How the Civil War Was Won in Virginia City, Montana
Lincoln’s Weapons of War—Creating Montana, Vigilantes, and Gold
BY JOHN C. FAZIO
Previously, I have argued that the decisive battle of the Civil War was not Gettysburg, as so many assume (though its critical importance cannot be denied), but Spotsylvania and Grant's literal turning south and east at the Chancellorsville Crossroads that preceded it after his defeat in the Wilderness, a decision that historian Ralph Happel describes as one of the most important in American history. My point was that the rolling twelve-day slugfest that was Spotsylvania demonstrated to Robert E. Lee both the unprecedented doggedness of the new commander of the Army of the Potomac and the terrible arithmetic that spelled the doom of the Confederacy, that is, Grant's ability and Lee's inability to replace losses. But, lo, a new candidate has emerged and it is none other than the mighty battle that took place in what is today a thriving metropolis of slightly more than one hundred souls and that resulted in the deaths of (are you ready for this?) twenty-two men! in (of all places) Virginia City, Montana.
Virginia City, Montana? Am I daft? Maybe. And you haven't even heard the punch line. The punch line is that none of the twenty-two (and, with only one exception, we have all their names) died in battle. They were murdered in what can only be described as a terroristic orgy that bypassed anything and everything resembling due process—no statutes, no trials, no judges, no juries, no lawyers, and not even death in the usual manner, i.e. hanging after a drop that broke a victim's neck, but, so as to get the maximum deterrent effect from each murder, by strangulation after being hoisted from the ground, the bodies flailing at the end of the rope for as long as eight minutes.
What on earth could possibly account for the extrajudicial strangulation of twenty-two men and what on earth does it have to do with the Civil War? The answer lies in one word: gold. What else but that shiny yellow metal that has always been equated with power and, because of its beauty, scarcity and the fact that it neither corrodes nor tarnishes, has driven men (and women) batty for all time and, since circa 700 B.C., has been used as money and, therefore, to underwrite the economies of great states and empires. Here, briefly, is what happened.
It need hardly be said that nations need liquid wealth to wage war, particularly protracted war. Not worthless paper, but paper backed by tangible wealth, or the wealth itself, is necessary to manufacture weapons, build the facilities for their manufacture, and equip and supply armies and navies with whatever they need to carry on the struggle—clothing, food, vehicles, ships. Silver meets that need in some degree, but gold meets it more than any other form of wealth.
Because of its intrinsic qualities—beauty, portability, malleability, etc.—it is in demand by virtually everyone and thus serves as an international medium of exchange. At the beginning of the war, the Federal Government had the liquid wealth, mostly gold, necessary to wage protracted war. The Confederate government had very little. To be more precise, the Confed-eracy had, at the beginning of the war, perhaps $20,000,000 in gold and silver, mostly from loans, bullion confiscated from U.S. mints, coins confiscated from U.S. custom houses and mints, and the suspension of specie payments by southern bankers, who then turned their coins over to the Confederate Treasury. (By the end of the war, the Confederacy had $156,000 in gold and silver, all of it in the possession of Jefferson Davis's party when he was captured.) Federal greenbacks, therefore, had substantial value and maintained most of it throughout the war. Confederate paper money had little value and even less as the war dragged on. That would certainly have been different had the Confed-eracy been able to place its hands on a good supply of gold, and it almost did.
When the war began, Montana, then part of the Dakota Territory, was sparcely populated. As the war progressed (regressed would be more accurate), settlers of every variety and origin, including many from the South, moved in, first to the western slope of the Rockies (present day Idaho) and then to the eastern (present day Montana). The lure? Gold, of course. It was discovered in 1861 in the area of the Mullan Road in present-day Idaho, in 1862 along Grasshopper Creek near Bannack, Montana, and in 1863 in Virginia City (Alder Gulch), Montana, originally to have been named Verona City (a misspelling of Varina, Jefferson Davis’s wife), but named Virginia City by a newly elected miners’ court judge, Dr. G. G. Bissell, a Connecticut Unionist who could live with Virginia, but not with Varina. Bannack, Montana, is not to be confused with Bannock, Idaho Territory (sometimes called West Bannock), which was founded in December, 1862, and later had its name changed to Idaho City, Idaho, to distinguish it from Bannack, Montana. Confusing, I know, but there are numerous references in the literature to Bannack and Bannock and some explanation, therefore, seems desirable.
With the settlers, who sought nothing more than a better life, came drunkards, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, robbers, killers and deserters from Union and Confederate armies. Just as they did in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, when silver was discovered there in 1881, they quickly established a culture of decadence, lawlessness and violence, a perfect condition for the emergence of a strongman or strongmen and counter-law-lessness, i.e. vigilantism.
