The Pig War: An Alternate History
Updated: May 31, 2021
SAN JUAN ISLAND
WASHINGTON TERRITORY (DISPUTED)
JUNE 15, 1859
Lyman Cutlar awoke to the sound of laughter. Someone outside his cabin found something funny; the deep guffaws continued as he climbed out of bed. His Indian wife stirred slightly as he got up and went to the open window. He looked out to see Jacob, an African servant from the Hudson Bay Company’s farm, astride a horse, pointing and laughing at something in his garden. Then he saw the pig. The big tusker was in his potato patch, rooting out tubers to its heart’s content.
“Damnit, “he yelled at the black man, “I’ve told you, people, to keep that beast out of my garden!”
Jacob turned to look at him, then turned back to laugh at the pig.
Cutlar wasn’t going to stand for any more damage to his property. The pig had been destroying his crops for days. He’d written the company, then gone to Belle Vue farm, the company’s outpost on the island, to confront Griffin, the manager.
They nearly came to blows.
The two men were a distinct contrast in dress and styles. Cutlar was a tall thin, unkempt Yankee with a wild beard. He’d been on the island only a few months, he’d tried his hand at mining, and was hoping to hear about another strike. San Juan Island looked like the right place to wait until he heard of something better. Griffin, a short, dapper Englishman, wore a business suit, in contrast to the American’s overalls. For years, he had been here working the Hudson Bay Company farm and turning it into a respectable enterprise.
“That boar is eating me out of house and home; it’s your obligation to keep your pig out of my potatoes.”
Griffin had responded with, “It’s your obligation to keep your potatoes out of my pig! And if you can’t do that, stop squatting on company land.”
“That is not company land; it’s mine under the Homestead Act.”
“Your Homestead Act doesn’t apply because you’re on British soil, you ignorant Yank!”
At that point, two workers walked up.
“Need some help, Mr. Griffin?”
“Show this lout back to his shack.”
“Don’t bother,” Cutlar growled, “I know the way.”
And here was the pig, eating his ‘taters again.
He picked up his long Kentucky rifle and stepped out the door. He lined the pig up in the sights and pulled the trigger. With a sharp BANG and cloud of powder smoke, the gun spat lead. The pig fell with a thud. Startled and frightened, Jacob took off at a gallop toward the company farm.
The next day, Cutlar lounged in front of his cabin, although the British would refer to it as a shack in later reports. He saw Griffin, with several of his men coming up the sloping path toward him.
“You killed my pig!”
“Yes, I did, and I’m glad of it.”
“That was a prize Berkshire boar. It was company property; you need to pay for it!”
Cutler thought for a moment. Perhaps, to avoid a fight, he should offer to compensate Griffin for his loss.
“I can give you a dollar.”
Griffin looked as if his head would explode; he turned red and huffed in anger. “I said that was my prize boar; how dare you shoot it and insult me on top of damage me?”
“I’d just as soon shoot you as that pig!” Cutlar was now also turning red.
“I demand one hundred dollars now!” Griffin shot back.
Cutlar laughed and spat at Griffin’s feet.
“There’s your hundred dollars.”
Griffin pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “Lyman Cutlar, this is a warrant for your arrest, for trespassing on company land, and killing a pig, which was company property. Come with us.”
“You can’t arrest me! I’m an American.”
“And you’re on British soil. Come along; no need to make this difficult.”
Cutlar, surrounded by men with guns, gave in to the inevitable.
Major George Pickett, 9th Infantry, put the letter down. It was a petition signed by all twenty-five Americans on San Juan Island. They reported the arrest of an American citizen on trumped-up charges, the British took him to Victoria to stand trial. A British warship had landed troops on the island. The Americans were demanding protection. He sighed, tossing the letter to his desk.
The British refused to concede the Island was American territory. The Treaty of Oregon specified the boundary was “The middle of the channel that separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island.” The larger and obviously “main” channel was Haro straight, to the west of the island. The British insisted the smaller Rosario straight to the east of the island marked the boundary. Now the dispute demanded a response.
“Who else has seen this?”
“No one, Sir.” Said Lt. James Forsyth, his aid. “But there are lots of rumors. And the mail packet has already gone south. “
“Well, we have to be ready to act.” He looked again at the naval officer, “If we have to land troops, what do the British have to oppose us? Give me a run down.”
“Yes, Sir. They have two steam frigates, the Tribune and Plyadies, each with thirty-one guns. The corvette Satellite, twenty-one guns, and the gunboat Plumper, twelve guns. Last is an old third-rate ship of the line, HMS Ganges. She mounts either seventy-two, seventy-four, or eighty-four guns. Their total force is about two thousand men, although only about four hundred are marines able to fight on land. “
“What can we match them with?”
“USS Massachusetts is the only warship in Puget Sound.”
“Um, twelve guns?”
“Thirteen, we’ve added a pivot gun forward.”
“James, what can we oppose the marines with?”
“Companies D and H of the ninth. About two hundred men.”
“Long odds, but as they say, no glory in fighting when you have the enemy outnumbered. Prepare to send a relief expedition out to San Juan. Can’t have them arresting citizens on our own land, can we.”
The two men jumped up, saluted, and left.
