The Vigilantes of Montana

By John C. Fazio
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved

Previously, I have argued in these pages that the decisive battle of the Civil War was not Gettysburg, as so many assume (though its critical importance cannot be denied), but Spotsylvania and Grant’s literal turning south that preceded it after his defeat in the Wilderness. My point was that the rolling twelve-day slugfest that was Spotsylvania demonstrated to Robert E. Lee both the unprecedented doggedness of the new commander of the Army of the Potomac and the terrible arithmetic that spelled the doom of the Confederacy, that is, Grant’s ability and Lee’s inability to replace losses.

But, lo, a new candidate has emerged and it is none other than the mighty battle that took place in what is today a thriving metropolis of slightly more than one hundred souls and resulted in the deaths of (are you ready for this?) twenty-one men! from January 4 through February 3, 1864 (with another 80 or so before the anarchy ran its course) in (are you ready for this?) Virginia City, Montana! Virginia City, Montana? I am daft, you say. Maybe… Maybe. And you haven’t even heard the punch line. The punch line is that none of the twenty-one (and we have all of their names) died in battle. They were murdered in what can only be described as a terroristic orgy that bypassed anything and everything resembling due process — no trials, no judges, no juries, and not even death in the usual manner, hanging, but, so as to get the maximum deterrent effect from each murder, by strangulation.

What on earth could possibly account for the extra-judicial strangulation of twenty-one men and what on earth does it have to do with the Civil War? The answer lies in one word: gold! What else but that shiny yellow metal that has always been equated with power and, because of its beauty, scarcity, and the fact that it neither corrodes nor tarnishes, has driven men (and women) batty for all time and, since circa 700 B.C., been used as money and, therefore, to underwrite the economies of great states and empires. Here, briefly, is what happened.

It need hardly be said that nations need liquid wealth to wage war, particularly protracted war. Not worthless paper, but paper backed by tangible wealth, or the wealth itself, is necessary to manufacture weapons, build the facilities for their manufacture, and equip and supply armies and navies with whatever they need to carry on the struggle — clothing, food, vehicles, ships. Gold meets that need more than any other form of wealth. Because of its intrinsic qualities — beauty, portability, malleability, etc. — it is in demand by virtually everyone and thus serves as an international medium of exchange.

At the beginning of the war, the Federal government had the liquid wealth, mostly gold, necessary to wage protracted war. The Confederate government had very little. To be more precise, the Confederacy had, at the beginning of the war, perhaps $20,000,000 in gold and silver, mostly from loans, bullion confiscated from U.S. mints, coins confiscated from U.S. Custom Houses and mints, and the suspension of specie payments by southern bankers, who then turned their coins over to the Confederate Treasury. (By the end of the war, the Confederacy had $156,000 in gold and silver, all of it in the possession of Jefferson Davis’s party when he was captured.) Federal greenbacks, therefore, had substantial value and maintained most of it throughout the war. Confederate paper money had little value and even less as the war dragged on. That would certainly have been different had the Confederacy been able to place its hands on a good supply of gold. It almost did.

Bannock, Montana, late 1800s

When the war began, Montana, then part of the Dakota Territory, was almost vacant. As the war progressed (regressed would be more accurate), settlers of every variety and origin, including many from the South, moved in, first to the western slope of the Rockies (present day Idaho) and then to the eastern (present day Montana). The lure? Gold, of course. It was discovered in 1861 in the area of Mullen Road, in 1862 in Bannock (present day Idaho City, Idaho), and in 1863 in Virginia City, originally named Varina City for Jefferson Davis’s wife, later changed to Virginia City as a concession to the secessionist majority by a territorial officer from Connecticut.

The Lincoln Administration, of course, recognized the critical importance of assuring that all this gold flowed into Federal coffers and not to the Confederacy. How much gold? In Virginia City alone, $600,000 worth of gold was being mined every week. In today’s dollars, that is $18,000,000 per week. By some standards of measurement it could be the equivalent of $30,000,000 per week or $1.5 billion a year. The Federal government thus took immediate steps to preserve this immense wealth. It established, in the spring of 1863, a new political entity known as Idaho Territory, comprising the present states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with its capital at Lewiston.

Lincoln then appointed W. W. Wallace as Governor of the new Territory and his friend, and one of the founders of the Republican Party, Sidney Edgerton, as Chief Justice. The latter arrived in Bannock (sometimes spelled Bannack) on September 17, 1863 with his family and a nephew, Wilbur Fisk Sanders. They were originally supposed to travel to Lewiston, but went instead to Bannock, which was only seventy-five miles from Virginia City and its gold. Edgerton’s and Sanders’s problem was that they had to accomplish their purpose — the preservation of the gold for the Union — in what was essentially enemy territory.

