“Both sides still believed that if San JuanIsland was lost, the balance of power—and so the security of their respective nations—would be imperiled,” Kaufman says. “Still, I strongly doubt that either side wanted bloodshed.”
Within a few months of Scott’s departure, comparable detachments of roughly 100 British and American troops had settled on opposite ends of the island. The English built a cozy outpost, complete with family quarters for the captain and a formal English garden. The American camp, in contrast, was exposed to the wind and in disrepair. Subject to political tensions over the impending Civil War, Pickett’s men were demoralized. “The difficulty of getting their pay and the refusal of merchants to cash treasury Bills makes the American Officers very anxious,” a visiting Anglican bishop wrote in his journal on February 2, 1861. “They say they fully expect next month to be paid. Troops if six months in arrears of pay may disband themselves. ‘Here am I,’ says Captain Pickett, ‘of 18 years standing, having served my Country so long, to be cast adrift!’ ”
On April 17, 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. Two months later, Pickett resigned his commission and headed home to Virginia to join the Confederacy, where he would make history in what came to be called Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge in the last fight on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. (On that day, July 3, 1863, during 50 minutes of combat, some 2,800 of the men charged to Pickett’s care—more than half of his division—were among the 5,675 Confederates killed, captured or wounded. It was a turning point in the Civil War. Pickett survived, only to suffer other defeats at Five Forks, Virginia, and New Berne, North Carolina. Pickett died a failed insurance agent at the age of 50—just 12 years after Gettysburg and 16 years after landing with a few dozen U.S. soldiers to claim San Juan Island.)
Following Pickett’s departure, relations between the two occupying forces continued in relative harmony. It wasn’t until 1872, in a decision by a panel convened by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, brought in as an arbiter, that the San Juan Islands were quietly assigned to the United States. The British took their flag, and their flagpole, and sailed home. With that, the upper left corner of the United States was pinned in place.
In his book on the war that did not quite happen, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay, Mike Vouri writes that the conflict was settled peacefully because experienced military men, who knew the horrors of war firsthand, were given decision-making authority. “Royal Navy Rear Admiral R. Lambert Baynes remembered the War of 1812 when his decks ‘ran with blood;’ Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby had seen the hospital ships of the Crimean War; and U.S. Army Lieutenant General Winfield Scott had led men in battle from Lundy’s Lane in the War of 1812 to the assault on Chapultepec Castle in Mexico. These are the men who refused to consider shedding blood over a tiny archipelago, then in the middle of nowhere; warriors with convictions, and most critically, imaginations.”
The overgrown site of Pickett’s makeshift camp on the southern tip of San Juan Island lies less than a mile from Mike Vouri’s office. Like the Coast Salish Indians before them, Pickett and his men had made their temporary home next to a freshwater spring that still bubbles through thick mats of prairie grass. For the 12 years of joint occupation, until 1872, American soldiers cleaned rifles, washed tinware (and clothes and themselves), smoked pipes, pined for sweethearts and drank away their boredom along the spring’s banks, leaving empty bottles, broken dishes and rusted blades where they lay. Every so often an artifact of Pickett’s days—chipped crockery, clay pipes, tarnished buttons or cloudy marbles—turns up, brought to the surface by animals or the water.
Recently, on a windswept bluff, Vouri picked his way through the marshy grass to show a visitor the water’s source. Ashard of blue glass glinted in the sunlight through the lowslung branches of a scraggly bush. Vouri stooped to pick up the shard—the square-bottomed lower third of a bottle, shimmering with blue-green swirls of tinted glass that had begun to deteriorate—sick glass, archaeologists call it. Near the bottom edge of the bottle was an embossed date: November 1858, eight months before Pickett and his men landed on the island.
Vouri’s latest find will join other broken bottles and artifacts discovered here. In a battlefield, of course, the settled dust also entombs spent shells and arrowheads, grapeshot and mine fragments, broken skulls and shattered bones. But in this old “peacefield” on San Juan Island, the relics are mostly buttons and glass.