The dapper Virginian began composing a letter to General Harney in Fort Steilacoom, forwarding the letter from San Juan Island and outlining his intent to move his troops. He also sought reinforcements, both land and naval. He smiled as he wrote. An ambitious officer sitting in a Godforsaken fort at the end of the world regarded the assignment as torture. The chance for action excited him.
General William Selby Harney looked up from Pickett’s letter. It was several days old; the rumors arrived well before it. According to the gossip, British authorities arrested a dozen Americans and burned their homes. At least some stories seemed accurate.
“Pleasonton!” He bellowed. “Get your ass in here!”
Captain Alfred Pleasonton, Harney’s aide, rushed in, saluted, stood stiffly at attention, and wondered what abuse waited for him.
Harney was a big man, over six feet tall, with blue eyes, red complexion, red hair (although starting to gray), and a temper to match. He had a full, unruly beard. Pleasonton, in contrast, was small and fair. Like many men, he hated and feared the General.
“I’m sending for reinforcements to deal with this fight up on San Juan. I need to know what I’m up against. “
Pleasonton stood at attention, trying to figure out what his superior wanted him to do.
“It says here that this ship Ganges has seventy-two or seventy-four or possibly eight-four guns.”
“Well, which is it?”
“I’m not sure; I’m not a navy man, sir.”
“I’m asking the Navy to send up ships from Astoria; I have to tell them what I need. Go find out this ship’s size. We need to know.”
Pleasonton turned and marched out, “I’ll write the British admiral and have him clarify that for you,” he thought as he left the room.
Harney went to work. He wasn’t going to let those damned British push him around for one more second. He wrote out an order confirming the transfer of Pickett to San Juan, then set about marshaling reinforcements.
ABOARD SS JULIA
The little mail ship chugged through the San Juan Islands’ narrow passages at four knots, its stern wheel thrashing the water into white foam. Astern Massachusetts plodded along in their wake. Ahead, the little revenue cutter Jefferson Davis led the way, maneuvering around the rocky hazards. It was late afternoon, and they were nearing San Juan Island itself and the planned landing beach. The land behind the shore consisted of windswept prairie dotted by stands of timber.
Sergeants moved among the men, ensuring they completed their tasks. Pickett nodded in satisfaction; his men were ready. He had nearly two hundred men on three ships, four cannon to take ashore, plus ammunition, food, tents, and the hundreds of other items needed to establish a post. The ships rounded a bend, and he could see the shores of San Juan Island ahead.
Ashore Griffin watched from a safe distance as the ships stopped offshore. Longboats dropped to the water, and supplies loaded. He watched teams of men push the cannon onto the beach. Clearly, the Americans planned to stay. He turned and scurried home, where he dashed off a note to Governor Douglas.
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA
TWO DAYS LATER
AMERICANS INVADE SAN JUAN
Governor James Douglas set the newspaper down. And picked up his cup of tea. On the other side of his desk sat a dour man in the uniform of a Rear Admiral.
“Admiral Baynes, we must act immediately to protect British interests in the San Juan Islands.”
“You are hereby ordered to proceed to San Juan Island and land your marine force. I believe a threat alone will convince the Americans to withdraw. They don’t have the stomach for a fight.
“Yes, Sir. I shall proceed immediately. Am I free to act as needed to prevent the Americans from reinforcing the island?”
“Certainly, I would not presume to tell you how to do your job.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I would like to see your plans before you set out.”
Baynes sighed as he left the Governor’s office. He knew that he was going to have a landlubber telling him what to do, no matter the promise.”
Douglas leaned back in his chair. It was time to end the American claim to San Juan Island. A few years earlier, an American mob sailed to San Juan Island in the middle of the night and rounded up a flock of sheep. They’d claimed they were seizing them to settle a tax debt owed to Whatcom county.
Before they’d set off on this expedition, they’d fortified themselves with a good dose of whiskey. When they arrived at the island, they were too drunk to collect the sheep. Their “tax collection” effort turned into yelling drunks wandering the island. Eventually, law officers from Victoria and Whatcom County managed to restore order.
But the diplomats had still reached a long-term decision. Well, he’d do it for them.
Harney’s plans were now complete. The twenty-four gun steam frigates Susquehanna and Mississippi were on their way north from Astoria. USS Massachusetts, after landing, Pickett’s troops, sailed south to transport more soldiers. All reports pointed to British preparation to put troops on the island. He would fight when the time came.
Pleasonton knocked and entered the room.
“Have you arranged more transport, and what we sending?”
“Yes sir, I have transport, Constitution--”
“Good God! What is she doing here?” Harney interrupted.
“Not THAT Constitution, Sir. This one is a small steamer; Northerner is also available. Julia, Jefferson Davis, and Massachusetts are on their way here. We are sending up companies A, C, and I of the 4th Infantry and the 3rd Artillery. Five hundred men when they all arrive.”
“Very good, you shall accompany the men when they go up. I will need to stay here to coordinate command.”
After a moment of silence, Pleasonton spoke.
“Sir, if I may be so bold to speak, shouldn’t we wait for orders before rushing in all these troops?”
“Bah! General Scott won’t get my report for a month; it will take that much time for his reply to reach us. We can’t wait two months.”
“See to the preparations. I want Pickett reinforced immediately.”
Pleasonton saluted and left.