They did so by arranging for the creation of a Vigilance Committee, also known as the Vigilantes, in Bannock and Virginia City. The Vigilantes eliminated any and all threats to the flow of gold to the Federal government, which is a nice euphemism for saying they murdered a lot of people. It worked. The gold flowed to the Federal government, thus maintaining the value of greenbacks at home and abroad and producing the means to accomplish westward expansion, i.e., to populate the West with Union sympathizers. The Homestead Act of 1862 had already begun the process. Later, the Union-sympathizing emigrants to Montana Territory came in substantial numbers from St. Paul, Minnesota, protected by U.S. troops led by Captain James Liberty Fisk, who had earlier journeyed to Washington to impress upon Lincoln the importance of controlling the gold flow. This emigration was financed by the United States Congress for obvious reasons. The effect was the desired one.

Map of the area discussed in the article showing the future states of Idaho (left) and Montana(right) and the locations of Lewiston, Bannock, and Virginia City

Within a few months, Edgerton realized that preserving the Virginia City gold for the Union could not be effectively done from Lewiston, which was too far away and separated from the gold by nearly impassable mountains, and that Montana would therefore have to be established as a separate territory. He traveled to Washington to make his case. Lincoln saw the wisdom of it immediately, and thus it was that Montana Territory was established on May 26, 1864, with Sidney Edgerton as its first Governor.

How did Edgerton and Sanders succeed, with secessionists all around and outvoting them and their Republican allies whenever there was access to a ballot box? In a word: terror! With the Vigilantes, their field commander, James Liberty Fisk, their hatchetman, i.e., their “unit commander,” Sergeant James Williams, and a sadistic executioner named X. Beidler, who delighted in strangling rather than hanging his victims, Edgerton and Sanders carried the day for their Commander in Chief. The Vigilance Committee was formally established by Paris Pfouts, Nick Wall, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, Alvin V. Brookie and John Nye.

Before long, the Committee had more than one thousand members, almost all of them Republican Masons. Almost all of their victims were non-Mason, Democrat secessionists. Paris Pfouts was an anomaly. He was a Missourian, with stops in Denver and Salt Lake City, where he signed an oath of loyalty to the Union. He was a Mason. He was also an avowed secessionist. How was it, then, that he was a member — indeed, a founder — of the Committee? That he was a Mason probably had something to do with it. Probably, too, his loyalty oath had something to do with it. But my guess is that the conundrum is best explained by his seeing where the real power lay and choosing to be on the winning side for his ultimate gain. That he became Mayor of Virginia City supports this theory. In any case, the Committee called their enemies “villains” and, to galvanize the population, invented the myth of the “secret society of road agents” — robbers and murderers who, tipped off by townspeople in league with them, waylaid innocent travelers, murdered them, and made off with gold shipments.

In fairness to the Vigilantes, they have their supporters, a vociferous group who contend that the story about the road agents was not story, but fact. Worse, the normal channels of law enforcement were not available to them because the Sheriff of Virginia City, Henry Plummer, a Democrat from Maine, was the secret leader of the road agents! This belief, in fact, is accepted today by most of the residents of Virginia City and most Montanans. Needless to say, Plummer met the same fate as the others, strangulation. The controversy as to the verities of the road agent hypothesis still rages after one hundred forty years. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that most of the public bought the story — enough, in any case, to assure the success of the Vigilantes and thus of Edgerton and President Lincoln’s mission, despite the sympathies of the great majority of the settlers. It is arguable that this success — accomplished not by votes and due process, but by appointed officers and terror — won the war for the North. In fact, it has been stated, categorically, that “Virginia City gold won the war for the North” and “The Civil War and the entire Union cause depended to a very large extent upon the gold that flowed east from Virginia City.” These appear to be overstatements, but perhaps they aren’t. We know what an incredible fight the South made of it, despite serious shortfalls in men and materiel. Imagine a Confederacy with all that gold and the ability to purchase everything it needed, if not from Yankees, then abroad.

It is worth noting that, in 1916, the Daughters of the Army of the Confederacy erected a fountain in Women’s Park in Helena, Montana. This is the northernmost Confederate monument in the United States.

One final note: Lincoln’s man on the frontier, Sidney Edgerton, like so many Civil War personalities (Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, McPherson, to name a few), was an Ohio boy. He moved from New York to Tallmadge (near Akron) in 1844 at the age of twenty-six and taught there. He graduated from Cincinnati Law School in 1845 and was admitted to the Bar and began his practice in Akron in 1846. He was the Prosecuting Attorney in Summit County from 1852 to 1856. After his service in Idaho and Montana, he returned to Akron a wealthy man and resumed his practice of law. He died on July 19, 1900 and is interred in Tallmadge Cemetery.

Related links:
Gold, Greed, and a Vacuum of Law
The Vigilantes of Montana Revisited
Bannack, Montana State Park
Virginia City and Bannack Ghost Town Photo Gallery