To the Lincoln Administration, of course, it was absolutely imperative that all this gold flow into Federal coffers and that not a nugget find its way to the Confederacy. How much gold? In Virginia City alone, $600,000 worth of gold was being mined every week, according to quotes sent to Lincoln in 1864. In today's dollars, that is $33 million per week or $1.7 billion a year and is in addition to the value of gold mined in nearby Nevada City and Bannack. The Federal Government thus took immediate steps to preserve this immense wealth. It established in the spring of 1863 a new political entity known as Idaho Territory, comprising the present states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with its capital at Lewiston in present-day Idaho. Lincoln then appointed W. W. Wallace as Governor of the new territory. As Chief Justice of the new territory, Lincoln appointed his friend, and one of the founders of the Republican Party, Sidney Edgerton. The latter arrived in Bannack on September 17, 1863, with his family and a nephew, Wilber Fisk Sanders. They were originally supposed to travel to Lewiston, but went instead to Bannack, which was only seventy-five miles from Virginia City and its gold.
Edgerton's and Sanders's problem was that they had to accomplish their purpose—the preservation of the gold for the Union—in what was essentially enemy territory, which is to say that the great majority of the Territory's inhabitants were secessionists. They did so by arranging for the creation of a Vigilance Committee, also known as the Vigilantes, in Bannack and Virginia City. In the winter of 1863-1864, the Vigilantes eliminated any and all threats to the flow of gold to the Federal Government, which is a nice euphemism for saying they murdered a lot of people. It worked. Almost all the gold flowed to the Federal Government, thus maintaining the value of greenbacks at home and abroad and producing the means to accomplish westward expansion, i.e. to populate the west with Union sympathizers. The Homestead Act of 1862 had already begun the process. Later, Union-sympathizing emigrants to Montana Territory came in substantial numbers from St. Paul, Minnesota, protected by U.S. troops led by Captain James Liberty Fisk, who had also journeyed to Washington, with two gold nuggets from Alder Gulch, to impress upon Lincoln the importance of controlling the gold flow. This emigration was financed by the United States Congress for obvious reasons. The effect was the desired one.
Within a few months, Edgerton realized that preserving Montana's gold for the Union could not be effectively done from Lewiston, Idaho, which was too far away and separated from the gold by nearly impassable mountains and heavy snows, and that Montana would therefore have to be established as a separate territory. He too traveled to Washington, by snow shoes and horse, and with a quantity of Virginia City gold, to make his case. Lincoln saw the wisdom of it immediately and thus it was that Montana Territory was established on May 26, 1864, with Sidney Edgerton as its first Governor.
How did Edgerton and Sanders succeed, with secessionists all around and outvoting them and their Republican allies whenever there was access to a ballot box? In a word: terror. With the Vigilantes, their field commander, James Liberty Fisk, their hatchetman, i.e. their “unit commander”, Sergeant James Williams, and a sadistic executioner named X. Beidler, whose full name was John X. Beidler and who delighted in strangling rather than hanging his victims with a drop, Edgerton and Sanders carried the day for their Commander in Chief in Washington. The Vigilance Committee was formally established on December 23, 1863, by Paris Pfouts, Nick Wall, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, Alvin V. Brookie and John Nye. Before long, the Committee had more than one thousand members, almost all of them Republican Masons. Almost all of their victims were non-Mason Democrat secessionists. Paris Pfouts, who was elected Chief of the Committee, was an anomaly. He was a Missourian, with stops in Denver and Salt Lake City, where he signed an oath of loyalty to the Union. He was also a Mason. He was also an avowed secessionist. How was it, then, that he was a member—indeed, a founder—of the Committee? That he was a Mason probably had something to do with it. Probably, too, his loyalty oath had something to do with it. But my guess is that the conundrum is best explained by his seeing where the real power lay and choosing to be on the winning side for his ultimate gain. That he became Mayor of Virginia City supports this theory. In any case, the Committee called their enemies “villains” and, to galvanize the population, invented the myth of the “secret society of road agents”— robbers and murderers who, tipped off by townspeople in league with them, waylaid innocent travelers, murdered them and made off with gold shipments.
These road agents were said to use secret signs and the password “I'm innocent” to facilitate their deadly work.
The terror worked. Those who would have directed gold to the Confederacy wound up at the end of a rope. It didn't matter to Edgerton if they were called villains, road agents or common thugs, as long as they were dead and the gold kept going north, which most of it did. Confederate solders did secure a vein that they found eight miles west of Townsend, Broadwater County, in the central part of the state.