Douglas looked over Baynes’ plans. He planned to land the men and build an encampment on the island’s northwest side. The Americans now occupied a camp on San Juan Island’s southwest shore. The Americans could not reach the proposed British camp in time to stop the landing. With luck, they might have time to dig in before the Yanks saw them.
Baynes planned to guard the Admiralty Inlet with Plumper to stop any ships coming out of Puget Sound. The Tribune, Plyadies, and Satellite would patrol the eastern end of the Straight of Juan de Fuca to block the American ships that were undoubtedly coming up from Oregon or California.
“I don’t see Ganges on this plan.
Baynes sighed; here it comes.
“Governor Douglas, she’s unsuitable for work in confined waters. We’re better off without her.”
“Nonsense, man, she’s the biggest ship in your fleet. Put her off that American camp. They get a good look at all those cannon, and perhaps they might think twice.”
“That’s an order.”
Baynes turned to his aid, “See to it.”
“Aye, Aye, Sir.”
The aid saluted and left.
ABOARD USS MASSACHUSETTS
STRAIGHT OF JUAN DE FUCA
The little steam sloop chugged through the glassy water, making its way toward Puget Sound. Washington Territory had a reputation for rain and fog, but its inhabitants knew summer days were often beautiful. This was such a day. The sky was a clear blue, reflected on the water. Off the Port beam, the snowcapped peak of Mt. Baker rose into the air. Off the Starboard bow, a pod of killer whales undulated gracefully through the sea.
A lookout called from the mast. “Ship approaching, Starboard.”
Captain Jacobson looked in the indicated direction and saw a small side-wheel steamer. But he could see guns sticking out a row of ports, and the Union Jack stood out sharply.
Signal flags fluttered up a line on her mast.
“Sir, they are ordering us to heave to.”
“I see that. Maintain course and speed.”
A few minutes later, he heard a call across the water.
“Ahoy, Heave to.”
Nearby crewmen looked at Jacobson, who did nothing.
“Ahoy, heave to. You are in British waters.”
Jacobson called back, “I am in American waters; your order is illegal.”
Jacobson watched as flame and smoke erupted from a gun. A scream tore the air, followed by a large splash off the port bow. The killer whales flicked their tails and dove out of sight.
Forward, the bow pivot gun crew had already manhandled it around to bear on the British ship. Jacobson walked forward to stand near the gun captain.
“Shall I return fire, sir?”
“Yes, put one across his bow.”
A moment later, the gun captain pulled the lanyard. A loud boom echoed across the water; smoke enveloped the ship a minute before blowing away.
The crew watched the shell splash into the water by the ship’s bow. The British ship quickly fired again, this time nearly hitting Massachusetts. The British Captain repeated the order to heave to.
“Are all guns loaded?” Jacobson asked.
“Let’s see what they do.”
He made no reply to the British command but again ordered steady course and speed. The Brits reloaded.
A moment later, they fired again, a single shot. This time the hull of Massachusetts resounded with the heavy THUD of a solid hit. Breaking wood crackled.
“FIRE!” Jacobson yelled.
The ship shook as the full six-gun broadside let go, joined by the big pivot gun. Jacobson watched as at least two hits crashed through the side of the British man of war.
“Well, “he said to no one in particular, “we’re at war.”
ABOARD HMS PLUMPER
Lt. Edmonds watched in horror as the American let go a full broadside. HMS Plumper was no bigger than the American; he was in no mood for an all-out fight, no matter what Governor Douglas wanted.
A few days earlier, he had stood in the Governor’s office with Admiral Baynes, Captain Hornby, and several other officers while the Governor gave them their orders. Douglas had wanted the Americans driven from the sea. Edmonds orders said to patrol near San Juan Island and run off any American that showed his face while the other ships prepared for action. Ganges, in particular, needed her fouled hull cleaned.
But as they left, Baynes had put his hand on Edmonds’ shoulder and whispered. “Stay out of trouble. I’d like to settle this without violence if we can.”
Now, here he was, trying to act under conflicting orders as best he could.
“Helm,” he shouted, “bring us about. Make for Victoria. We’ll make a report and see what’s next.”
“Aye Aye, sir.” The helmsman responded.
“Sir, our orders didn’t mention making reports.” Said his second in command.
“My orders, number two, are to make sure the Americans leave British waters. This one is leaving British waters now.”
He nodded toward the American, pulling away to the south.
“See, there he goes now.”
Aboard Massachusetts, Jacobson heaved a sigh of relief. The British outnumbered him, and he wanted to leave before another warship showed up.
THE NEXT DAY
“You did what?”
Governor Douglas had spent the last quarter-hour yelling the same question at the hapless Lt. Edmonds. Baynes was doing what he could to intervene, to little effect.
“Sir, the American was leaving British territorial waters; I didn’t think it was necessary to risk the lives of my crew or damage to my ship, to do anything other than see him move on. I believed that was the wisest course of action.”
“Bah, you ran away. You let an American ship get away. Dismissed, I’ve no further use for you.”
After they left the Governor’s house, Baynes put a caring hand on the young Lieutenant’s shoulder.
“You do know you did the right thing.”
“Good, these politicians are getting us into hot water fast.”
THE FOLLOWING DAY
“You did what?” General Harney bellowed at Lt. Jacobson. “You let a British warship get away?”
“I wouldn’t describe it like that, Sir. I didn’t feel that I should risk my ship and crew to fight a ship that wasn’t pressing for a battle.”
