Oregon isn't the first state that comes to mind when referencing the American Civil War.
But in his new book, Hidden History of the Civil War Oregon, first-time author Randol B. Fletcher exposes a number of interesting ties that link the Beaver State to America's bloodiest war, and does so in a style that's accessible to all.
Surprisingly, John Wilkes Booth, Virgil Earp of O.K. Corral fame, and Ulysses S. Grant are all tied to Oregon through the Civil War. But perhaps of greater interest are Fletcher's tales of the every-man soldiers who valiantly fought in the Civil War and later came to Oregon for many of the same reasons Oregon transplants come to find themselves in the state today - the search for a better life. A recurring theme throughout the 144-page book (a collection of short essays, really) is the common desire of many Civil War vets to move west, or more specifically, to Oregon, in search of a peaceful place to settle, raise a family, start a new business or simply spend the twilight years of their lives.
A life-long history buff, it was the story of General Jones Thorp, the cavalry commander of the First New York Dragoons, that truly captured Fletcher. The fifth-generation Oregonian joined the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and in 2008 was working to identify Thorp's gravesite, which had remained unmarked for 92 years.
"I never planned on doing a book, I just came a cross these stories," says Fletcher in a recent phone interview. The stories that unraveled about Thorp proved to be only the tip of the iceberg for Fletcher, who graduated from the University of Oregon with degrees in history and political science.
While researching the war hero's missing headstone, the author learned that General Thorp had close ties to a Confederate soldier turned minister, the Rev. Dr. J.R.N. Bell. The reverend, an ardent sports fan and Thorp's good friend, was so revered that Oregon State University (then called Oregon Agricultural College) named its football field after him (known as Bell Field until 1953, it's now Reser Stadium). After the OAC's first football Civil War victory against the Ducks, Bell was so enthused, he marched down to Mary's River and threw his bowler hat in the water. And so began a long-standing tradition of throwing hats in the river after a Civil War victory.
It's easily digestible stories like these that make the book a good read.
"If you're just interested in personal stories, I think you'll like it. You don't have to be a real history nerd to enjoy this book," Fletcher says, and he's right. Since one chapter does not hinge on the next, it's easy to pick up the 16-chapter Hidden Histories and read any chapter that catches your eye.
One that caught mine was the chapter entitled, "The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth." Wait, didn't Booth shoot Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C.? He did, but it was two Portland men, Union Trooper John Millington and his friend Emory Parady, who helped corner and kill the assassin in a tobacco barn in Northern Virginia days later. As a reward, the U.S. Government paid each man in the 16th New York Cavalry $1,658.58, about the same as ten year's worth of pay. Millington used some of his money to help with his westward move, and later became a carpenter in Portland. Parady moved to the Rose City and became a shoemaker.
Detailed stories like those of Millington and Parady, unsung heroes, are peppered throughout the book.
"I'm certainly not going to write a book on Robert E. Lee, that book has been written," says Fletcher. "I wanted to write a book about the regular guys. Some of them were truly heroic people."
Some of the best chapters in the book are dedicated to relative unknowns, like Frank Hunter, the last Oregon Confederate, who rode with the Cole Younger and Frank James. Younger and James, who later became world-famous outlaws (think Jesse James and the Wild West), helped Hunter and other Missouri Confederates capture a Federal commander, thereby saving their small town. After the war, Hunter settled in the Columbia River Valley and was later buried in Mosier. Another chapter traces the heroics of Hartwell Compson, a Medal of Honor recipient who fought under a young General George Armstrong Custer. Compson, who moved to Oregon after a stint as a miner in Utah, is buried in Portland.
Fletcher does, however, dabble in names that should be recognizable to most folks.
Earp, who is also buried in Portland, traveled to Oregon after learning that his long-lost wife and children were living there. Also, Fletcher tells us that the citizens of Grants Pass named their city in honor of the 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, who was briefly stationed in the Oregon Territory in 1852.
Though the ties to Oregon are often loose, the conversational tone of Hidden History is more than enough to hold one's interest. Fletcher weaves Oregonians into his essays with the admirable ease of one who clearly enjoys his work.
"It's fun. You just sort of stumble upon stuff. I had no idea about Younger and James," Fletcher admits. "That was just a total surprise."
Hidden History of Civil War Oregon
By Randol B. Fletcher
Published by The History Press
on Sept. 23, 2011
$19.99 at Between the Covers, 645 NW Delaware Ave.