When Johnny Reb Was a Montanan
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Montana’s Civil War years and early days as a territory reveal strong ties to the rebellious South and sentiments among a significant number of resident settlers at the time rejec-ting President Abraham Lincoln and the United States—otherwise known as the Union, or the North.
These were the days before Montana when the area was part of the Dakota and Idaho territories, and when pro South sympathies prompted the Union to incorporate what we now call Montana into a distinct territory of the United States. Sidney Edgerton’s exploits as first Territorial Governor bear this out. Once a member of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party (active in the 1848 and 1852 presidential elections), Edgerton was a pro Union abolitionist, and appears to have been situated in Montana by the federal government, by Abraham Lincoln, in order to bring Montana into the Union rather than allowing it to drift toward Confederacy, with whom the United States was of course at war, and, as pressing a matter, in order to secure gold for the government—an aim of Confederate soldiers as well hoping to enrich the war ravaged South.
The Radical Republicans, an informal faction of politicians within the Republican Party from the 1850s until 1877, and with whom Edgerton was affiliated, took a punitive stance against the South during and after the Civil War, promoting the uncompensated aboli-tion of slavery and even opposing Lincoln’s efforts to bring southern states back into the Union. The Radicals, strongly opposed by the Democratic Party and Liberal Republicans, initiated Reconstruction, and restricted the rights of ex-Confederate soldiers, so that former slaves would have greater political rights than many Southern whites after the war. And so, being as opposed to the Confederacy as he was, Edgerton hardly had an easy time of it in his short tenure as Territorial Governor (2 years), given the stance of secessionist “Montanans,” and especially since Edgerton seems to have gone about taming the territory on behalf of the Union. Though Edgerton denied it in writing, he is said by Montana historian Ken Robison (and others) of the Overholser Historical Research Center in Fort Benton, to have backed the Montana Vigilantes, a founder and leader of which was Edgerton’s nephew Wilbur Fisk Sanders. Edgerton was close to Sanders,” Robison told the Pioneer, “and quietly supported the Vigilantes,” though as governor he concealed his involvement.
Asked about the pro South/anti-Union nature of Montana in the early days, Robison told us early Montana was settled by an interesting combination of people. As federal officials, the newly appointed government types were mostly Lincoln Republicans. “The gold rush,” Robison said, “had brought so many Missourians to Montana that the saying Montana was settled by the left wing of Price’s army, bears an element of truth.”
Sterling Price was the 11th Governor of Missouri from 1853 to 1857 and served as a Confederate Army major general in the Civil War. The defeat of General Sterling “Pap” Price in Missouri in 1864 brought a flood, Robison said, of his bitter, passionate Rebels into the West, and many to Montana. Robison added however that the research of historian J.W. Smurr shows that in 1864 half the population of Montana Territory had been born in non-southern states, with another 28 percent foreign born and 22 percent southern born. Such demographics though leave plenty of room for Johnny Rebs and those who took a similar stance against the Union.
“You find the vocal minority southerners trying to name Virginia City Varina [in honor of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, first lady of the Confederacy]” Robison said. During the Civil War, in Broadwater County, Confederate soldiers discov-ered gold west of Townsend, and the area was thereafter named Confed-erate Gulch. Hostility to the Union, and Edgerton, took various forms, including Union flags being torn down and secessionist sentiments, just as in the South. Smurr called Montana Territory a border state—in other words, in the context of Civil War politics, a state that supported the South, or one at least with divided loyalties, that had not gone so far as to declare secession from the Union and join the Confederacy.
The attempt to name Virginia City after Varina Davis typifies the politics and passions of the day. The Varina Townsite Company, on June 16, 1863, sought to officially name the town Varina. When they applied to do so, the judge, a Connecticut Yankee named Dr. G.G. Bissell, said he and other officials would be “damned” before allowing the town to be named after the wife of Jeff Davis. Bissell compromised though and allowed the town to be named after the state of Virginia, and so it was named Virginia City. The town continued with its pro South temperment even after becoming the state capital.
Distinctions between Montana and the United States may have been stark in those days, even secessionist, in that a Virginia City newspaper referred to boats steaming down the Yellowstone as headed for “America.” This loyalty toward the Confederacy and hatred of the North posed a serious problem for the Union, and so in 1863 Sidney Edgerton alerted Abraham Lincoln to the danger, and surely indicated the wealth of gold to be extracted from the region, and these were reasons for the Montana Territory being quickly established, as an economic and strategic hedge against the South.
“What I believe Montana had in that early period were the very vocal southern anti-Union crowd that hated the North,” Robison told the Pioneer, “along with many very vocal Irish among the foreign born who were Union Democrats (Meagher’s Irish Brigade) but anti-Lincoln; other northern born Union Democrats (less vocal); and the Lincoln or Radical Republicans (a third to half). The anti-Union, anti-Lincoln crowd made a lot of noise and to some extent dominated local politics, making it rather unpleasant for Edgerton (who didn’t stay long) and Sanders and the other Lincoln Republicans (who did stay). The percentage of southern born Montanans continued to decrease in the 1870s and 1880s.”