Imagine that it’s July 3, 2013, and it’s your night to make dinner. You know that today is the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge, the failed infantry assault that secured defeat for the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg—and perhaps the entire Civil War (the farthest point reached by the attack has been referred to as “the high-water mark of the Confederacy”). Naturally, you want to observe the sesquicentennial with whatever meal you prepare…but what do you cook?
I was faced with this exact situation, dear readers, when I had to plan a meal for July 3, 2013. I began by researching the kinds of foods that Pickett’s men might have eaten 150 years ago. Although it would have been an interesting culinary exercise, I decided that “hardtack, gruel, and the bitter agony of defeat” was not the direction I wanted to go. So I broadened my search, ultimately choosing to make pork and potatoes. And this is why.
Gorgeous George Pickett
goats, quotes, and shad bakes
My apologies to George Wagner, the best-known Gorgeous George, for associating him with Pickett. But history is full of Georges who were gorgeous, and Pickett was certainly one of them:
Pickett made a colorful general. He rode a sleek black charger named “Old Black,” and wore a small blue kepi-style cap, with buffed gloves over the sleeves of an immaculately tailored uniform that had a double row of gold buttons on the coat, and shiny gold spurs on his highly polished boots. He held an elegant riding crop whether mounted or walking. His mustache drooped gracefully beyond the corners of his mouth and then turned upward at the ends. His hair was the talk of the Army: “long ringlets flowed loosely over his shoulders, trimmed and highly perfumed, his beard likewise was curling and giving up the scent of Araby.” |from Wikipedia
a good-looking goat
I did not prepare goat for dinner, although I could have, because George Pickett was a goat. More specifically, he was the “goat” of the West Point class of 1846—a title given to the guy who finishes last in class rank. Apparently it’s supposed to refer to stubbornness and tenacity (attributes generally considered as quintessentially “goat-like”), which puts something of a positive spin on the whole business of finishing dead last. I guess. I would point out that Pickett actually looks kind of like a goat, albeit a well-groomed one. So does George Armstrong Custer, another [in]famous West Point goat (Custer graduated last in his class in 1858). Two handsome, well-kept men with somewhat goatish features—both of them “goats.” As far as I can tell, however, this is just coincidence.
George Pickett, the notable quotable
Pickett had a reputation for being something of a prankster, was well-spoken, well-mannered, and used an English-style accent. His linguistic wit rather surpassed his sense of military strategy, and produced more clever quotations than military victories. A fine example:
Years later, when asked why his charge at Gettysburg failed, General Pickett replied: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.” |from Wikipedia
To be fair to Pickett, that might have been the full extent of his knowledge of the suicide mission that now bears his name, Pickett’s Charge. General Pickett, himself, was well to the rear of his troops, most likely at the Codori farm on the Emmitsburg Road. There he wallowed in despair and melancholy as his division suffered casualties of over 50%. When called upon by Lee, Pickett responded characteristically, offering a memorable quotation instead of some useful military leadership:
As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center…Pickett was inconsolable. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, “General Lee, I have no division.” |from Wikipedia
a fool and his shad are soon relieved of duty
Pickett remained one of Lee’s generals, and his record shows an eighteen-month stretch of competency following Gettysburg. I’m no Civil War historian, but reading between the lines it looks like this might be thanks to Lee, not Pickett, as Pickett’s men were never in any really important places at really important times—at least not until the Battle of Five Forks:
On April 1, 1865, Pickett’s defeat at the Battle of Five Forks was a pivotal moment that unraveled the tenuous Confederate line and caused Lee to order the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, and retreat toward Appomattox Court House. It was a final humiliation for Pickett, because he was two miles away from his troops at the time of the attack, enjoying a shad bake with generals Fitzhugh Lee and Thomas L. Rosser. By the time he returned to the battlefield, it was too late. |from Wikipedia
A “shad,” by the way, is a kind of river herring. I considered making some sort of baked fish for dinner, but I’ll save that for April 1, 2015, when we can commemorate 150 years since Gorgeous George Pickett’s stupid decision to leave his men for a shad bake. Appropriate, I guess, that it was April Fools’ Day, although Pickett was surely up to the task of playing the fool on any day of the year.
It appears that Lee tried to relieve Pickett of duty five days later, but Pickett never got the memo. He still signed his name with “Maj. Gen. Comdg.” When Lee saw Pickett prancing around like the very model of a modern Major General, his only remark was: “I thought that man was no longer with the army.”
Pickett wasn’t with the army for very long, anyway. Although he was paroled with the other officers who surrendered at Appomattox, Pickett promptly fled to Canada. He returned to the country the following year—as an insurance salesman.
