Commentary: Civil War was a footnote in Washington state history

The (Tacoma) News TribuneApril 12, 2011 

Today marks the beginning of what will be an extended retelling and reexamination of the most significant event in United States history.

It was 150 years ago that Fort Sumter, S.C., was shelled by Confederate forces, triggering the Civil War.

As eloquently stated by historian Shelby Foote in the Ken Burns documentary, the Civil War affected everything, even grammar. Before, the country was described as a collection of states, as in “the United States are ... .” After, it was expressed in the singular form, “the United States is ... .”

Yet as all-consuming as the Civil War was in many parts of America, it was barely a footnote in what was a recently formed territory.

“Washington Territory was as far as you could get from the Civil War and still be within the United States,” said David Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society.

There were barely 11,000 people in the entire territory. Even Oregon, which had attained statehood in 1859, was far removed from the effects of the war, though not its politics.

Washington’s most significant connection is relative – many of the military commanders of the war had served in territorial forts – Vancouver, Steilacoom, Whatcom – during the Indian Wars. U.S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George McClellan, George Pickett, Philip Sheridan all were stationed in the territory.

Isaac Ingalls Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory and the man responsible for Indian policy, was killed in the Battle of Chantilly.

“All of these guys who go back and make a name for themselves were out here,” said Michael Sullivan who teaches the Tacoma history course at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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