March 17, 2006
Nevada's Online State News Journal
[From The History of Nevada, edited by Sam P. Davis, vol. I (1912)]
266 THE HISTORY OF NEVADA
NEVADA AND THE CIVIL WAR.
BY SAM P. DAVIS.
In the Civil War no State was as great a factor in the saving of the Union cause as Nevada. The State came into existence when Columbia was in the throes of the greatest struggle for human liberty ever fought.
Lincoln, with his keen and far seeing intelligence, decided that he needed another pawn on the political chessboard and figured that the Territory of Nevada was the piece required and that to make the piece of proper utility it must be made a State.
Lincoln, the supreme politician of his time, determined upon the abolition of human slavery which would require an amendment to the Constitution and such amendment would be equivalent to a million more men in the field of war.
It would be easier to amend the Constitution at that time than to raise the new army.
It required a three-fourths vote of the States and the admission of Nevada into the Union would complete the necessary three-fourths vote.
Charles A. Dana, in his "Recollections of the Civil War," thus speaks of an incident which meant so much for the future of the country:
"I have heard people complain of Nevada as superfluous and petty, and not big enough to be a State; but when I hear that complaint I always hear Abraham Lincoln saying: 'It is easier to admit Nevada than to raise another million of soldiers.' "
In March of 1864, the question of allowing Nevada to form a State government finally came to the House of Representatives and there was strong opposition. Dana tells of the politics necessary to pave the way for Nevada's admission as follows :
"At last, late one afternoon, the President came into my office, in the third story of the War Department. He used to come there sometimes
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rather than send for me, because he was fond of walking and liked to get away from the crowd in the White House. He came in and shut the door.
" 'Dana,' he said, 'I am very anxious about this vote. It has got to be taken next week. The time is very short. It is going to be a great deal closer than I wish it was.'
" 'There are plenty of Democrats who will vote for it,' I replied. 'There is James E. English, of Connecticut; I think he is sure, isn't he?' " 'Oh, yes ; he is sure on the merits of the question.'
" 'Then,' said I, 'there's "Sunset" Cox, of Ohio. How is he?'
" 'He is sure and fearless. But there are some others that I am not clear about. There are three that you can deal with better than anybody else, perhaps, as you know them all. I wish you would send for them.'
"He told me who they were; it isn't necessary to repeat the names here. One man was from New Jersey and two from New York.
" 'What will they be likely to want?' I asked.
" 'I don't know,' said the President; 'I don't know. It makes no difference, though, what they want. Here is the alternative ; that we carry this vote, or be compelled to raise another million, and I don't know how many more men, and fight no one knows how long. It is a question of three votes or new armies.'
" 'Well, sir,' said I, 'What shall I say to these gentlemen?'
" 'I don't know,' said he, 'but whatever promise you make to them I will perform.'
"I sent for the men and saw them one by one. I found that they were afraid of their party. They said that some fellows in the party would be down on them. Two of them wanted internal revenue collector's appointments. 'You shall have it,' I said. Another man wanted a very important appointment about the Custom House of New York. I knew the man well whom he wanted to have appointed. He was a Republican, though the Congressman was a 'Democrat. I had served with him in the Republican County Committee of New York. The office was worth perhaps twenty thousand a year. When the Congressman stated the case, I asked him, 'Do you want that?'
" 'Yes,' said he.
" 'Well,' I answered, 'you shall have it.'
" 'I understand, of course,' said he, 'that you are not saying this on your own authority?'
268 THE HISTORY OF NEVADA
" 'Oh, no,' said I; 'I am saying it on the authority of the President.'
"Well, these men voted that Nevada be allowed to form a State Government, and thus they helped to secure the vote which was required. The next October the President signed the proclamation admitting the State. In the February following, Nevada was one of the States which ratified the Thirteenth amendment, by which slavery was abolished by constitutional prohibition in all of the United States. I have always felt that this little bit of side politics was one of the most judicious, humane, and wise uses of executive authority that I have ever assisted in or witnessed.
"The appointment in the New York Custom House was to wait till the term of the actual incumbent had run out. My friend, the Democratic Congressman, was quite willing. 'That's all right,' he said; 'I am in no hurry.' Before the time had expired, Mr. Lincoln was murdered and Andrew Johnson became President. I was in the West, when one day I got a telegram from Roscoe Conkling:
" 'Come to Washington.' So I went.
