Connecting the Nation: The U.S. Army and the American West in the Study of the Civil War Era Image?

Connecting the Nation: The U.S. Army and the American West in the Study of the Civil War Era Image?

Read the introduction to the A Prelude to an Unholy Union roundtable here, the first installment here, and the third installment here.

In the aftermath of a fatal confrontation between elements of Washington Territory’s militia and an enraged anti-Chinese mob, elements of the U.S. Army’s Fourteenth Infantry Regiment occupied Seattle between February and August of 1886 in an attempt to preserve order amidst a burgeoning anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest and to protect the civil rights of Chinese residents. Even for an army accustomed to intervening in civil disputes, the Seattle deployment made a deep impression.  “The position was a novel one,” Brigadier General John Gibbon, the commander of federal forces in the region, later wrote; “I had seen nothing like it since directly after the close of the Civil War in the South.”[1]

With the appearance of a slew of important studies on Chinese immigration and the anti-Chinese movement in recent years, historians of the United States today are much more familiar with those topics than they would have been a generation ago.[2]  And, thanks  to Beth Lew-Williams’s The Chinese Must Go!: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America there is greater awareness of the powerful anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest, a region which is often terra incognita in our broad-gauge surveys of American history.[3]   Explaining how an immigration bureaucracy devoted to coercive forms of gate-keeping began to emerge from borderlands encounters between trans-national Chinese immigrants, a burgeoning anti-Chinese movement, and federal officials from both the US and Canada, The Chinese Must Go! possesses important implications for twentieth-century American history. Although a handful of historians had already written on the anti-Chinese movement in the Northwest since the 1940s and detailed many of the episodes and themes that populate The Chinese Must Go!, no other scholar approaches Lew-Williams’s ability to delineate the significance of this historical moment.[4]  At the same time, however, the forward-looking nature of Lew-Williams’s analysis rips events in the Puget Sound out of a central context through which contemporaries understood them.  That is to say, the federal response to the anti-Chinese movement reflected something more than a retrospective early step in the development of a punitive immigration regime. The aggressive federal response in Washington Territory in the mid-1880s initiated an unacknowledged crisis of Reconstruction, one that unfolded in the streets, in federal courts, and in diplomatic correspondence.

One does not need to squint very hard to bring this very different history of the anti-Chinese movement in the Pacific Northwest into focus.  Politically, the violent anti-Chinese movement in the West that began at Rock Springs, Wyoming in September of 1885 and culminated in the crisis at Seattle emerged during a delicate period when the first Democratic administration since the antebellum period sought to establish its legitimacy.  Not only did the regular army’s occupation of and rule over an American city on behalf of a scorned non-white minority group serve as powerful illustrations of still-evident Reconstruction divisions, but so too did Washington Territory’s peculiar politics, which featured a Republican governor appointed by the Arthur administration ruling a population mostly made up of white Democratic voters. Moreover, when Governor Watson Squire cabled for assistance, the federal response was swift and overwhelming.  By steamship and by rail nearly the whole of the Fourteenth Infantry Regiment—several hundred men—reached Seattle only a few hours after receiving their orders. They quickly swept into action by relieving state forces, patrolling the streets, and (under a declaration of martial law) imposing a curfew, arresting mob leaders,  protecting Chinese neighborhoods, and helping Chinese residents who had been driven into a steamer bound for San Francisco reach federal court so they could testify in habeas corpus hearings.  

President Cleveland’s proclamation to “insurgents” in Seattle that they must disperse.

Not surprisingly, the politics of the Federal response traced back to the Civil War and Reconstruction; they illustrate a tangible connection between the histories of those eras and the Trans-Mississippi West.  To start from the beginning, the Cleveland administration justified the military deployment by borrowing language from the 1861 Militia Act and §3 of the 3rd Enforcement Act in the order sent to John Gibbon, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Columbia.[5]  Gibbon’s decision to arrest leading anti-Chinese agitators for possible trial in federal court, meanwhile, evoked the specter of military rule during Reconstruction, not simply because of the military’s forceful intervention into civil society (well-established practice in period labor disputes after all), but because federal forces were arrayed against a social movement committed to protecting white breadwinners and their dependents from the scourge of an ostensibly unassimilable and un-American minority.[6]  (Gibbon’s vociferous rejoinder to the charge that arresting civilians violated the posse comitatus restrictions imposed by Congress in 1878 provides an important clue to a revisionist reading of the history of posse comitatus during Reconstruction that I have written about elsewhere.)[7]  And, in the nation’s capital, those men overseeing the affair were living reminders of the rebellion and Reconstruction from Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic president since James Buchanan, to the cabinet officials in charge of territorial affairs, secessionist and Confederate diplomat turned Secretary of the Interior L.Q.C. Lamar and Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, whose strident assaults on Congressional Reconstruction served as a regular feature of life in the US Senate in the late 1860s.  And, in yet another demonstration that history is stranger than fiction, the outbreak in Seattle fell smack in the middle of yet another battle between a Republican Senate and a Democratic president over the Tenure of Office Act and Executive Branch authority.[8]

