“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” — Will Rogers
It is a shame there’s no one left at the local newspaper inquisitive enough to bother to check a simple, widely held myth about Nevada’s statehood against the undisputed authority on such matters.
In a story today about a Civil War reenactment taking place at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is this matter-of-fact statement:
“The Civil War started in 1861 due to differences between the free and slave states regarding the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. Nevada was admitted to the Union on Oct. 31, 1864, as its silver and gold production were needed to help finance the war.”
The casus belli of the Civil War was not quite that simplistic but close enough for the obligatory “nut graf” of newspaper feature story. However, the part about the Union needing Nevada gold and silver to help finance the war is utter mythology.
Now retired state archivist Guy Rocha wrote some years ago, and it remains floating in the ether:
“Who hasn’t heard ad nauseam that our state was admitted to the Union on October 31, 1864 because its silver and gold production were needed to help finance the Civil War. Anyone who has attended Nevada’s schools has heard the story from a teacher or read it in a textbook. It’s a wonderful tale, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Our state’s history has too often been embellished and transposed into myth, and the claim of Nevada’s mineral wealth triggering statehood ranks as one of the most pervasive fictional stories in the annuals of the Silver State. The reasons for Nevada’s statehood were political, not economic. Earlier writers were so caught up in romanticizing Nevada’s role in the Civil War they decided to re-invent history.”
As Rocha recounts, Nevada was a territory during the war and the federal government had free access to its silver and gold production and the modest federal taxes paid by residents of the territory. Statehood would not change that.
In fact, while statehood was being contemplated the war was rapidly winding down and Union victory was all but assured.
But Abraham Lincoln was facing a three-way race in his bid for re-election. Nevada’s three electoral college votes, virtually assured to be in Lincoln’s pocket, might’ve been the edge he needed, until Gen. John C. Fremont dropped out. But statehood paperwork moved forward and Nevada entered as a state on Oct. 31, 1864, days prior to the election, even though it had a population of 30,000, half of the required 60,000 for statehood and well short of the 100,000 citizens that each member of Congress at the time represented.
Another rationale for statehood is that Nevada could help ratify the 13th Amendment ending slavery, which Nevadans did.
“So Nevada was, in fact, the ‘Battle Born’ state because of its entrance into the Union during the Civil War, but not for the reasons we find in the popular mythology,” Rocha concludes. “Historians recognize that the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859 was one of many factors influencing Nevada’s territorial status. However, making the leap to statehood because wealth from Nevada’s mines was desperately needed to help the Union win the Civil War keeps stubbornly recurring as perhaps our state’s #1 legend.”
One perpetrated by teachers, textbooks and newspapers, we are sorry to say.
You can read a blog that was posted on Nevada Day a year ago — How Nevada became the 36th star on the United States flag — that contains some colorful quotations from the denizens of Nevada at that time.