Friday, June 28, 2019

Camping with the Americans, the Pig War, Part 3

So, we’ve discussed the engagement between Britain and the U.S. that started with a pig, and we’ve talked about the highly civil camp the Brits built to the northwest on San Juan Island, so civil that they hosted the Americans for Queen Victoria’s birthday. This week I’m finishing the series with a little about American camp.

While the Brits were snuggled into a sheltered bay, American camp was on the southern end of the island, strategically overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But that location was also in line with the prevailing winds, which can sweep through at an alarming clip. And, while the Brits were surrounded by forests, the American were essentially camping in a field.

That didn’t stop them from building. Materials from an abandoned installation on the mainland (Fort Bellingham) were brought in for officers’ quarters, an enlisted barracks, cookhouse, bakehouse, carpenter’s shop, school, hospital, and guardhouse. Soon, neat, white-washed buildings dotted the headland, in places surrounded by a white picket fence. As many as 30 buildings were erected.

But the sweeping winds weren’t the only things to trouble the Americans. The Brits had only two commanders during their time on the island. The Americans changed commanders 15 times, and the infantry companies stationed there changed 8 times. Their leadership complained about bootleggers in the area selling the men rot-gut whiskey, the consumption of which made them unfit for duty. When the Civil War began, some officers like Pickett resigned to go serve the Confederacy. Those soldiers who remained may have wondered why they were stuck on a peaceful island while their colleagues were fighting and dying. Some no doubt were thankful to avoid the battles. Others fretted about loss of friends, loss of ideals, and loss of opportunities for advancement. A soldier doesn’t ride for glory while standing in a field running bayonet drills to pass the time.

Though no battle was ever fought on San Juan Island, American camp lost 16 soldiers during the 14 years of the encampment. Half died of injury or illness, but three died by suicide. Still, their presence served its purpose. And when Kaiser Wilhelm, the arbitrator in the disagreement between the two nations, decided the island belonged to the Americans, there must have been a celebration.

Like the valiant soldiers at American camp, Marissa and I will be celebrating Independence Day next week, but look for posts from us the week of July 8.

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