Book Review: Agents of Empire: The First Oregon Cavalry and the Opening of the Interior Pacific Northwest during the Civil War

Agents of Empire: The First Oregon Cavalry and the Opening of the Interior Pacific Northwest during the Civil War. By James Robbins Jewell. University of Nebraska Press, 2023. 326 pp. Hardcover, $45.00.

Reviewed by Patrick Kelly-Fischer

If you mention Oregon’s Civil War, most people will assume you are referring to the intense football rivalry between Oregon and Oregon State. The American Civil War, and the vast body of scholarship that the conflict continues to generate traditionally focuses on regions east of the Mississippi River. Recently though, new studies are providing important insights into the Civil War in the far west. Agents of Empire continues this trend, succeeding at filling a near-vacuum of Civil War studies in the Pacific Northwest.

The small antebellum United States Army resided primarily at numerous scattered posts out west. Soldiers garrisoned forts occupying the territory conquered in the Mexican War, guarding caravans of supplies and settlers moving into the sparsely populated West, and fighting countless skirmishes against Native Americans in the region. As Southern states seceded and fighting broke out at Fort Sumter, the War Department quickly ordered most of the region’s army units to return east.

In response, states like Oregon began recruiting volunteer regiments, and thus the First Oregon Cavalry was born. While many recruits enlisted with visions of glory fighting Confederate armies, it was clear from early on that their time in the service would involve frontier roles that resembled those the regular Army once filled. The First Oregon was fated to spend its war in the Pacific Northwest. Readers expecting massive battles against invading Confederate armies will be as disappointed as the cavalrymen themselves.

The specter of secessionist elements, Confederate sympathizers, the Knights of the Golden Circle, and the appeal of a breakaway Pacific Republic all receive attention, but are far from the book’s main focus. Instead, Agents of Empire paints a vivid picture of life on the sparsely settled Pacific Northwest frontier. The First Oregon Cavalry engaged in a fair bit of road building, scouting the terrain for future farming and mining, and unearthing interesting geological finds.

While there was clear value to their other pursuits, the bulk of the First Oregon Cavalry’s time was spent chasing, and very occasionally fighting, the local Native American tribes. Jewell handles this difficult subject with care. The surviving written sources we have are almost entirely from White perspectives who largely—though not entirely–embraced the racial stereotypes of their day. The author avoids falling into the trap of taking these one-sided accounts at face value, while giving the reader a detailed account of the regiment’s numerous forays.

From the outsized impact of personalities in a small unit operating independently, to the challenges of maintaining discipline in isolated frontier encampments, Jewell gives readers an insight into the nuances of a small unit command that is missing from most larger unit and campaign studies. His research unearthed a remarkable number of anecdotes and detailed personal histories of a unit that—given Oregon’s very recent introduction as a state—was composed almost entirely of non-native Oregonians, who originally hailed from virtually every state in both the Union and Confederacy.

The presentation of the book is attractive. Its maps are also well done and help orient readers who have perhaps only a passing familiarity of the Pacific Northwest’s geography. And in keeping with the rest of the book’s meticulous research, the author offers a surprisingly large number of photographs from a regiment with only a few hundred men from a sparsely settled state. Agents of Empire ably adds to the growing body of scholarship about the Civil War in the far west.

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