The Great Pig War of 1859

The United States and Great Britain after the War of 1812 frequently came into conflict during the Nineteenth Century, and it is a medium sized miracle that one of these conflicts did not end in a third Anglo-American War.  The most surreal of these conflicts, beyond a doubt, is the Pig War of 1859.

Both Great Britain and America claimed the San Juan Islands lying between Vancouver Island and the then Washington territory, and the islands were settled by British subjects and American citizens.  On June 15, 1859 Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer on San Juan island, came out and found a pig eating tubers in his garden.  This was not the first incident involving the wayward pig, and Cutlar shot the pig, killing the porcine invader.  The pig was owned by a British subject, Charles Griffin, who took umbrage at the slaying of his wandering porker.  The two men had words about the pig.  British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, and the American settlers called for American military protection.

By August 10, 1859, 461 American soldiers with 14 cannon confronted five British warships carrying 2,140 men.  Fortunately, both sides exercised restraint and no shots were fired.  James Douglas, the governor of British Vancouver, ordered British Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes to land Royal Marines on  San Juan island and engage the Americans.  Baynes flatly refused, saying that for two great nations to come to blows over a squabble over a pig was foolish.  London and Washington were equally aghast at the idea of going to war over this case of porcinecide, and General Winfield Scott was sent by President Buchanan to Vancouver to negotiate with Governor Douglas.  Agreement was reached that the British and American forces would be reduced to a 100 men each on San Juan island while negotiations were underway between the countries.  Ultimately third party arbitration, by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, led to the islands being awarded to America in 1872.

The whole affair seems very humorous now, but if war had broken out over this exceedingly silly incident, it is interesting to speculate on its impact on the Civil War.  Would the Civil War not have been fought if in 1860-1861 the  nation had been involved in a war with Great Britain?  On the other hand, would such a war have given impetus to the secession movement by assuring the South of a built in ally in its war for independence?  Would a war fought between Great Britain and the US with the same technology that made the Civil War such a bloodbath, have convinced both North and South that whatever their disputes they simply were not worth a war that would be far more bloody between them?  If cooler heads had not prevailed, the Pig War of 1859 could easily have had a vast impact on American history.

11 Responses to The Great Pig War of 1859

  • “By August 10, 1859, 461 American soldiers with 14 cannon confronted five British warships carrying 2,140 men. Fortunately, both sides exercised restraint and no shots were fired.”

    Imagine what might have happened if the commanders on the scene had been rasher.

  • Imagine what might have happened if the commanders on the scene had been rasher.

    No doubt! It would be almost as silly as going to war just because France asked us to secure Lybian oil for them. Oh wait…

  • Another interesting what if, is if this had occurred in 1860 instead of 1859. There was little love lost, to say the least, between James Buchanan and Stephen A. Douglas, but I think Buchanan would have found it much more difficult to be diplomatic in the midst of a heated election campaign. Twisting the tale of the British Lion was almost always good domestic politics in Nineteenth century America, and I can imagine both Democrats and Republicans engaging in a contest over who could make the most inflammatory remarks against John Bull.

  • San Juan is a beautiful island and you can still visit the American and English camps. True fact: the command of the American camp was none other than George Pickett of Pickett’s Charge.

  • Some commanders will forever remain

  • There is an interesting twist involving the British constable on the island Mark and the Civil War, but that is a post for another day.

  • In the same month that Griffin’s pig was killed the French and Austrian armies accidentally bumped one another on the plains of Lombardy. The ensuing battle of Solferino was a bloodbath with 20,000 Austrian and 18,000 French casualties. Witnessing the carnage, Henri Dunant was moved to found the Red Cross. In the next twelve years Bismarck went to war successively with Denmark, Austria and France, unified Germany and radically altered the balance of power in Europe. Britain could only watch from the sidelines; her commercial and maritime supremacy availed her little. When Bismarck was asked what he would do if the British army landed in Europe he replied “I would send a policeman and have it arrested”. War with the United States was never really on the cards, as naval power could only be effective on the peripheries of the conflict. Granted, the US army in 1859 didn’t amount to much, but the Civil War showed what happens when a nation mobilizes its industrial and manpower resources for a protracted and all-out conflict. Not for nothing did John Terraine refer to it as the first of the three great wars of the Industrial Revolution. Sickened by the cost of his victory at Solferino, Napoleon III quickly made peace; this was not possible in 1861-65, 1914-18, or 1939-45.

  • Would the Civil War not have been fought if in 1860-1861 the nation had been involved in a war with Great Britain? On the other hand, would such a war have given impetus to the secession movement by assuring the South of a built in ally in its war for independence?

    I answer both questions with a “no” because Lincoln isn’t a plausible Republican nominee had a war with a foreign power been ongoing in 1859-60.

  • In that event Micha, the odds on favorite for the Republican nomination would have been Senator Seward of New York, who was anathema to the South because of his abolitionism and coining of the phrase “irrepressible conflict” in regard to the battle over slavery. Interestingly enough, after Lincoln made him Secretary of State, Seward thought that the best way to get the seceding states back into the Union was by threatening war with Great Britain. The whole idea was simple madness, as Lincoln pointed out when he told Seward that one war at a time was quite enough.

  • The military world didn’t pay too much attention to the lessons of the American Civil War. IIRC, the otherwise-astute elder Moltke dismissed the conflict as “armed boys chasing each other across a contintent.” While there was some merit to that, he should have paid more attention to the entrenchments around Richmond and Petersburg. Lord knows the soldiers of 1914-18 paid for it. Over and over again.

  • Dale, you’re right up to a point, although the American Civil War was seriously studied at Sandhurst in the 1870s. One shool of thought held that modern technology would make future wars quicker and more decisive, which seemed to be borne out in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. Others, including Lord Kitchener, were less sanguine.

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