Harney waved a gesture that took in both Jacobson and his immediate superior, Captain Allen, chief of staff for the North Pacific Squadron.
“Gentlemen, your job is to rid us of these British. Their presence on American soil is intolerable. Get out, both of you.”
The two saluted and left.
As they walked away, Allen looked over at Jacobson.
“You did the right thing. That man is trouble.”
SAN JUAN ISLAND
Dawn, a glorious time on San Juan Island. The air was clean, with a good salt smell, the sky clear. The early morning sun reflected off the water. In most directions, mountains sprung from the horizon to varying heights.
The Americans camped on a gentle slope above the island’s west shore. They enjoyed an excellent view to the west; stands of timber provided fuel and shade. The soldiers considered it “good ground.”
George Pickett was a happy man. His men set up a good camp. Roberts, the engineer, built earthworks and a great redoubt to protect it. A cannon and two mortars covered the beach. Soon, the base would become a fort. His aide, Forsyth, walked up to him and saluted casually.
“Good morning, Lieutenant.”
“Would the Major fancy an egg or two for breakfast?”
Forsyth had somehow found hens and a pair of roosters. In a pen behind the hill, they provided fresh eggs, which Forsyth gathered every morning. He gave them to the men to reward hard work. Pickett approved of the practice; it was good for morale.
“And to what do I owe this favor? Trying to get on the boss’s good side? If so, it may work.”
“Well, I now know what I need to do to get on your good side, Sir.”
“A man’s stomach is always a good start.”
“On a more serious note, Major, when may we expect reinforcement? The British marines are expanding their camp. They nearly equal us in number now. If they add to their numbers, we shall have a problem on our hands.”
The British camped ten miles away, on the Northside of the Island. So far, the two commands kept to their sides of the island.
“We should have help soon. Keep me posted.”
“Over easy is good.”
Commodore Garibaldi paced the deck of his flagship, USS Susquehanna, restlessly. He was tall, with a dark complexion, a mustache added to his dashing looks. His two ships needed repairs in this deserted bay before continuing. He also expected to rendezvous with his chief of staff here before proceeding north. Then he hoped he would have some reliable information about the events.
He had arrived in Astoria only a week earlier to learn a shooting war had started, catching the North Pacific Squadron unprepared. Such matters as maintenance, discipline, morale, and training did not interest his predecessor. Marine growth fouled the ships’ bottoms; no one had bothered to clean the bilges. The men were sick. He must prepare to fight in the little time available.
He had not liked his previous assignment, professor of tactics at the Naval Academy, and had asked repeatedly to return to the sea. At the same time, he pestered Congress, lobbying for more Navy money. His reputation as a lady’s man sometimes added to his problems. Eventually, they decided to send him to this backwater, a command that brought him as far from Congress as he could go and still be in the United States.
Captain John Winslow, the ship’s Captain, approached him cautiously. The Commodore didn’t like the reputation he’d developed, he was not usually a taskmaster, but he’d had to drive everyone hard in his efforts to get ready.
“Come on over, John, you look like you have something on your mind.”
“An idea that might give us an edge if we must fight.”
“Go ahead; I’m open to anything that will help.”
“The harbormaster here has a large store of unused chain. They use it to link logs to tow them to the mill.”
“Yes,” Commodore Garibaldi responded, puzzled. Where was this going?
“We could hang lengths of the chain over the sides of the ships, covering the engine spaces. It might help keep out the British shot.”
“Won’t that make the ships a bit tender? Seems like added weight topside would make us unstable.”
“We can compensate with ballast, and this time of year, the seas here are generally calm. I think we can handle it.”
“I like it. Proceed.”
Winslow saluted and left to organize a work party.
Admiral Baynes stood on the dock and watching his sailors load the ships. They carted all manner of stores aboard; shot, shell, powder, rifles, pots, pans, food, and the grog ration. The men, of course, thought the last two the most important. The Governor stood next to him, hands clasped behind his back.
“Should be a jolly good show, eh, Admiral?”
As Baynes expected, Douglas gave orders in detail, most of which made no sense. Even though he expected it, it still galled him to take orders from this man. Douglas concocted a silly plan displaying a total lack of knowledge of naval tactics.
The Governor wanted to put Ganges off the American camp to supply artillery support for the Marines’ attack. The smallest ships, Plumper and Satellite, would patrol Admiralty Inlet to prevent an American move out of Puget Sound. Tribune and Plyadies would patrol Juan de Fuca Strait to prevent American reinforcements from moving into the vicinity. They would also protect Victoria from counterattack.
Baynes didn’t like it a bit. Ganges was next to useless. She should sail near Victoria Harbor to guard the town; the rest of the ships should stay together. Splitting them up invited defeat in detail. But the Governor thought he was a military genius and overrode any attempt at a sensible plan. He had also ordered Baynes to go with him on Ganges. He believed they would destroy the Americans quickly and wanted to be on hand to watch.
“Governor, many men here may die, I would not call that ‘a jolly good show.’”
Stung, the Governor walked away silently.
Captain Allen’s courier boat arrived at Gray’s Harbor in the afternoon. The bar at the harbor’s mouth caused enormous waves; Allen knew of the problem and braced himself. He was furious with the British. HMS Satellite had stopped them as they left Puget Sound, even though they were in American territorial water. He suspected the British planned to intercept him, so he had not worn his uniform. After inspecting his ship, they let him proceed, but it was an affront to his national pride.
