wrote a 2013 biography of Mitchell and Tilton called “Free Boy.”

“(Mitchell’s) is a remarkable story. It’s unknown to us there was an underground railroad here in the Northwest,” McConaghy said.

Almost all of the items on display in “Civil War Pathways in the Northwest” come from the museum’s collection and were acquired as early as 1918. They include a snare drum used in the war; a sword belonging to Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory; and an 1858 tintype photograph of Abraham Lincoln. The one-of-a-kind photograph (tintypes used no negatives) of the soon-to-be president, his prominent cheek bones and slightly misaligned lips clearly visible, is the exhibit’s rarest artifact.

There’s no attempt to pretty up the war that took 620,000 to 750,000 American lives. A period amputation kit, with a variety of surgical tools, is on display. The war was notorious for its field hospital amputations.

There are parallels to today in the exhibit. The smartphone era, it turns out, is not America’s first fast-changing technological period. It took two weeks for settlers in Washington to learn of Lincoln’s election in 1860 but, with the advent of the telegraph, only an hour to learn of his assassination in 1865.

Still, newspapers were the primary news source of the day and the main forum to discuss issues, Barnett said. Papers of that time either lined up with the Democratic or Republican parties and made little attempt to be objective or unbiased.

An exhibit case holds what a soldier may have carried to war: a diary, small chess set, framed photos, a pipe and a brandy flask.

There was no draft in Washington Territory during the war, but an active fundraising scene, run mostly by women, sent funds from Washington Territory to the Union Army for injured soldiers and their survivors. Records show that Native Americans and free black entrepreneurs joined whites in contributing. “They gave a huge amount of money,” McConaghy said.

One of the surprising findings for both McConaghy and Barnett were the seemingly contradictory views held by many of the settlers and leaders in Washington Territory. Both former governor Stevens and then governor Richard Gholson were pro-slavery Democrats and both men left the territory to join the fight. But Gholson joined the Confederacy and Stevens joined Union forces. Both men died in the war.

The war, which had started as a battle to save the nation, slowly shifted to a war to abolish slavery. “We see people changing to an anti-slavery position,” Barnett said. That included Lincoln himself.

“We believe Lincoln was a changed man between 1860 and 1865,” McConaghy said.

But even whites who were solidly against slavery weren’t necessarily ready to extend full freedoms to blacks. “Though the war freed 4 million slaves, they weren’t free,” McConaghy said. Many whites in Washington Territory did not support the rights for blacks to vote, have equal access to jobs, or freedom to marry whites.

The exhibit continues past the end of the war. In 1891, a cyclorama came to a Tacoma theater near where Annie Wright School is today. It used a large painted scroll to tell the story of the 1863 Battle of Chattanooga. “This is how people began to deal with the war. They began to almost see the war as entertainment,” Barnett said.

A blue robe that once belonged to a member of the Ku Klux Klan is on display. The KKK saw a resurgence in the 1920s; a 1924 rally in Issaquah drew 55,000 people. The Klan was “100 percent for White Supremacy, Restricted Immigration, Protestantism and Americanism,” according to “The Watcher on the Tower” — a Klan newspaper published in Seattle.

The exhibit ends with quotes from Washington State African Americans on their experiences from the past 60 years.
 

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