Ron Roizen's Idaho History Page

Confederate Idaho and the ‘…most puerile happening that was ever enacted in the history of the Territory’

In reference to the period during and soon after the American Civil War, Idaho historian Carlos Schwantes wrote, “In many ways, Idaho was as much Confederate as Union territory.  Its remote location coupled with the appeal of mining camp bonanzas made it a haven for people on both sides who sought to escape the horrors of war.”

David W. Ballard, 3rd governor or Idaho Territory

Strong Rebel sentiment gave rise to at least two notable dynamics in early Idaho territorial politics.  Idaho Territory was created on March 4, 1863.  Like other U.S. territories, its government was headed by a federally appointed governor and territorial secretary.  Territorial Supreme Court justices were also federally appointed.  On the other hand, territorial legislators and a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress were chosen by popular election.  This basic structural divide had the effect of pitting Republican and pro-Union federal appointees (in the territory’s executive and judicial branches) against largely Democratic and pro-Confederate elected representatives (in the territorial legislature and in the person of Idaho’s lone congressional representative).

A second dynamic involved the State of Oregon.  Oregon became a state in 1859.  In Idaho Territory’s early years a number of its federally appointed officials and jurists were drawn from Oregon – as it happened, in particular from Yamhill County in that state.  Oregon-based appointees were uniformly Republican and Union sympathizers.  Oregon’s U.S. senators also took a keen interest in matters pertaining to Idaho Territory in Washington, D.C.  Political struggles relating to Idaho Territory that required action from Congress often played out as contests over which side’s friends in Oregon possessed more political clout.  Oregon’s influence over Idaho’s affairs was therefore substantial and, not surprisingly, it generated controversy in Idaho Territory.  “Denunciation of Yamhill,” wrote Idaho state historian Merle W. Wells of this period, “became a favorite indulgence of Confederate Democrats….”

Both dynamics were at work in a struggle between Idaho’s Union and Confederate sympathizers during the administration of Governor David W. Ballard (1866-1870).  At the time of his appointment, Ballard was a physician living in Lebanon, Linn County, Oregon.  “One distinguishing characteristic singling him out from the rest of the ‘carpet-bagging’ governors,” wrote historian Hiram Taylor French acerbically about Ballard, “was the fact that he actually stayed in Idaho during his term” (History of Idaho, 1914, p. 77).  

The fourth session of Idaho’s territorial legislature convened on December 3, 1866.  Hoping to avoid provoking the legislature’s Democratic membership, the Republican governor delivered an inoffensive and nonpartisan opening address to the legislature.  Soon afterward, however, the legislature struck its first blow against Ballard and his Republican administration.  The salaries established for state offices by the federal government were inadequate to contemporary Idaho’s inflated gold-based economy.  The third legislative session had addressed the problem by supplementing salaries from the territory’s own treasury.  As the fourth legislative session commenced, however, the treasury was depleted owing particularly to the previous administration’s malfeasance.  In search of methods to reduce the territorial budget, Confederate-sympathizing legislators voted to discontinue the governor’s supplemental pay, thereby halving his salary.  Ballard responded cleverly.  He agreed to his pay cut and suggested that an even greater savings might be won by discontinuing the supplements paid legislators.  The legislature vigorously disagreed.  

The conflict soon moved to a new front.  Idaho Territorial Secretary, Solomon R. Howlett, was responsible for the state’s payroll, which was in arrears.  The legislature distrusted Howlett’s reports on the status of their overdue pay, mileage, and per diem.  Consequently, the legislature opened an independent line of communication with U.S. Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch.  Their telegram to McCulloch explained that they were three legislative sessions behind in pay.  It also criticized Howlett.  Howlett responded by advising McCulloch that secessionist legislators had refused to sign a Civil War oath of allegiance and therefore should not be paid even if the funds were available.  McCulloch soon placed $20,000 at Howlett’s disposal for payment of the fourth legislative session but also communicated that legislators who had not signed the oath of allegiance should have their compensation withheld until they did so.  On hearing the news from McCulloch, legislators staged an angry demonstration in their chamber, breaking up lamps and furniture and throwing pieces out the windows.  

Secesh River Trail sign
Secesh (for secessionist) River is one of a number of
geographical and place names evidencing Confederate
influence in Territorial Idaho

The oath secessionist legislators had refused to sign had been a thorn in their sides since Idaho Territory’s inception.  In a July 2, 1862 act.  Congress demanded that “hereafter every person elected or appointed to any office of honor or profit under the government of the United States…shall, before entering upon the duties of such office, and before being entitled to any of the salary or other emoluments thereof, take and subscribe to the following oath or affirmation.”  Thereupon followed the comprehensive “ironclad oath of allegiance.”  The 178 word oath obliged its takers to promise they had (a) never voluntarily borne arms against the United States; (b) never voluntarily given “aid, countenance, counsel, or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto”; (c) not “sought, nor accepted, nor attempted to exercise the functions of any office whatever, under any authority, or pretended authority, in hostility to the United States”; (d) not “yielded a voluntary support to any pretended government, authority, power, or constitution within the United States, hostile or inimical thereto”; and, finally, that they would (e) “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  The oath placed the legislature’s Southern sympathizers in an obvious double-bind.  Signing exposed them to a charge of perjury whereas not signing deprived them of compensation.

The legislature attempted an end-run around the ironclad oath in its third session.  It passed an act that ostensibly overrode Congress’s wishes, declaring that the despised oath applied to federal appointees in Idaho Territory only and not to popularly elected legislators.  Then-governor Caleb Lyon dodged the matter entirely by claiming to have lost the territorial act’s text; the act therefore also did not appear in the third session’s digest of laws.  Democrats in the fourth session responded by re-passing a similar measure, which Governor Ballard vetoed, arguing that a territorial statute passed in defiance of Congress was “presumptuous.” 

The impasse over the ironclad oath and compensation for legislators boiled over into the rowdy and destructive disturbance in the legislative chamber mentioned above.  In response, the administration subsequently requisitioned troops from the commanding officer at Boise Barracks (Merle W. Wells says Howlett made the call for soldiers [“David W. Ballard, Governor of Idaho, 1866-1870,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Mar., 1953, p. 13] and William John McConnell says Ballard did [Early History Idaho, 1913, p. 349]).  Within an hour twenty-two soldiers marched to the legislative hall.  One Democratic leader voiced the legislature’s prevailing view of the troops’ arrival:

“…[A] squad of soldiers from the Fort drew up in front of the hall, loaded their arms, and assumed a belligerent attitude.  This at once raised the indignation of the meeting.  The idea of having bayonets thrust down their throats while peaceably considering their grievances, was sufficient to stir up the blood of every American citizen…” (in Wells, p. 14).

Yet, the issue somehow soon quelled.  Howlett decided on January 12, 1867 to pay legislators if they, in turn, would sign the ironclad oath by the morning of January 14.  They did, they were paid, and the notorious incident in legislative history before long slipped uneasily into Idaho Territory’s colorful past.  “Thus ended,” wrote historian William John McConnell of the events that flowed from what Governor Ballard termed the legislature’s “presumptuous” act, “the most puerile happening that was ever enacted in the history of the Territory” (p. 349).