As his boat bumped up against the side of Susquehanna, he gave a curious glance to the men hanging chain over the sides of the ship. He could see Winslow on the deck above him peering down at him.
“Permission to come aboard, Captain?”
Winslow grinned, “NO!”
“Fine, stand by to repel boarders!” Allen yelled as he began climbing the ladder.
A moment ladder, he was on deck. Shaking Winslow’s hand.
“Good to see you TJ, this is Commodore Garibaldi, our new commander.”
“A pleasure, sir.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
The two men sized each other up. Commodore Garibaldi found himself looking at a man of medium height and build, a beard shot with gray and a face weathered from years at sea.
“Well, let’s get down to business,” said the Commodore, “what can you tell me about British dispositions and aims? Let’s go to my cabin and discuss the situation.”
As they walked aft, trailed by Captain Winslow and a couple of junior officers, Garibaldi asked, “Is this Harney character an idiot? My orders are to destroy the British fleet. He thinks beating the British will be like squashing a bug.”
“I’ll bet a week’s pay it is!” Said a younger officer.
Allen looked back over his shoulder, “I’ll take that if you promise to pay me in pounds sterling.
“Well, that will be our currency if we stir up the British Navy.”
“I agree,” said Garibaldi, “if we lined up both fleets and had a fired away, they wouldn’t have to reload.”
They arrived at the Commodore’s cabin, where a thick, heavily polished table held an open map.
Allen pulled out a thin knife and used it for a pointer.
“They stopped me and searched my ship at Admiralty Inlet just as we came out of Puget Sound. I had no identification as Navy, so they let us go on. Irritated me. We were in American Territory, but they don’t want anything going to San Juan to help Pickett.”
He pointed toward Victoria with his knife.
“The town is a beehive of activity; I’m certain they will make a move soon.”
“What do you expect they’ll do.”
“If I were the British Commander, I’d anchor Ganges off Victoria harbor as protection there. She’s useless for other duties. By the way, Harney chewed out his aide for not knowing how many guns she has.”
“Which is?” Garibaldi asked.
“Seventy-two. She’s an old third-rate. No engines, hard to maneuver in tight water, that’s why I’d put her there.”
“I’d keep the other ships together. Their force of four ships would have our three badly outgunned. But they have Satellite guarding Admiralty Inlet, that leaves the other three to support operations on San Juan.”
“What do you think our response should be?”
Allen rubbed his beard thoughtfully; he was starting to like this Commodore.
“Well, since you’re asking.”
For several minutes he spoke, gesturing at the map as he did so, discussing the lay of the land, currents, other factors affecting their plans.
When he finished, Garibaldi silently studied the map. Finally, he spoke.
“You can do that?”
“I’m sure of it, sir.”
“You’ve done it before?”
“Oh, no, Sir. I don’t think anybody has.”
“Well, it’s your life. Return and prepare for action. I will bring this fleet up in, say, four days.”
Allen saluted and left.
Baynes stood on Ganges’ stern, hands clasped behind his back, watching Victoria harbor recede into the distance. Another beautiful summer day, but he was not enjoying it.
“What a silly way to go to war,” he thought. A towrope connected the ship to the side-paddle steamer, Jarvis. He refused to look forward; the sight pained him too much. There was no other way to position the vessel off San Juan Island.
To port, he could see Tribune and Plyadies moving west to take station in Juan de Fuca’s straight. Plumper, repaired from her recent brush with the Americans, moved south to join Satellite in the distance. The fleet was moving out a day or two sooner than they planned. News that two American frigates had anchored near the Strait’s western end the evening before prompted the sudden movement.
He hoped his American counterpart had a cool head. The whole affair had spun wildly out of control. Governor Douglas was all worked up to throw the Americans off a silly little island. And as the Queen’s direct representative, Douglas had the authority to do as he saw fit; he was too far from London to manage any other way. It looked like the American General, Harney, was also ready to fight.
STRAIGHT OF JUAN DE FUCA
Commodore Garibaldi watched the two British ships approaching through his telescope. He expected to intercept three ships further east; if the third ship had joined Satellite further south, this would work better. If he could keep them here for a few hours, the Americans would win the battle.
“Open fire at extreme range. I want to keep these two busy. They outgun us, but we should have an advantage in speed by a knot or two. “
“Aye aye, sir!”
Aboard Tribune, the Americans startled Captain Hornby when they opened fire at extreme range.
“I daresay, they seem a bit eager, don’t they?” His aide commented.
“Well, the United States isn’t a naval power. I expect we will run them off quickly” (a remark he would soon regret) “then we can get on over to San Juan where we belong. That’s what Admiral Baynes wanted. He doesn’t like the Governor’s disposition of the ships.”
“Shall we commence firing, sir?”
“Yes, but not full broadsides. Just keep them on their toes.”
Four guns thundered out at the enemy. Hornby watched incredulously through his telescope as a cannonball bounced harmlessly off the side of the nearer ship. Then another surprise, the vessels turned away.
“Well, that was easy.” Someone said.
Two hours later, he stood dripping sweat in the hot noontime sun, his face blackened with soot and powder smoke. A sulfurous smell hung in the air. Neither side damaged the other, but he tired of a crazy game of cat and mouse.
