“Withdrawal of the Federal Bayonets from Alaska”

April 21, 1877

Thomas Nast

“Withdrawal of the Federal Bayonets from Alaska”

Reconstruction; U.S. Military;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Alaska; American South; American West;

The Caucasian Bear Will Now Have Home Rule, And Will Not Be Intimidated Any More."

The explicit subject of Thomas Nast's cartoon is the withdrawal of the U.S. Army from Alaska in 1877.  The artist's choice of language and images in the captions and illustration, however, reveals he is implicitly criticizing the Southern Democratic attitude toward the withdrawal of federal troops from political duty in the South at the formal end of Reconstruction. 

In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, and on October 18 the official transfer of power took place at Sitka, the headquarters of the new Military District (later, Department) of Alaska.  For ten years, the U. S. Army under General Jefferson C. Davis (a former Union commander) provided the only governing authority for the sparsely populated American settlements in the region.  In this difficult assignment, the Army did its best to arbitrate disputes between native tribes and Americans.  Although they provoked the resentment of both groups, no major altercations erupted.

As the New York Tribune editorial quoted in the cartoon makes clear, Army duty in Alaska was costly, burdensome, and often inefficient.  In 1877, the new Republican administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes transferred jurisdiction over Alaska from the War Department to the Treasury Department, which would police the area with its revenue cutters.  Most of the Army personnel were reassigned to the American West to fight in the Indians Wars, with the last units leaving Sitka in June 1877. 

In the short run, there was a vacuum of authority in Alaska.  In early 1879, when American citizens received no response to their request for protection from the natives, they turned to a British military post in Vancouver for assistance.  Thereafter, the U. S. Navy joined the Treasury's revenue cutters in patrolling the coastlines and navigable rivers, along which most settlers lived.  In 1884, Alaska was granted territorial status with a civil government, although the Navy and Treasury still maintained their presence.  When the territory's population skyrocketed after the Klondike gold strike in 1897, the Army, accompanied by the Marine Corps, returned in full force. 

Meanwhile, Reconstruction had ended gradually over the 1870s in the former states of the Confederacy.  As the oversight by the federal Army concluded in each of the Southern states, the biracial Republican governments were replaced by white-only Democratic administrations.  After the disputed presidential election of 1876 was settled in favor of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the new president removed federal troops (1877) from guarding the statehouses in the three remaining Reconstruction states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.  

Cartoonist Thomas Nast was a strong supporter of Reconstruction and a stringent critic of Southern Democrats, who had long bemoaned the alleged interference of the "Federal Bayonets" in their region.  Here, Nast lampoons what he considered the hypocritical concern of Southern Democrats with the U. S. Army by depicting its parallel withdrawal from Alaska.  The ferocious and numerous polar bears ("Caucasian Bear") serve as a visual metaphor for white Southerners and dominate the picture from the upper-left to the lower-right, engulfing the few departing soldiers (the actual numbers of troops in both the South and Alaska were low).  

Southern Democrats had demanded "home rule" in their states while they themselves intimidated black Southerners through discrimination and systematic terror.  Notice the diminutive figure in the troop withdrawal is black.  Vultures circle overhead, a frequent symbol of impending doom, death, or pillage.  The feeble state of the U.S. military brought about by Congressional Democrats refusing to pass an appropriations bill is conveyed by drawing the Naval steamship as a washtub powered by a teakettle.  

The text under the cartoon reads:

Washington, March 29.--One of the first acts of Secretary of War [George] M[c]'Crary was to order the removal of the troops now stationed in Alaska.  This is not only a measure of wise economy, but one of great humanity to the soldiers who have been kept there for the past few years.  The force has consisted of two companies of infantry, and numbered from 80 to 150 men.  Owing to the severity of the climate and other causes which will be understood by those familiar with the character of the people of Alaska, it has been found impracticable to keep the same troops in Sitka more than a year.  They are of no practical use, as there is not duty to perform; and if it was necessary to use force to keep the natives in order, no provision for transporting troops to the different islands has ever been made.  The extra expense of this military occupation of Alaska is about $50,000 a year.  It costs about $10,000 to transport the troops there from a station on the Pacific coast, about $10,000 more to bring them back again at the end of the year, and from $20,000 to $30,000 a year for the transportation of subsistence and other stores.  The Secretary of the Treasury will issue an order to the revenue marine officers stationed in Alaska to use their vessels and men to preserve order among the natives, if necessary.--New York Tribune.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Withdrawal of the Federal Bayonets from Alaska”
July 14, 2024

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