An interesting footnote to the Vigilante saga is their use of the numbers 3-7-77 as their secret sign. They painted or otherwise affixed these numbers on the homes or other dwellings, barns, offices, and so forth, of anyone they considered an enemy. These numbers still appear on the uniforms of Montana Highway Patrol officers and on the flight suits of pilots of the Montana Air National Guard. There are at least a half dozen theories of their meaning, which remains uncertain. One school holds that they mean 3 hours, 7 minutes and 77 seconds to get out of town or swing; another (more plausibly, it seems to me) that they refer to the size of a grave: 3 feet wide, 7 feet deep, 77 inches long. Some contend that the Vigilante use of the numbers is a myth; that the numbers actually appeared for the first time in 1879 as a warning to undesirables to leave Helena, the State's capital since 1889. If we accept the latter theory as fact, we are still left without an explanation of the meaning of the numbers.
In fairness to the Vigilantes, they have their supporters, a vociferous group who contend that the story about the road agents was not story, but fact. Worse, the normal channels of law enforcement were not available to them, say their supporters, because the Sheriff of Bannack, Henry Plummer, a Democrat from Maine, was the secret leader of the road agents! This belief, in fact, is accepted today by most of the residents of Virginia City and most Montanans. Needless to say, Plummer met the same fate as the others, strangulation, hanged by a mob at Bannack on January 10, 1864. The controversy as to the verities of the road agent hypothesis still rages after 140 years. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that most of the public bought the story, enough, in any case, to assure the success of the Vigilantes and thus of Edgerton's and President Lincoln's mission, despite the sympathies of the great majority of the settlers. It is arguable that this success—accomplished not by votes and due process, but by appointed officers and terror—won the war for the North. In fact, it has been stated, categorically, that “Virginia City gold flowing into the coffers of the North won the Civil War for the Union,” that “Virginia City gold won the war for the North,” and that “The Civil War and the entire Union cause depended to a very large extent upon the gold that flowed east from Virginia City.” These appear to be overstatements, but perhaps they are not. We know what an incredible fight the South made of it, despite serious shortfalls in men and materiel. Imagine a Confederacy with all that gold and the ability to purchase everything it needed, if not from Yankees, then abroad.
After the war, the Vigilantes took steps to protect themselves and their reputation, realizing that many thought of them as nothing more than lawless killers and realizing, too, that it was at least possible that they might be tried for murder. So they persuaded Thomas Josiah Dimsdale, editor-in-chief of the Montana Post (Montana’s first newspaper, published in Virginia City) to write a sympathetic history of them and of the events of 1863-1865. The result was The Vigilantes of Montana, first serialized in the Montana Post and then published in book form in 1865. In it, Dimsdale defended the Vigilantes as knights who had no choice but to hang a few bad guys (road agents, villains) who were robbing and murdering good and honest people. (Dimsdale, an Englishman by birth, died the following year of TB. He was only 35.) In addition, Wilbur Fisk Sanders called a meeting in Virginia City’s general store to discuss the estab-lishment of the Historical Society of Montana, later called the Montana Historical Society, with a purpose, perhaps, of exercising some control over the historical record. Sanders served as the Society’s President for 30 years. Later, he served as a United States Senator from Montana (1890-1893). The result is that to this day, the Vigilantes have their defenders and their detractors, with no one being entirely sure of their motives, but with everyone quite certain of their methods. It is this writer’s judgment that the Vigilantes were organized by Sidney Edgerton and his nephew Wilbur Fisk Sanders for the express purpose of assuring that Montana’s gold went north rather than south and, further, that because there was neither law nor law enforcement in the territory at the time, that goal was accomplished by extrajudicial means.
The secessionists, who made up a majority in Montana, did not disappear when the war was over. Sadly, many rejoiced when Lincoln was murdered, though Mayor Pfouts did lead a memorial for the martyred President. Edgerton, his work done and frustrated at every turn by Southern sympathizers, went home.
It is worth noting that in 1916 the Daughters of the Army of the Confederacy erected a fountain in Women's Park in Helena, Montana. This is the northernmost Confederate monument in the United States.
One final note: Lincoln's man on the frontier, Sidney Edgerton, like so many Civil War personalities (Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Mc-Pherson, to name a few), was an Ohio boy. After his service in Idaho and Montana, he returned to Akron a wealthy man and resumed his practice of law. He died on July 19, 1900, and is interred in Tallmadge Cemetery, Lot No. 268, Grave No. 4.
John Fazio is a longtime member of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable and in recent years served as its vice president and president. He frequently lectures on the Civil War and has written numerous articles on the subject. For the author’s sources related to this article, email: [email protected].