Whenever he closed the range enough for the Americans to start to fight, they broke off and retreated. As soon as he turned east, they came back at him. Now they ran away again. The Americans had just enough advantage in speed to define the battle. Only they didn’t want to fight.
A sailor climbed into the rigging.
“You stupid bloody yank,” he yelled, stand up and fight like a man!”
Suddenly Hornby’s blood ran cold.
“Turn the ships, now!” He ordered, “make for San Juan Island immediately!”
“What, why are we running, sir?” A young officer asked.
“We are not running.”
Hornby pointed at the American ships.
“That man could have me no more immobilized me if he’d nailed my feet to the deck. I don’t know why he wants me here, but he’s got a reason, and I’m going to find out what’s happening.”
Commodore Garibaldi watched the enemy turn away. After a few minutes of moving toward them, he realized they weren’t turning back.
“Seems they’ve figured out the game,” Winslow said.
Garibaldi pulled out his pocket watch and looked at it.
“I expect that Allen has taken care of his business.”
Had he known that, instead of waltzing in unopposed, Allen was about to fight a seventy-two gun ship of the line with a thirteen-gun sloop, he might have been less confident.
ABOARD USS MASSACHUSETTS
T J Allen sat on a box at the stern of Massachusetts, calmly smoking a pipe. The tranquil waters of Saratoga Passage slipped past the ship as she chugged northward. The mostly uninhabited shores provided a peaceful backdrop. Overhead he watched an eagle circling. The wingtip feathers fluttered, feeling the light breeze. A junior officer, part of Garibaldi’s group, stood nearby, ready to run messages. Allen enjoyed these moments and preferred his solitude.
Three other ships trailed Massachusetts. The steamers Constitution and Julia, civilian vessels pressed into service, followed in her wake. The revenue cutter Jefferson Davis brought up the rear. Massachusetts was the only real warship; spare cannon from Fort Steilacoom positioned on the main deck provided firepower for the other two. The little Davis carried only one gun. The main job for these ships was carrying troops, men, and equipment packed them to the gunwales.
The eagle soaring above the ships made a sharp cry, dove toward the water. It dipped its talons with a small splash and flew away, carrying a salmon.
Allen took the pipe from his mouth.
“He’ll have a good meal.”
“Fresh Salmon. A Washington Territory treat. After we carry out our mission, I’ll invite you to dinner. We must meet properly. I’ll plank a salmon for you. Commodore Garibaldi will like it, I’m sure.”
“Plank a salmon, sir?”
Captain Jacobson approached.
“It looks like we’re right on schedule. We should arrive as the tide turns.”
“Good. It’s the only time we can make the passage; we need a full channel and an outgoing tide. Promises to be quite a ride.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
Allen resumed puffing on his pipe as the ship turned slightly to starboard to enter Skagit Bay.
ABOARD HMS GANGES
Admiral Baynes watched the Captains of Ganges and Jarvis try to maneuver the ponderous ship of the line into firing position. He found it difficult to hide his disgust. A strong current running from north to south and a light breeze blowing from the north kept pushing the vessels in the wrong direction. Everybody but Governor Douglas knew these two facts in advance, but of course, he had paid no attention when making his plans.
The fact funnel smoke from Julia was engulfing the ship didn’t help Baynes’ mood.
They had to use Julia to pull Ganges with a towline. Not having an engine and with an unfavorable wind, the big ship swung on the towline like a hooked fish. They had fired one broadside half an hour earlier, with no noticeable effect. Now Douglas was yelling to bring the ship in closer.
Baynes looked over at the American encampment. There was a long open, grassy field that sloped upwards to a sparsely wooded hill. He could see tents in the woods, and spies had reported some enclosures for animals behind the hill. Earthworks and a great redoubt protected the camp.
“Closer, I said closer, this will never do.”
“Governor, that might not be a good idea,” this from Ganges’ Captain, “we may hit some unknown reef.
“Nonsense, man, this is a deep channel. There is no barrier.”
The Captain looked at Baynes helplessly.
“Governor,” Baynes started to say something.
“I won’t hear some silly objection,” the Governor interrupted, “just get on with it.”
Baynes nodded at the Captain. Standing where Douglas couldn’t see him, he made a handwashing gesture toward the Captain, who smiled and nodded.
Behind the Admiral, Douglas yelled over the noise of preparation for battle. The thump of Julia’s engine increased as she labored against the outgoing tide. They needed to pull Ganges north and let her drift with the current into firing position.
STRAIGHT OF JUAN DE FUCA
It was turning into a long stern chase. Susquehanna and Mississippi closed the range with only a one-knot advantage. Commodore Garibaldi calculated they would be in effective range when they all arrived at San Juan Island. Meanwhile, he fired an occasional shell at them just to make them pay attention. The British returned the favor with their stern guns. Neither damaged the other.
Far to the south, HMS Plumper and HMS Satellite continued their lonely vigil guarding Admiralty Inlet. They’d seen a few fishing boats but nothing else.
OFF SAN JUAN ISLAND
“That’s the idea; get her in good and close, “Said Douglas.