" 'I want you to go and see President Johnson,' Mr. Conkling said, 'and tell him that the appointment of this man to the Custom House is a sacred promise of Mr. Lincoln's, and that it must be kept.'
"Then I went to the White House, and saw President Johnson.
" 'This is Mr. Lincoln's promise,' I urged. 'He regarded it as saving the necessity of another call for troops and raising, perhaps, a million more men to continue the war. I trust, Mr. President, that you will see your way clear to execute this promise.'
" 'Well, Mr. Dana,' he replied, 'I don't say that I won't ; but I have observed in the course of my experience that such bargains tend to immorality.'
"The appointment was not made. I am happy to say, however, that the gentleman to whom the promise was given never found any fault either with President Lincoln or with the Assistant Secretary who had been the means of making the promise to him."
Lincoln always had great faith in the mineral richness of the West and had a soft spot in his heart for the Nevada miner. After the war, when the Colfax party visited the Comstock, Colfax, in his speech to the miners, read a letter he had received from Lincoln. It was as follows :
"Mr. Colfax, I want you to take a message from me to the miners whom you visit. I have very large ideas of the mineral wealth of our Nation. I believe it is practically inexhaustible. It abounds all over the western country, from the
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Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, and its development has scarcely commenced. During the war when we were adding a couple of millions of dollars every day to our national debt, I did not care about encouraging the increase in the volume of our precious metals. We had the country to save first. But now that the rebellion is overthrown and we know pretty nearly the amount of our national debt, the more gold and silver we mine makes the payment of that debt so much the easier. Now I am going to encourage that in every possible way. We shall have hundreds of thousands of disbanded soldiers, and many have feared that their return home in such great numbers might paralyze industry by furnishing suddenly a greater supply of labor than there will be demand for. I am going to try to attract them to the hidden wealth of our mountain ranges, where there is room enough for all. Immigration, which even the war has not stopped, will land on our shores hundreds of thousands more per year from overcrowded Europe. I intend to point them to the gold and silver that wait for them in the West. Tell the miners from me that I shall promote their interests to the utmost of my ability; because their prosperity is the prosperity of the Nation, and we shall prove in a very few years that we are indeed the treasury of the world."
During the war there were many southern sympathizers in Nevada.
The Federal Government maintained a military post known as Fort Churchill, in Nevada, the dismantled walls of which can still be seen not far from the railway that runs from Dayton to Tonapah.
When men became too pronounced in their utterances against the Union they were taken to Fort Churchill and incarcerated.
Virginia City was the leading town in the State and for a long time the Union men and the sympathizers with the South were about evenly divided. The men who kept the fires of Unionism most actively burning on the eastern slope of Mt. Davidson were the members of the old Virginia City Fire Department. Most of them had formerly been New York firemen. They were as robust and fearless a lot as ever lived. Tom Peasley, Jack Perry, George Birdsall, Pete Larkin, Bruce Garvey, Riff Williams, Louis Wardell, Ned Ingham, Ben Ballou, and hundreds of others whose names I cannot recall, belonged to that intrepid phalanx.
Their original training in combat had been with fists, spanners and fire trumpets, but they quickly acquired the knack of knife and pistol, and were a formidable crowd to be reckoned with. Big, powerful, good-natured, these men, though rough, were not depraved or vicious, and they always arrayed themselves on the side of law and order whenever an issue was made with lawlessness and disorder. A spirit of comradeship and organization animated them at all times, and this solidarity made them a wholesome menace to the more humorous but less compacted criminal element.
One of the first instances in which they showed their strength occurred in 1861, early in the War of the Rebellion. At the outset of that strife,
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Nevada had proportionally more Southerners and sympathizers with their cause than any other part of the coast. Many of them went to join the rebel army, but enough remained to impress a superficial observer by their loud demonstration with the idea that they were in the majority and ruled the territory.
