Temporal Fractures: Pickett and the Pig War

Let us duck back in time a moment to investigate what one of the better-known men of the Civil War was up to in 1859 as the nation headed inexolerably for first Harpers Ferry, and after that Fort Sumter.

George Pickett is perhaps best known for Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, which was actually coordinated by Gen. Longstreet. But don’t listen to me, here’s what the National Park Service says:

Of all of the events that occurred during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, few have been more studied, debated, celebrated, and romanticized than Longstreet’s Assault, more popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge”. Coordinated by Lt. General James Longstreet, the attack has been referred to as “Longstreet’s Grand Assault” by many historians.

But I digress, already. Pickett is known, rightly or wrongly, for the charge that bears his name. But in the late summer of 1859, Pickett was off on the west coast of the US, on San Juan island, where he was involved in (I swear I did not make this name up) the San Juan Island Pig War.

San Juan island was contested ground, with both the US and Britain laying claim to it. The British had built a salmon-curing station and a farm there, and there were also some American settlers. On June 15, 1859, one of those settlers shot a British pig who was rooting around in his garden. Mr. Lyman Cutlar probably just wanted the pig to quit ruining his garden, and instead touched off months of international tension.

The Brits, incensed at the loss of what was doubtless a very fine pig, threatened to arrest Mr. Cutlar. The American citizens responded by drafting a petition to the US government to protect them, and the commander of the Department of Oregon sent the 9th US Infantry. It was commanded by Captain George Pickett, who set up camp on San Juan Island.

This irked the British Governor, who promptly sent three warships with instructions to get rid of the American military forces, but without an armed confrontation if they could possibly avoid it. Throughout July and August, the US reinforced its small redoubt, until finally 460-odd men and 14 cannon crouched behind an earthen wall, staring at three British warships. Captain Pickett was relieved on the 10th of August, when Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey appeared.

Finally, word reached Washington, DC, and President Buchanan dispatched General Winfield Scott to calm the crisis. Gen. Scott negotiated a stand-down, and the island was left with one company of US troops and a single British warship anchored off the harbor. Pickett thus escaped the island until April of 1860, when he went back to take his turn at further garrison duty.

San Juan Island remained under joint military occupation until 1872, having finally been ceded to the US under the Treaty of Washington in 1871. And Pickett’s fame (or infamy) had been cemented in other endeavors.

The Pig War at the National Park Service website


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