In short, reverberations from the Civil War and Reconstruction could not only be felt in 1886, but they remained strong twenty years after Appomattox.  In fact, I would argue, that we can glean a host of specific insights about the Civil War and Reconstruction from what happened in Seattle in 1886, not all of them expected, but all rooted in the ironies, complexities, and ambiguities that marked those weighty eras. (That’s as far as my word count and publisher would like me to go, I suspect.)    So permit me to close by finding another moral to the story, one which stems from the cross-pollination between the fields I was either trained in (the history of the American West and military history) or have gravitated toward (the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the history of the post-Civil War U.S. Army).  For all their connections to the Civil War and Reconstruction, I would suggest that the actions of white anti-Chinese mobs in Washington Territory and the federal response to them speak to a broader interpretation of nineteenth-century American history that transcends the Civil War.  In this reading, the history of the United States in this period is to an important degree the story of a (usually) low-grade insurgency waged against federal authority by sovereign white citizens who (usually) resided on the country’s geographical margins.[9]  The southern rebellion, in fact, might be regarded as simply the most forceful expression of a much larger pattern of behavior, first manifest against Native Americans, tax collectors, and the proprieties of the General Land Office, but later fueled by the racialized and gendered aspirations of Jacksonian American and the failings of federal governance.[10]  Almost never—outside of the Civil War, really—did the government resort to violent force against disorderly whites opposed to the government.  Often, in fact, the insurgents won the day politically, a thought perhaps worthy of reflection today.[11]

[1] John Gibbon, “Chinese Troubles in Seattle,” Box 1, Folder 20, John Gibbon Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 352.

[2] See especially Gordon Chang, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019); Elliott Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration to the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Lon Kurashige, Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Mary Ting Yi Lui, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005);  John Haddad, The Romance of China: Excursions to China in U.S. Culture, 1776-1876 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); Liping Zhu, The Road to Exclusion: The Denver Riot, 1880 Election, and Rise of the West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013); Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco: A Trans-Pacific Community, 1850-1943(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[3] Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go!: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[4] Jules Alexander Karlin, “The Anti-Chinese Outbreaks in Seattle, 1885-1886,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 39, no. 2 (1948): 103-30 and “The Anti-Chinese Outbreaks in Tacoma, 1885,” Pacific Historical Review 23, no. 3 (1954): 271-83; Carlos A. Schwantes, “Protest in a Promised Land: Unemployment, Disinheritance, and the Origin of Labor Militancy in the Pacific Northwest,” Western Historical Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1982): 373-90; Robert Edward Wynne, Reaction to the Chinese in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, 1850-1910  (New York: Arno Press, 1978).  Specialists in history of the nineteenth-century US Army have also taken note of the army’s mission in Seattle.  See Edward Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 246-47; Robert Wooster, The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783-1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 249-50; Michael Tate, The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 199), 99-100.

[5] Adjutant-General R.C. Drum’s order appears in The Annual Report of the Secretary of War for The Year 1886 (Washington: G.P.O., 1887), 186.  See also “An Act to provide for the Suppression of Rebellion against and Resistance to the Laws of the United States, and to amend the Act entitled ‘An Act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union,’ &c., passed February twenty-eight, seventeen hundred and ninety-five,” US Statutes at Large 12 (1861): 281; “An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and or other Purposes,” U.S. Statutes at Large 17 (1871): 14

[6] A good overview of military interventions in labor disputes can be found in Jerry Cooper, The Army and Civil Disorder: Federal Military Intervention in Labor Disputes, 1877-1900 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).  For understanding the contours of anti-Chinese sentiment in the nineteenth century; for Seattle proper, consult Schwantes, “Protest in a Promised Land”; Wynne, Reaction to the Chinese; and Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go!, 113-36.

[7] 1886 Annual Report, 187-88; Kevin Adams, “Army of Democracy?: Moving towards a New History of Posse Comitatus in Democracy and the Civil War: Race and African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Kevin Adams and Leonne Hudson (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2016), 63-82.

[8] Richard E. Welch, Jr., The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988): 53-6.

[9] An early reflection of my thinking on this theme appears in Kevin Adams and Khal Schneider, “‘Washington is a Long Way Off’: The Round Valley War and the Limits of Power on a Federal Indian Reservation,” Pacific Historical Review 80, no. 4 (2011): 557-96.

[10] Here we see resonances of one of Lew-Williams’s most important insights, that the federal government’s utter inability to implement a Chinese “Restriction” Act of 1882 that westerners believed would solve the “Chinese Question” transformed direct action mob violence against Chinese—which had always been present—into a centerpiece of the movement.

[11] Samuel Watson has also argued that rebellious Euro-American settlers “paradoxically…had the political advantages of insurgency” and has explored why soldiers proved reluctant to use force against said settlers.  See Samuel Watson, “Continuity in Civil-Military Relations and Expertise: The U.S. Army during the Decade before the Civil War,” The Journal of Military History 75, no. 1 (2011): 229-32 and “Military Learning and Adaptation Shaped by Social Context: The U.S. Army and Its ‘Indian Wars,’ 1790-1890,” The Journal of Military History, 82, no. 2 (2018): 382.

Kevin Adams

Kevin Adams is an associate professor and chair of the History Department at Kent State University.

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