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When the rebel flag flew over Oregon soil — for real

Smithfield rebels' gesture of defiance on the main stagecoach route caused shock and outrage, but nobody was outraged enough to risk being shot over it; so the flag waved there until federal troops arrived and confiscated it.

The rural hamlet of Franklin as it appears today. This little community, during the Civil War, was the scene of the only known flying of the Confederate States of America’s flag west of Missouri. (Image: Google Streetview)

Oregon in general, and rural southern Oregon in particular, has been referred to more than once as the “Dixie of the West Coast.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the only Confederate flag known to have waved in the northwestern quarter of the continental United States during the Civil War flew proudly over the Beaver State, for a few weeks in 1862.

Now, that “only flag” claim has to be qualified a bit. The entire northwest quarter is rather a large patch, and plenty of emigrant farmers, gold miners and ex-Army ruffians were sympathetic to the South’s cause; surely somebody, somewhere, hoisted the stars and bars over a shoddy Jackson County prospector’s cabin or loathsome San Francisco waterfront flophouse.

But if anyone did, he or she kept it quiet enough to avoid the intervention of federal troops.

Not so the fearsome Kentucky natives who had settled in the tiny town of Smithfield (now called Franklin), just south of Cheshire on old Territorial Highway.

The good people of Smithfield were surrounded and outnumbered, and they knew it. But they were a proud, fearless bunch, and not a Republican or pro-Union Democrat among them. They were well supplied with the long-barreled flintlock rifles with which their fathers had helped win the Revolutionary War, and they had somehow also gotten hold of a small cannon. They determined, in the summer of ‘62, to do their bit for the old southern homeland, come what might.

So they set to work. The men found a tall, straight fir tree, which they felled, peeled and hauled to the town’s general store. The women labored over a community sewing project: a massive Confederate battle flag, the “stars and bars.” Then they mounted the pole before the store, ran the flag up to the top, and let it billow in the soft summer breeze.

A historic marker in Franklin, denoting the stagecoach stop at Smithfield, photographed by Ben Maxwell in 1961. (Image: Ben Maxwell/Salem Public Library)

Now, this was not exactly an act of quiet rebellion. Smithfield owed its regional prominence and prosperity to the stagecoach line that ran up and down the Territorial Highway. Dozens of travelers passed up and down that highway every week en route to or from hamlets like Elmira, Veneta, Crow, Lorane and west Eugene, via Junction City.

One can only imagine the shock of these passengers as the stage pulled up before the Smithfield General Store and they saw a giant rebel flag flapping in the breeze, its flagpole surrounded by grim-faced expatriated Southerners with rifles ready to defend it.

Word flew around Lane County like a summer zephyr: There was open rebellion brewing at Smithfield! What was to be done?

Staunch Unionists in Eugene were outraged. They did not, however, feel outraged enough to brave those grim-faced Smithfield sharpshooters in an attempt to do something about it. So instead, they complained bitterly to every authority they could reach: the sheriff, the state legislature, and yes, the federal government in Washington, D.C.

The sheriff was the man everyone was looking at, but he showed little inclination to risk his life and those of his deputies in a hopeless assault on such a fearsome foe. So the flag continued to fly.

A few weeks later, one of the Smithfield rebels was caught in Eugene trying to buy supplies, and arrested and lodged in a jailhouse. Word spread quickly, and a lynch mob soon had assembled to lay siege to the jailhouse. But the rebel, who had hidden a tiny penknife somewhere on his person, put up such a ferocious fight that vigilante justice was delayed long enough for the sheriff to arrive with a posse, and soon the mob was dispersed.

And still that flag flew, proud and rankling over the Long Tom River, visible for miles from every oncoming stage.

The Franklin Grange as it appears today. (Image: visitor7/Wikimedia)

It flew there, proud and defiant, until a day in late August, when something rather remarkable happened — another “first and only” for the Beaver State.

On that historic day, the McCornack family had just settled down to supper at their farm on Elmira Road, just outside Eugene, when to their astonishment a large detachment of federal troops — blue-coated United States Cavalry officers and men — filed up to the farmhouse in two columns, which split apart and flowed around the farmhouse and outbuildings. Soon the whole spread was surrounded with a cordon of several hundred armed men.

Two officers then approached the farmhouse, and family patriarch Andrew McCornack — no doubt more than a little nervously — came to the door to see what they wanted.

The officers were gracious and courteous. Did Mr. McCornack have an employee by the name of Armstrong, they wondered?

“As a matter of fact, I do,” he replied, or words to that effect, and the captain then called to Armstrong to come out and give himself up. He was, as it turned out, a deserter from the U.S. Cavalry. Once he’d been collected, installed on a horse and surrounded by his once-and-future comrades, the bugler played “recall” and the troop rode away in the direction of Eugene, leaving the astonished McCornacks to finish their supper.

“Now, these troops were stationed at Vancouver,” Elwin McCornack wrote in his account of his relatives’ adventure. “Had they ridden 150 miles to take Armstrong the Deserter? No, they had not. They had other business in this vicinity and had orders to pick up the deserter while they were there.”

By the time poor Mr. Armstrong was on his way back to the barracks, that business was all over and done, and the prize — a large home-made rebel flag — was safely stowed in a saddlebag.

One source claims there was a “small skirmish” before the flag was confiscated. While possible, this seems unlikely; if shots had been fired at U.S. Cavalry troopers, Smithfield would no doubt have been burned to the ground and its surviving occupants hauled back to Vancouver as prisoners. I’ve been able to find no record of anything like that.

But, skirmish or no, it was the first and only incidence of an operation by the U.S. Army against a non-Native American military enemy on Oregon soil, and it ended in defeat for the Smithfield rebels.

(Sources: McCornack, Elwin. “When the Rebel Flag Flew on the Long Tom,” Lane County Historian, March 1962; Aplin, Glenn. “Notes on the Civil War,” Pacific Northwest Forum, winter 1978; Fletcher, Randol. Hidden History of Civil War Oregon. London: The History Press, 2011)