Ganges drifted down on the tide, rapidly approaching a firing position off the American’s camp. Baynes watched from the railing. They were close inshore; he could see men taking shelter. The Americans knew the battle would start soon. Astern of Ganges, Jarvis barely kept power to her engine, letting the tide do the work. A tow rope still connected the two ships. Marines with muskets crowded Ganges’ rigging.
Suddenly a loud grinding sound roared up from the keel of the ship. She began to take on a list to starboard. The grinding continued, and Baynes felt the bow rising as the great ship continued to push up onto whatever underwater barrier she had hit. The list increased. With a sudden jerk, the ship stopped dead in the water.
“Bloody ‘ell!” Shouted a sailor as he fell heavily to the deck.
A marine fell from the mainmast’s lowest spar, yelling as he plunged into the cold water. Fortunately, he had not fallen far; a sailor threw him a rope. Higher in the rigging, men scrambled to reach a handhold.
“What’s happened?” Yelled Douglas.
“We’re aground.” Answered the Captain.
He and Baynes looked over the rail. The outgoing tide swept past the ship so rapidly Baynes thought he could see the water drop.
“We must throw some guns overboard immediately, “said Baynes.
“I agree. Bosun, get a crew ready.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“What!” Yelled Douglas, “throw Her Majesty’s cannon into the sea! You shall not!”
“Governor, it’s the only way to free the ship.” Explained Baynes.
“No, you may not do it.”
By now, the Governor was shouting and red-faced.
“Have Jarvis pull us off!”
“She’s pulling with all she’s got already. It’s no use.”
While the two men were arguing, the tide continued to pull water from under the ship’s keel.
Pickett, Roberts, and Forsyth stood together in a small earthwork at the hill’s crest, from which they could see in all directions. Below them, the encampment spread down to the water’s edge, beyond which they could see Ganges and Jarvis.
“I don’t know much about ships,” said Pickett, “but I think our English friends are in trouble.”
For fifteen minutes, Jarvis churned up the water trying to pull Ganges off the bottom. Every minute the receding tide exposed more of the ship’s copper-sheathed bottom. Pickett had ordered sharpshooters to take position near the water’s edge and begin firing at the vessels. Now they could see the gunners moving a mortar into position to fire on the British.
Abruptly Ganges’ guns spouted red flame, followed immediately by dense clouds of smoke. Instinctively the American soldiers ducked as the shells screamed over their heads. Moments later, the field behind them erupted in explosions. Several grazing horses bolted in panic.
Pickett looked through his field glasses. He could see some overturned dirt but no other damage. Then he noticed a broken fence and some white blobs on the ground.
“James, I’m sad to say they have killed some of your chickens.”
“There we go,” piped up Roberts, “when they’ve killed enough chickens to equal a pig, the war’s over.”
“Sir!” Snarled Pickett in mock anger, “don’t say such a thing. History will not remember me as the man who won The War of Pigs and Chickens!”
“Oh, that won’t happen,” Roberts added helpfully, “there was only one pig.”
The three men laughed.
More of Ganges’ guns fired, this time loaded with grapeshot. The shot landed short of the beach, sending up many splashes. Pickett guessed the English gunners had overcompensated for shooting high the first time.
The pop of muskets sounded from the redoubt, a mortar boomed. The three men watched the shell in flight. It went way over; a large column of water spouted several hundred yards beyond Ganges. The mortar men, unused to firing over water, had problems finding the range as well. Pickett expected them to solve the problem quickly. Then the English warship would be in trouble.
ABOARD USS MASSACHUSETTS
The little fleet was nearing the head of Skagit Bay. One by one, Massachusetts leading the way, they turned to port. Ahead of them, the water narrowed rapidly, forming what George Vancouver had named Deception Pass in 1792.
Captain Allen walked to the rail; he could feel the pull of the outgoing tide starting to tug the ship forward. Other crewmen looked ahead nervously as the current picked up speed. Suddenly the vessel raced along, fully caught in the current’s grip.
Looking over the side, Allen thought, this looks like rapids in a river, not an ocean channel. Great waves, crested with foam, rose all around the ship. The channel narrowed; high, rocky cliffs towered above the masts. Here and there, a tree found a foothold; large bare spots proved too steep for any growth.
The rock walls flew by with alarming speed. Never in his life had Allen seen the landscape pass by so quickly. He felt like he could put his hand out and touch the rock wall off either beam.
Suddenly, they were through! The cliffs gave way to rocky, tree-lined beaches. The current slowed rapidly as they moved out into the broader reaches of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Allen looked at the other ships. They all came through the narrow channel safely.
He turned to Lt. Jacobson, “Well, it seems we’ve outflanked that British ship at Admiralty Inlet.”
“Yes, we have. We should be safely at San Juan Island shortly.”
SAN JUAN ISLAND
Baynes walked away from Douglas. “I’m going to kill that man,” he thought. Douglas was running around the ship, giving incomprehensible orders. Baynes looked over the side, keeping an eye on the depth of water. He noticed how the tide had almost stopped running.
A wide section of hull normally underwater showed all the way around the ship. She was listing almost thirty degrees to starboard. They lost their one chance to free the ship, throwing the guns overboard immediately after grounding the ship. The high tide, the only time they could free Ganges, would not arrive for hours.
The Americans on the beach kept up harassing fire. The crew ducked when they heard the shots, but there was little to worry about; it wasn’t accurate. The mortar crews also tossed a bomb every few minutes, with even less accuracy. He hoped someone would show up and rescue them from this silly predicament.