The only Confederate flag ever raised on this coast floated a whole day over Johnny Newman's old stone saloon. There was not lacking loyalty to resent the treasonable display, but it remained prudently silent and inactive in the presence of Johnny Newman himself patrolling the sidewalk with a rifle on his shoulder and hundreds of armed abettors standing about him. Old John A. Collins rode frantically on horseback to Fort Churchill, but before the troops sent by Major McDermitt arrived Newman had got pretty much over his jag, and Max Waterhouse, his partner, had persuaded him to pull down the secession flag and run up the Stars and Stripes.
But, for all these glaring displays of disloyalty, Unionism was the predominant sentiment. It lay deep down in the hearts of men unaccustomed to boast or make an exhibition of their sentiments. Yet there was one section of it nearly as outspoken and aggressive as secessionism itself ; and it was that element that precipitated and settled forever the question of superiority.
Without an exception, the members of the Virginia City Fire Department were all strong Union men. The enthusiasm that attended the organization of Ellsworth's regiment of New York Fire Zouaves imparted itself to them, and their hearts marched with their old comrades to the scene of conflict.
The opening events of the war were very discouraging. Everything went adversely. No tidings of success or advantage ever came to gladden the millions whose hopes were on the issue. It was nothing but continuous disaster and defeat. Only an invincible faith in the ultimate triumph of right upheld the spirit of the people in those first awful days. And just in proportion that the gloomy news depressed the Unionists, the sympathizers with secession were elated. Everything was going their way, and they rejoiced like the sons of the Philistines.
In Virginia City at every rebel success one might easily have fancied
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himself in the victorious camp, so loud was the rejoicing. This exultation was particularly galling to the firemen, who frequented the saloons and other resorts where it was most pronounced. But the unchanging tide of adversity seemed to cowe their spirits and keep them in subjection. The final straw had not yet been laid on the back of their forbearance ; but it was placed there on a certain midsummer day in 1861.
There was no transcontinental telegraph then. The dispatches were brought from St. Joe to Fort Churchill by pony express, and in consequence the news of the battle of Bull Run did not reach the Coast until the first days in August. The Enterprise was getting out an extra containing the particulars of the disastrous defeat, about noon, when Jack Perry, who was an old pressman and therefore a privileged character, dropped into the office and asked to see the proofs. The giant fireman read the dispatches all through, how our army had been routed and the New York Fire Zouaves cut to pieces, without saying a word, but with the tears streaming like two great water courses down his cheeks. Then he got up, slid his pistol a little more to the front where it would be handier, and left the office, remarking simply :
"No damned secesh had better crow within my hearing today."
He must have infected every member of the Fire Department with his feeling; for an hour later when the extra was issued and the Southern sympathizers began to exult, one would have thought the battle of Bull Run itself had struck the Comstock, instead of a mere account of it. Not a rejoicing mouth opened but it was instantly closed by a massive fist. Not a head exhibiting a secession tendency showed itself but it was unmercifully hit. Not an appeal was made to the arbitrament of pistol or knife but it was responded to so quickly and effectively that recourse to that style of proceeding was speedily abandoned. The rout was complete and final. When the sun sank behind Mount Davidson that afternoon it had looked for the last time on secession domination in Nevada Territory. The rough element of the Union spirit had asserted itself, and the timid, but more numerous part, quickly rallied to its support. Thereafter there was no open jubilation over Southern victories.
It was in this spirit of militant loyalty, inspired chiefly by those
272 THE HISTORY OF NEVADA
rough Virginia City firemen, that Nevada came into the Union in 1864 as the "Battle-born" State. She well deserves the proud distinction, for in proportion to her population and wealth she contributed more to the Federal cause than any other State in the Union. With less than 40,000 inhabitants, she sent 1,200 of them to the army, she voted, without being asked, her proportion of the war debt ; she contributed upward of $200,000 to the sanitary fund, and it was her treasures more than any other single factor that sustained the credit of the Government during the war and finally enabled it to resume specie payment.
Lincoln's faith in the mineral resources of the State and his estimate of Nevada's value as the pivotal factor in the Civil War, has been fully verified and the results accomplished are part of the world's history. Yet, in spite of the services rendered to the nation, Congress, forgetful of the country's obligation to the Silver State, demonetized the white metal in 1873 and since then many eastern journals have gravely discussed the proposition of compelling Nevada to surrender her Statehood.