These Wars were Started Over… Food

These Wars were Started Over… Food

Larry Holzwarth - September 13, 2021

These Wars were Started Over… Food
George Pickett, in the uniform of a Major General of the Confederate States Army, taken after the Civil War. Wikimedia

19. The Americans sent a small military force to San Juan

American authority in the Department of Oregon rested with Brigadier General William S. Harney, a Tennessean who had once been accused of beating a female slave to death with his cane (he was acquitted). The Pig War became just one more of several instances of questionable judgment exhibited during Harney’s career. In response to the American settlers’ request for protection, Harney dispatched a military force of infantry and artillery under Captain George Pickett to San Juan, with orders for them to prevent the British from landing troops on the island. The bellicose Pickett announced the Americans would fight if the British landed. The British responded by sending three men-of-war to the region, which landed marines on the north end of the island. Americans maintained a camp on the south end. By mid-August, 1859, nearly five hundred Americans confronted five British warships and well over 2,000 men.

Harney’s British counterpart, Royal Navy Admiral Robert Baynes, received orders from the British Governor of Vancouver to attack the Americans and drive them from the islands. Baynes had the common sense to ignore them, considering a war between the US and Great Britain over the disposition of a pig ridiculous. The British and American troops on the island were told not to provoke an attack, but both sides were prepared to defend themselves if the other fired upon them. American and British authorities in their respective capitals were stunned when they learned of the explosive situation; both dispatched emissaries to resolve the standoff peaceably. President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott to the scene to negotiate with the British Governor of Vancouver, James Douglas. Scott and Douglas began meeting in October to hammer out a resolution of the crisis.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I arbitrated the border dispute in favor of the Americans. Wikimedia

20. The Pig War remained a standoff for over a decade

Scott and Douglas agreed to reduce the military presence of both sides to about 100 men each. The resolution over ownership of the island was deferred to diplomatic discussions. So was the ultimate resolution over the disputed pig. For the ensuing twelve years, American and British troops occupied their respective ends of the island. The troops intermingled socially conducted athletic events with each other and helped each other consume their liberal rations of alcohol. In 1871, after years of diplomatic futility, both sides agreed to submit the dispute over the islands to international arbitration. Kaiser Wilhelm I agreed to act as arbitrator. Wilhelm assigned the issue to a three-man commission, who struggled with their decision for just over a year while meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. Ultimately, they decided in favor of the Americans.

Subsequently, both sides withdrew their troops, having faced each other on the island for thirteen years without ever firing a shot. General Harney earned an official rebuke for escalating the situation to near warfare. Captain George Pickett served the Confederacy as a general and division commander. He gained lasting fame for his ill-fated assault on Union positions at Gettysburg, known to posterity as Pickett’s Charge. Whether Cutlar ever received compensation for his lost potatoes, or Griffin for his murdered pig, remains unknown. The Pig War was, to date, the last time forces of Great Britain and the United States stood toe-to-toe on the verge of war. It was averted because a British Admiral, a veteran of the British campaigns in North America during the War of 1812, decided to ignore his orders. Such are the vagaries of history.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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