A lookout shouted from the mast and pointed. Baynes watched in confusion as first one American ship rounded the island’s southern tip, then another, and another. Where did they come from? Had some disaster befallen Plumper and Satellite, or worse yet, Hornby? The two trailing ships turned toward shore; he could see soldiers crowding the deck. The American reinforcements had arrived.
As he watched, the leading ship maneuvered carefully into position directly before Ganges, beam on to the English ship.
“That Captain is good,” he thought, “he’s done an admirable job of getting into a raking position without exposing himself to any fire from us.”
Douglas rushed up to him.
“Where did they come from?” He demanded. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
The American was small, it looked like she could only bring seven guns to bear, but a couple of broadsides of grapeshot and Ganges’ deck would be a slaughterhouse.
And a few more broadsides would finish the work begun by tide and rocks. If they used hotshot, they would no doubt set fire to the ship.
Douglas was still yelling at him to do something.
“Oh, shut up, you bloody fool!” He snapped, “small as she is, that ship can kill us all in short order.”
Douglas turned pale and stepped away.
Baynes sent for Ganges’ Captain with a gesture. The two moved away to talk privately. The lookout shouted again. He had spotted ships on the Western horizon. Baynes looked through his telescope and deduced the Americans were chasing Hornby. He estimated they were an hour away. And when he got here, it would be three American ships versus two British.
“Sir, look!” Someone shouted, pointed at the American’s signal flags, “he wants to parley!”
“Well,” he said, “let’s go see what they want.”
The two small boats rowed toward each other in the open water between the two ships. The shooting from shore had stopped, and Jarvis had stopped her efforts to pull Ganges free. Oars dipping in the water provided the only sign of movement.
When he first saw the huge ship standing off San Juan Island, Allen’s heart had almost stopped. Then he realized that she was aground and helpless. Almost instantly, an idea had sprung to mind. He hoped with all his heart the man he was about to meet was more reasonable than General Harney. He had agreed wholeheartedly with Commodore Garibaldi’s assessment of the US Navy’s chances against the British. He had to try to avoid a bloody war.
They met almost precisely halfway, bow to bow. Allen climbed into the bow of his boat, the men moving to the stern so the officers could talk. The British tars did the same. Allen tied the boats together with a short piece of rope to keep the two boats together without rowing.
“Sir,” he saluted, “T J Allen, Captain, United States Navy.”
The Englishman returned the salute.
“Robert Baynes, Rear Admiral, Royal Navy.”
The two men silently assessed each other before Baynes spoke.
“Captain, how did you get here? We had ships placed to block you. You didn’t fight them with all those men on deck.”
“We came through the back door.”
“I see,” said Baynes, puzzled, “perhaps sometime you can tell me about it.”
Allen looked over at the helpless Ganges.
“Admiral, I do not wish to fire on your ship. “
“I don’t want a battle. But I cannot surrender my ship. I have to take orders from an idiot; he’ll have my head.”
“I don’t expect you to. I also find myself taking orders from, shall we say – not the sharpest tool in the shed.”
Despite himself, Baynes smiled.
“Politicians everywhere are the same. What do you have in mind?”
“Admiral, allow me to put some crew on your ship. They will ensure that you do not fire when pulled free. I will guarantee safe passage to Victoria in exchange. “
“What about that lot?” Admiral Baynes pointed toward San Juan Island.
“We will keep our camp here. You keep your camp at the north end of the island. We will make a line of demarcation in the middle. Let the diplomats sort it out. We’ll make sure everybody gets the message.” He waved toward the ships, still far down the Strait.
“That seems an excellent solution, but I have no authority to accept it,” Baynes said.
“That shouldn’t be a problem, Admiral. I have no authority to offer it.”
Baynes laughed and extended his hand.
“As you Americans say, we have a deal. “
When the news of the Pacific Northwest events reached Washington and London, both governments reacted with horror. In the United States, thinking people already realized the election of 1860, no matter who won would likely result in civil war. England was busy with the demands of the empire and a naval arms race with France.
General Winfield Scott quickly relieved Harney of his command and ordered him back to Washington. The British government recalled James Douglas. Both men spent the rest of their lives unsuccessfully trying to blame the other for nearly bringing two friendly countries to war.
Lt. Edmonds, having played a minor role, served in the Royal Navy until his death at the Battle of Gibraltar.
George Pickett found the glory he sought in the climactic moments of the Confederate victory at Gettysburg.
Commodore Garibaldi and Captain Allen founded family dynasties within the US Navy. Captain Allen’s grandson commanded the Pacific Fleet in the War of 1910, Garibaldi’s grandnephew served as his chief of staff.
Although he’d negotiated with Allen to avoid conflict, Baynes chaffed at the idea the Americans outfoxed him. Two years later, Baynes refused to yield to the American blockade of the Confederacy. His actions, combined with Pickett’s victory, led to European recognition of the CSA and a divided America.
In 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States and the United Kingdom signed an agreement ratifying Allen and Baynes’s plan for solving the crisis. Negotiating a final treaty took another decade. The treaty declared San Juan Island American territory.
At the signing ceremony, a British diplomat provided the best summary of the whole affair.
“That was a remarkable pig.”
For the real story of The Pig War, I recommend: