As millions of Americans this week commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, Nevadans will be interested to learn of the role this state played in the conflict that tested and divided the political loyalties of many of its citizens.
April 9, 1865, the day that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, is generally considered to be the end of the four-year Civil War, although Confederate President Jefferson Davis was not captured until May 10 and sporadic skirmishes between Northern and Southern troops lasted until late June of that year.
Nevada’s role in the conflict — a role that some historians believe was comparatively significant — was centered at Carson City, the mining towns of Virginia City, Silver City, Gold Hill and Dayton and at Fort Churchill, the U.S. Army post on the banks of the Carson River in Lyon County.
When the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumpter, South Carolina, the Nevada Territory had been in existence for just five weeks following President James Buchanan’s signing on March 2 of an organic act that severed Nevada from Utah Territory.
Two days later, when President Abraham Lincoln became the 16th president and the clouds of war became increasingly darker, it immediately became apparent that the new Nevada Territory, and three years later the State of Nevada, must be pro-Union for two prime reasons:
To keep the earnings of the Comstock mines, that eventually would pump a half billion dollars into the Union’s war efforts, from falling into Confederate hands, and to ensure that Nevada itself would not fall to the Confederacy.
Many of Nevada’s miners and settlers, who had migrated here in the late 1850s following the discovery of the Comstock Silver Lode, were vocal Southern sympathizers. And hundreds of Californians who had come to work in the mines also were pro-Confederate, according to Philip Dodd Smith, PhD, a noted Western historian and author of “Sagebrush Soldiers, Nevada’s Volunteers in the Civil War.”
It was not long after the Civil War had begun when the Nevada Confederates showed their colors.
Maj. George Blake at Fort Churchill reported to the War Department in Washington that 200 men were organizing for the Confederates in Virginia City and that Union muskets stored in Carson City, the new territory’s capital, were in danger of being seized by the pro-Southerners.
Blake also reported that fistfights between Union and Confederate sympathizers had broken out in the mining camps and that he expected an attack on Fort Churchill, which had been established in 1860 to protect the area’s settlers, transcontinental wagon trains and the Pony Express and telegraph routes.
Blake wrote to his superiors in mid-June 1861 that Southern sympathizers “have raised the Rebel flag in Virginia City ... this gang of men is well-armed ... and one of its number, a Doctor McMeans, avows openly that he is acting under the authority of Jefferson Davis. The Union men of Virginia City are much alarmed for fear of their lives and property.”
Additional troops were rushed from the Presidio of San Francisco to supplement the garrison at Fort Churchill, and cavalry and infantry units of Nevada volunteers and the Territorial Militia (the forerunners of the Nevada National Guard) were raised to confront the secessionists. The vocal confrontations, fistfights and brawling between the opposing sides became so intense that territorial Gov. James Nye was named a brigadier general in the State Militia and issued a proclamation from Carson City that Nevada would be under martial law until the end of the Civil War.
Famed historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in his “History of Nevada 1540-1888” said the situation was so dire that the colonel commanding the Military District of Utah and Nevada had “forbidden the utterances of traitorous sentiments or threats against the loyal population.”
The Confederates’ threats continued for several years. In September 1864, for example, a month before Nevada became the 36th state, federal troops were sent to Carson City to foil a rumored insurgency. But in the end, fears of a secessionist takeover in Nevada, as well as in California, proved to be groundless.
The secessionists’ threats were just that ... threats. The Confederates blustered and made a lot of noise, but their numbers dwindled as it became apparent that the North would win the war. No serious attempts were made to seize the bullion from the Comstock mines and in 1864 President Lincoln was reelected to second term, with the majority of Nevada’s voters firmly in his column.
On April 15, 1865, a day after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth and six days after Gen. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Grant, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds.
During the entire Civil War, there were no battles in Nevada although two soldiers were killed in skirmishes with Indians within the state.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.