Nevada Civil War general died in shipwreck
December 5, 2014
Heavily-armed Civil War secessionists are conspiring to capture Nevada for the Confederacy…
Nevadans are terrified when the Confederate flag is raised over Virginia City…
Rumors fly that a Nevada territorial judge has been appointed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to take over the governorship if Nevada falls to the South…
Troopers from Fort Churchill are called out during the crisis … Brig. Gen. George Wright, commander of the U.S. Army. Department of the Pacific, who is to meet a terrible death at sea the following year, rushes reinforcements to Nevada from San Francisco…
These and other harrowing Civil War episodes, which began three months after Nevada became a territory on March 2, 1861, and ended two months after statehood was achieved on Oct. 31, 1864, will hold the attention of many of us as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of Nevada entering the Union this year.
The outbreak of the Civil War galvanized the enthusiasm of many pro-Southerners living in Nevada in the early and mid-1860s. Most of them were miners who had emigrated here from Southern states, and they hoped to link a pro-Confederate Nevada with sympathizers in California and Oregon planning to form a "Pacific Republic" that would be loyal to the Confederacy.
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In early March, 1861, the newly-formed Arizona Territory voted to separate from New Mexico Territory and join the Confederacy, and this, too, intensified fears that a large bloc of Western states and territories might defect to the South.
As worries increased about Confederate intentions, martial law was declared in Nevada Territory, a Committee of Public Safety was organized by pro-Northerners in Virginia City (the largest community in the territory at the time), volunteer cavalry and militia units were formed to supplement the troops at Fort Churchill, and Army units soon arrived from the Presidio of San Francisco.
Gen. Wright, who made several visits to Nevada during the secessionist uprisings, inspected troops at Fort Churchill and hastily-constructed Fort Virginia City and Camp Sadler outside Carson City. He telegraphed the War Dept. in Washington, "I found three companies of cavalry and a fourth company in the process of organization … a finer body of men I never saw … orderly, well-behaved and undergoing a thorough course of instruction and discipline."
At the end of April, 1864, Gen. Wright was again in Nevada, traveling once more to Carson City, where he conferred with Gov. James W. Nye, who had been appointed a brigadier general by President Abraham Lincoln, and to the other 13 Army forts and camps built throughout the far-flung territory to contain the secessionists.
By the end of 1864 and the beginning of 1865, however, Northern defeats of Confederate forces in the East and South had crippled the Confederacy, the secessionists in Nevada had faded away, and the war ended on April 9, 1865, with the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
As for the fate of Gen. George Wright, a 1822 West Point graduate who had fought the Seminole Indians in Florida in 1844 and had been wounded and decorated for bravery during the 1846-1848 Mexican War:
His untimely end came at the age of 62. The date was July 30, 1865, just three months after the end of the Civil War.
At war's end, he had been ordered to Portland, Ore., to command the Army's Department of the Columbia.
Taking passage in San Francisco aboard the 14-year-old, 220-foot steamer Brother Jonathan, Wright, his wife, 242 passengers and crew sailed for Portland, a voyage that was to have taken about 70 hours.
The over-laden ship, which also carried a cargo of heavy machinery, mining equipment, a fire engine, two camels for the Portland Zoo, several horses, a Newfoundland dog, 346 barrels of whiskey and millions of dollars worth of gold bars and coins, ran into a gale off the coast of Crescent City in Northern California the following day.
The ship struck an unchartered reef about eight miles from Crescent City, rocks ripped the length of its hull and "many people were washed into the sea," survivor Mary Ann Tweedale said later.
The ship soon turned on its side and sank. Of the 244 aboard, only 19 survived. Many bodies, including that of Wright, Dr. Anson G. Henry, who was President Lincoln's doctor and closest friend, several prostitutes who had plied their trade aboard the ship, and one of the horses, washed up on the Pacific beaches the following days.
The wreck was, and still is, the worst-ever shipwreck in terms of lives lost in West Coast history.
Two days after the disaster, the New York Times, in a eulogy for Gen. Wright, wrote: "He was a gallant and distinguished soldier…of the most honorable and patriotic character…it is hard for the friends of General George Wright to see him make this exit by the sinking of a steamship on a sunken rock. He would gladly have closed his career on the battlefield in the recent war, fighting for the preservation of our unity and our liberties."
Some of the gold coins and bullion stored aboard the Brother Jonathan were discovered by divers in 1996. An estimated $50 million-$100 million in gold is still believed to be in chests and a safe in the wreckage.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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