Book Review: Lincoln And Oregon Country Politics In The Civil War Era

Lincoln And Oregon Country Politics In The Civil War Era, by Richard W. Etulain

In this slim volume, which draws from the small historiography devoted to the place of the Pacific Northwest, defined here as Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana in order of importance, in the history of the Civil War, the author manages to make the case that the Pacific Northwest was far more integrated into national matters than has often been recognized, even if it was an area of peripheral concern to Lincoln and others during the Civil War era. In terms of its organization, this book has about 170 pages of core material, including a thoughtful bibliographical essay that explains the state of sources about the Civil War in the Pacific Northwest, organized in a chronological fashion, starting from the 1840’s when Lincoln first turned his attention to the Pacific Northwest to the legacy of his political decisions and the coalition he helped build during the Civil War after his death, making it an unusually comprehensive work in its scope.

In presenting his thesis about the interconnectedness between the Pacific Northwest and the United States as a whole during the Civil War era, the author notes that those in the Pacific Northwest were attentive to national events but tended to mostly see them through local eyes, and that interestingly enough in the postwar era those few locals with personal acquaintance with Abraham Lincoln tended not to write at length or in detail about their friendship or correspondence. Also of interest are the ways in which the Pacific Northwest was influenced by the Civil War. This influence was felt both directly, in the person of the people who Lincoln appointed to various territorial offices, indirectly through the Unionist coalition that Lincoln encouraged and helped build that ended up changing the political landscape of the Pacific Northwest for decades, and in the laws passed to encourage (white) settlement like those laws designed to give homesteads to settlers, provide for the establishment of land grant colleges, and laws to develop the railroads to connect the Far West with the rest of the country. Despite the failure of many of Lincoln’s appointments, his efforts appear to have been successful in setting a decisive stamp on the character of the Pacific Northwest, despite having never traveled there himself.

There are at least a few aspects of Lincoln’s political worldview and skills that are not always noted that the author spends considerable time talking about. For one, Lincoln appears to have appreciated the spoils system and based his appointments based on the advice of those he considered trustworthy, or because of promises and commitments to building up larger political coalitions. Likewise, Lincoln appeared to be too distracted with the demands of wartime leadership to reform either the territorial system or the corrupt system of dealing with various tribes. Despite his good intentions, and seeing even in Sioux rebels humanity that he treated with generosity among the hatred of settlers, he ultimately had a viewpoint that saw land for white settlement and acquiesced in the movement of tribes to reservations. This is a book that does not sugarcoat Lincoln’s imperfections and flaws, even as it does point to his massive historical importance even in areas where he never visited personally. Fortunately, his letters have survived, so that historians have been able to construct his thoughts and actions toward a region that is often unjustly neglected when it comes to American history. This book goes a long way in helping to address that imbalance in Lincoln studies.

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