The Pig War
Pickett’s Follies: 1859
I didn’t want to cook a goat, nor did I want to bake a shad, meaning my time spent researching Gorgeous George Pickett hadn’t yielded any practical rewards. That was before I learned about Pickett’s involvement in one of the most ridiculous almost-wars in recorded history, “The Pig War.”
This post has grown rather long, so I’ll recount the Pig War without as many quotations or references. If you’re interested in learning more, please let me know and I’ll share my sources with you.
fifty-four forty or fight!
That slogan, along with a lot of nonsense about “manifest destiny” grew out of the American interest in claiming all of the Oregon country up to 54°40′ or Alaska’s southernmost border. Russia was still owned by Alaska at the time. The British wanted Oregon down the the 42nd parallel. Ultimately the compromise was set at the 49th parallel. This map does a good job of showing what territory we’re talking about here:
They didn’t get fifty-four forty, nor did they fight. Which proves that catchy slogans and rallying cries don’t always reflect reality.
The Treaty of Oregon in 1846 set up the 49th parallel as the boundary between the United States and Britain, but it used some very vague language regarding which part of the San Juan Islands belonged to which country. There are about 150 islands that make up the San Juans, but the large island of San Juan itself was the most important (and most disputed) of the bunch.
After the Treaty of Oregon, both countries claimed to own San Juan Island. The Hudson Bay Company (which is still around; one of the oldest and largest companies in the world) decided to turn San Juan into a sheep ranch, and set up the Belle Vue Ranch in the early 1850s. A handful of American frontiersmen decided to also stake a claim on the island. The British called them “squatters” but they liked to think of themselves as “freedom fighters.” By 1859, there were about 25 American freedom squatters living on San Juan Island, including a young crack-shot frontiersman named Lyman Cutlar. Little is known about Lyman, except that he loved growing tubers in his garden, and was a bit protective of his potatoes.
As fate would have it, there was another resident of San Juan Island in 1859 who also loved tubers: a large black pig. Yes, that’s the official name of the breed (“Large Black Pig”), and it is aptly named.
On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar looked out over his beloved potato patch and beheld his nemesis, the large black pig, ravaging his tender tubers as it tilled the earth with its bristly black snout. This was not the first time the gluttonous behemoth had gorged itself on the American’s potatoes, but Lyman vowed it would be the last. Shouldering his rifle, “crack-shot” Cutlar drew a bead on the hideous creature. He squeezed the trigger, and with a single shot brought the beast down.
The pig belonged to Charles Griffin: the guy Hudson’s Bay Company employed to run the Belle Vue sheep ranch. Cutlar explained the situation to Griffin, and offered him $10 to compensate him for the pig. According to my friend Dave Manuel, that’s about $277.78 in 2013 money. Griffin rejected the offer, insisting on $100 for the animal ($2,777.78 in 2013 money).
Cutlar changed tactics and invoked the castle doctrine, arguing that the pig was trespassing on his land and therefore he had the right to shoot it. “It was eating my potatoes!” he explained.
Griffin replied “It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”
From there, things went downhill like a Himalayan street luge. Griffin threatened to have Cutlar arrested by British soldiers, the American freedom squatters on the island called for U.S. military protection, and Brigadier-General William S. Harney sent in troops—led by none other than George Pickett.
we’ll make a Bunker Hill of it
He was just a Captain at the time, in charge of 66 men, but Gorgeous George Pickett never met a bad situation he couldn’t make worse. The British were concerned that American military presence on San Juan Island might encourage more freedom squatters. They responded by sending three British warships to the island, anchored offshore with their guns pointed towards Pickett’s camp.
Plucky Pickett’s reply: “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it.”
Once again, a notable quote from Pickett—and one that placed him in the national limelight. Bunker Hill carried with it a sense of patriotic pride, and invoking its memory cast Pickett in the light of a gallant military hero.
The Battle of Bunker Hill was an important battle in the American Revolutionary War. It took place in 1775 during the seige of Boston. The colonials held off two British assaults before running out of ammunition. The third British assault captured Bunker Hill, meaning the Brisith technically won the battle. It is considered a Pyrrhic victory, however, because the British losses were severe and their gains minimal.
By comparing their situation to Bunker Hill, Pickett was right in acknowledging that his troops would lose the battle. But there is a major difference. At Bunker Hill, the colonials proved that they could go toe-to-toe with the British Army, that these militia men were soldiers to be taken seriously. This had a profound effect on Britain’s attitude moving forward. Not the case with Pickett’s 66 men.
