Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Doing Nothing with a Vengeance": The Diary of David Hobart Taylor, First Oregon Cavalry, January 1 through May 31, 1862

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Doing Nothing with a Vengeance": The Diary of David Hobart Taylor, First Oregon Cavalry, January 1 through May 31, 1862

Article excerpt

THE CIVIL WAR came to the people of Oregon in a rather circuitous way. Following the April 12 and 13, 1861, attack on Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor, President Lincoln called on every state, including Oregon, to provide troops for the national emergency. Given the state's small population and distance from the seat of war, Oregon's effort to raise a regiment did not get under way for several months. By the late fall of 1861, with most of the Regular Army forces called out of the Pacific Northwest and sent east, the need to provide troops to protect the region against emboldened southern sympathizers and increasingly aggressive Native American tribes (particularly the Bannocks, referred to as Snakes by the Euro-American settlers) had become obvious. (1) California volunteers were dispatched to replace the departing Regulars--who left places like Fort Walla Walla to fight in the East--but the Californians, who would be needed elsewhere, were only a temporary solution until a sufficient volunteer force could be raised in Oregon.

Usually, governors assumed responsibility for selecting the men who would raise volunteer regiments in their states, but this was not the case in Oregon. (2) Instead of entrusting Gov. John Whiteaker with the task, the War Department ignored him and took the unusual step of asking three private citizens, none then a part of Oregon's governing body, to take up the responsibility. (3) The reason for this step was simple: in the months following the presidential election, Whiteaker had made a number of public comments tinged with southern sympathy. (4) The culmination of those controversial statements came in May 1861, when he published a lengthy commentary on the justness of the southern cause that was carried in all the Oregon newspapers. While claiming loyalty to the Union, the governor stated the Confederacy had a right "if need be, to use every just means within their power to defend themselves, their property and institutions, against the unjust encroachments of the North." The governor, furthermore, attacked the Union government, stating: "It is difficult to find an apology for deception in any case, but duplicity is held to be a crime in those in authority, when practiced toward the [southern] people." (5) In the fall, Whiteaker further fueled suspicions about his loyalties when he failed to respond to a request by the District of Oregon commander, Col. George Wright, and raise even a single company of cavalry to protect immigrants from raids by Bannock Indians. (6) Given increasing suspicions about Whiteaker's loyalties, the War Department decided to take the extraordinary step of skirting the governor when ordering the creation of a regiment of Oregon cavalrymen. Thus, prominent civilians Thomas Cornelius, Reuben Maury, and Benjamin F. Harding were given the challenging task of raising a regiment of cavalry in Oregon. (7)

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Bypassing the governor and his suspect loyalties did not assuage the War Department's fears entirely. It therefore sought the advice of an unquestionably loyal Oregonian before deciding who should be charged with raising the First Oregon Regiment of Cavalry. That person was Oregon Senator Edward Baker, who was a close personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Baker suggested that Cornelius, Maury, and Harding should organize the regiment, and the War Department charged him with functioning in the role usually reserved for governors. The War Department instructed the three officers, "unless otherwise ordered you will be governed by any direction sent to you by Col. [Senator] E.D. Baker." (8) Because Baker was also serving as a colonel, initially commanding the Seventy-First Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment at the front in Virginia, the incredibly unwieldy arrangement did not last. Baker was killed on October 21, 1861, at the Battle of Balls Bluff (Virginia). (9) From that point forward, Cornelius, Maury, and Harding received their instructions directly from the military. …

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