“Many who know the story have wondered how an 1859 war between Great Britain and the United States would have affected the outcome of the Civil War.”
IT WAS THE international crisis no one wanted – In 1859, a territorial dispute between the United States and Great Britain over a tiny island off the east coast of Vancouver threatened to drag the two nations into their third war since the American Revolution — and all at a time when Washington was trying desperately to avert the collapse of the entire Union. Key players in the story include George Pickett, Winfield Scott and even Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I. Hot heads on both sides clamoured for war – thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. And most surprising of all, the entire crisis was touched off by the death of a single pig! In this week’s installment of Wars You Never Knew About, we’re taking a look at the little known Pig War of 1859.
ON JUNE 15, 1859, Lyman Cutler reached his breaking point. The American farmer who had recently settled on San Juan Island, a tiny strip of land between Vancouver Island and what is now Washington State, was ready to kill a pig that belonged to one of his neighbours. The hog, which its owner allowed to roam free, had dug up Cutler’s garden in search of potatoes. In a fit of anger, the piqued homesteader dispatched the beast with a blast from his shotgun. Little did Cutler realize, his actions were about to propel the United States into what might end up being a third war with Great Britain.
The pig’s owner was an Irishman named Charles Griffith. An employee of the British Hudson’s Bay Company, Griffith worked at one of the enterprise’s outpost on the remote island. For years, San Juan Island had been claimed by both Britain and the United States. The disagreement had served as a minor irritant for both countries since the 1840s. Negotiations between the two powers to resolve the dispute had been dragging on for the past two years. The issue was by no means pressing however – the island sat at the distant edge of North America.
Accepting that he was out of line for shooting the roving swine, Cutler apologized to Griffith and offered $10 to replace the beast. The Irishman demanded $100 instead. Cutler refused the demand, pointing out that the animal had been trespassing in the first place and his initial offer was more than generous. The disagreement polarized the small island community, with the Hudson’s Bay Company employees supporting Griffith and the 25 American families on San Juan lining up with Cutler. When British authorities on the island threatened to arrest the farmer, his neighbours rallied, eventually calling on the nearest U.S. military post for protection.
Recognizing that a U.S. citizen was danger, a brigadier general with the Oregon Department dispatched 66 soldiers from the 9th Infantry Regiment to San Juan Island. The small detachment was under the command of a flamboyant and hot-tempered infantry captain from Virginia by the name of George Pickett. Of course, four years later, Pickett’s would help lead a disastrous 12,500-man Rebel infantry charge into the centre of Union lines at Gettysburg.
Alarmed by the sudden appearance of U.S. troops on an island claimed by Britain, regional authorities in Canada responded by moving three warships into the waters off San Juan Island.
Pickett, already a minor hero from the Mexican War a decade earlier, was eager to use the growing standoff to advance his notoriety. As the crisis mounted he famously threatened “another Bunker Hill” if the British attempted a landing.
Infuriated by this Yankee gall, the ranking British official in the region, James Douglas, governor of the Vancouver Island colony, ordered the British naval commander Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, to land his marines on the island and assert British control. The admiral politely refused, recognizing that such a move might well lead to open hostilities.
On Aug. 10, the Americans tried to move 14 field guns and 460 more troops to reinforce San Juan, but were forced to return to the mainland by five British warships carrying more than 2,000 sailors and marines who blocked their path. For the remainder of the summer, both British and American forces repeatedly tried to provoke each other into firing a first shot. The two countries stood on the brink of all out war.
By the end of August, word of the standoff reached both nations’ capitals setting off a fevered round of negotiations aimed at defusing the simmering crisis. Washington dispatched Winfield Scott to the area to meet directly with the Governor Douglas on Vancouver Island. President James Buchanan who was busy trying to prevent the outbreak of war between the northern and southern states, viewed the confrontation as unwanted distraction. By October, both the British and Americans in the region had agreed to back off. Not a single shot was fired by either side; the only casualty was a British pig. Eventually, it was agreed that each nation could position 100 troops on San Juan until ownership of the island could be settled permanently.
After 13 years of on-again-off-again negotiations, held up in part due to the American Civil War, both the U.S. and Britain agreed to allow the dispute over San Juan Island to be settled by an impartial arbiter. They chose the ruler of the newly-established nation of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I. The emperor turned the matter over to a neutral commission. In October of 1872, the group ruled in favour of the United States. Within four weeks the British abandoned San Juan Island.
Many who know the story have wondered how an 1859 war between Great Britain and the United States would have affected the outcome of the Civil War. To commemorate this war that never was, U.S. Park rangers on San Juan Island still maintain the British garrison, which continues to fly the Union Jack. In fact, it’s one of the few places where American government officials raise a foreign country’s flag.