It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, to learn that Pickett hadn’t really spent any time drilling, training, or preparing his soldiers for combat. Mostly he had them build stuff. He was in charge of the contruction of Fort Bellingham, and while he was at it he had a house built for himself, called “Pickett House.” He married an American Indian woman named Morning Mist and lived with her in Pickett House.
When an army official came to test the marksmanship of the Fort Bellingham soldiers, he was less-than-thrilled by their performance. Forty men fired a single round at a target that was 6′ tall and 22″ wide from a distance of 200 yards. Only one bullet hit the target. Yikes.
If the British did decide to attack Pickett’s men on San Juan Island, it was unlikely they would suffer heavy casualties like they did at Bunker Hill. Nor would they come away with a sense of respect for the skill and prowess of their opponent. If Pickett had commanded them to build a house for the British officers, THAT might have been impressive. But instead he invoked the memory of Bunker Hill.
In Pickett’s defense, he probably didn’t know what happened at Bunker Hill. Just like he probably didn’t know that his men were incompetent soldiers. But it didn’t matter because the British didn’t call his bluff. They just kept their ships’ guns aimed at Pickett, and the situation continued to escalate.
Gorgeous George was only a captain at that time, so it wasn’t long before a higher-ranking official took charge of the San Juan situation: Brigadier-General Harney. Pickett’s “Bunker Hill” declaration was just Pickett being Pickett—it escalated the situation but only through his own foolish bravado and incompetence. Harney was much more manipulative and cunning, and worked behind the scenes to push The Pig War forward. But that’s beyond the scope of what I’ll write here.
By August 10, 1859, less than two months after Lyman Cutlar popped the plundering porker, the British had brought five warships into the area, carrying a total of 167 guns and 1,940 men. When Harney wrote about the situation, he upped the number to “2,140 fighting men.” Either way, they vastly outnumbered the Americans, who had only 14 cannons and 461 men. Hard to believe it all started with a pig.
Thankfully, a man named Robert Baynes had the good sense to disobey an order from the Vancouver Island governor and war was averted.
The governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, ordered British Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes to land marines on San Juan Island and engage the American soldiers… Baynes refused, deciding that “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig” was foolish. Local commanding officers on both sides had been given essentially the same orders: defend yourselves, but absolutely do not fire the first shot. For several days, the British and U.S. soldiers exchanged insults, each side attempting to goad the other into firing the first shot, but discipline held on both sides, and thus no shots were fired. |from Wikipedia
you say you want a resolution
Although telegraph lines were being laid across the country, it would be two years before the east and west coasts were connected by telegraph (October 24, 1861). Getting word from the remote Oregon country back to Washington or London meant Pony Express and river boats—a trip that could take six weeks! This meant that by the time President James Buchanan learned of The Pig War standoff, fighting might have already broken out. In September he sent General Winfield Scott out to negotiate and, thanks to the good sense of Rear Admiral Baynes et al, the situation was resolved without a shot being fired.
Well, one shot had been fired. By Lyman Cutlar. At a tresspassing pig. But no shots after that.
The agreement reached by Winfield Scott and Governor James Douglas:
As a result of the negotiations, both sides agreed to retain joint military occupation of the island until a final settlement could be reached, reducing their presence to a token force of no more than 100 men. The “British Camp” was established on the north end of San Juan Island along the shoreline, for ease of supply and access; and the “American Camp” was created on the south end on a high, windswept meadow, suitable for artillery barrages against shipping. Today the Union Jack still flies above the “British Camp”, being raised and lowered daily by park rangers, making it one of the very few places without diplomatic status where US government employees regularly hoist the flag of another country. |from Wikipedia
For the next TWELVE YEARS there were 100 Americans and 100 Brits that lived on San Juan Island. They celebrated each other’s holidays, organized sports competitions and races, and drank way too much. When you think about the hell-on-earth that was the American Civil War, those 100 U.S. soldiers were the luckiest SOBs in the entire army.
In 1871, the United States and Britain signed the Treaty of Washington, which agreed to let a third party decide the fate of San Juan Island. They chose Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany (who, incidentally, looks a little goatish himself…). He created a committee, that met for a year, and finally decided…
…that San Juan Island should go to the United States.
and also, this:
Because I think it’s awesome and don’t know where else in the post to put it.
back to dinner
July 3, 2013: The sesquicentennial of Pickett’s Charge. In honor of Gorgeous George Pickett, who played a key part in The Pig War (sometimes called “The Pig and Potato War”), I made bourbon spiced pork with roasted sweet potatoes and apples.
I pin photos of my Wednesday culinary creations to my Pinterest board, Another Wednesday Dinner. You can see other dishes I’ve made there, but you can only get the backstory right here, on fantasticdrivel. Thanks for reading!