It is the summer of 1861, and Hawai‘i’s dashing young king, Alexander ‘Iolani Liholiho (Kamehameha IV) is at Hulihe‘e Palace in Kailua-Kona. The New England-style structure is a favorite retreat for his wife, Queen Emma, and their young son. But the king isn’t here to relax: a civil war has broken out in the United States, and the kingdom must respond.
With Alexander Liholiho are two advisors, Robert Crichton Wyllie, the kingdom’s long-serving foreign minister, and finance minister David L. Gregg. The three options on the table: support the Union, support the Confederacy or remain neutral. The Scottish-born Wyllie is urging the king to support the Confederacy: South Carolina had seceded at the end of 1860, and the Union had surrendered Fort Sumter. Further, the Union’s shocking defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861—news of which arrives at Hulihe‘e in the midst of the trio’s deliberations—seems to confirm what Wyllie already believes: Confederate victory is inevitable. Offering support now, Wyllie argues, will put the kingdom on the right side of history and establish sound relations with a sovereign Confederacy.
Gregg, whom many consider to be the king’s most trusted advisor, supports the Union. Gregg hails from Illinois, the same state as Abraham Lincoln, and is a friend of Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois who lost to Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. Douglas is an outspoken advocate in preserving the nation, and Gregg shares his belief.
Alexander Liholiho is hesitant. Supporting the Confederacy will offend the United States, the kingdom’s most valuable trading partner. Supporting the Union, though, could spell trouble for Hawai‘i, which in 1861 had a small military. If the kingdom were to declare support for the Union, the Confederacy could legally send a warship, or two, to attack. The Union would be unlikely to help the Islands if that were to happen, as it wouldn’t have the resources to defend Hawai‘i. In a letter to Queen Emma on July 1, 1861, Liholiho describes the discussions: “I have had the blues since you left, Mr. Wyllie assisting it somewhat in different ways—for instance—he wants the Government to acknowledge the Independence of the Southern Confederacy. What an old woman he is to be sure.”
Neutrality appeals to the king. His grandfather, King Kamehameha I, had not sided with either Great Britain or the United States during the War of 1812. Ships from both nations visited the Islands frequently, and Kamehameha did not wish to alienate either one. During European conflicts like the Crimean War, neutrality had proved sound policy, and the kingdom had not had to face threats from the warring parties. As Alexander Liholiho, Wyllie and Gregg deliberate, they receive word that Great Britain and France have declared neutrality. This is the tipping point: On August 26, 1861, the kingdom officially declares neutrality in America’s civil war.
Despite the kingdom’s policy, the Islands became embroiled in the war, with its citizens joining both sides of the conflict—though mainly with the Union—and its territorial waters intruded upon by a Confederate ship. The war, while occurring thousands of miles away, would profoundly alter the course of Hawai‘i’s history.
At the outbreak of the war, some of the sons and grandsons of Hawai‘i’s Protestant missionaries—whose church had long been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement in America—were away from the Islands at college in New England. As citizens of the kingdom, these men were not required to fight. Yet many, like Maui-born Samuel Chapman Armstrong, whose father had served as the kingdom’s minister of education, volunteered anyway. Armstrong fought as a Union officer at Gettysburg and in other crucial battles, and he commanded a regiment of African-American soldiers, part of the US Colored Infantry. Unlike white-skinned sons of Island missionaries such as Armstrong, most Native Hawaiians (as well as Asians) who joined the Union army were assigned to regiments composed primarily of African-Americans.
Fortunately for historians, Armstrong was a prolific letter writer. In a January 1865 letter published in The Friend, a Honolulu-based newspaper, Armstrong describes meeting two Native Hawaiians near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. “As my orderly was holding my horse, I asked him where he was from. He said he was from Hawaii! He proved to be a full-blooded kanaka [Native Hawaiian], by the name of Kealoha, who came from the islands last year. There is also another, by the name Kaiwi, who lived near Judge Smith’s, who left the islands last July. I enjoyed seeing them very much, and we had a good jabber in kanaka. Kealoha is a private in the 41st Regiment U.S. Colored Troops and Kaiwi is a private of the 28th U.S.C.T. in the Pioneer Corps. Both are good men and seem glad to have seen me.”
Armstrong’s letter, rediscovered a few years ago by O‘ahu-based historian Nanette Napoleon, sheds a little light on the military career of JR Kealoha, who joined in 1864 as a private. He returned to Hawai‘i after the war and died in 1877. Records of the 41st Regiment, which fought in the Battle of Appomattox and was present when General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, make no mention of him. Armstrong’s letter confirms Kealoha’s service and suggests that he might have been serving under a different name. After the United States annexed Hawai‘i, the United Veterans Service Council recognized Kealoha’s service and identified his burial place, an unmarked grave in O‘ahu Cemetery. In 2014, through the efforts of the Hawaii Civil War Roundtable, a local nonprofit, Kealoha’s military service was recognized and his grave site marked.By the war’s end the well-decorated Armstrong had served as brigadier general of several regiments of US Colored Troops. Moved by the plight of his soldiers, Armstrong served from 1866 to 1872 in the US Freedman’s Bureau, an agency established to aid former slaves and poor whites during Reconstruction. Later, Armstrong founded the historically black Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. Known today as Hampton University, the school was originally a teachers’ college for African-Americans. Armstrong had graduated from Punahou School in Honolulu and used its curriculum as a guide. Hampton later achieved international prominence; among its admirers was the Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi. Arm- strong’s students included Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute. In 1881 King David Kalākaua would make an impromptu visit to Hampton—the king wanted to visit with his old friend. Unfortunately, Armstrong was away from campus at the time.
Armstrong was only one among dozens of missionary sons who joined the Union. Another was Nathaniel Bright Emerson, whose father was a missionary on O‘ahu. He was attending Williams College in Massachusetts when the war broke out, and he enlisted with the 1st Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Later, after a distinguished career as a medical researcher in New York City, Emerson returned to Hawai‘i, where he wrote extensively on Hawaiian history and folklore. According to historian Justin Vance, co-author of Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War, it’s not surprising that so many citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom volunteered for the Union. “A lot of these Hawaiian-born volunteers are from New England families, with abolitionist ties. They grew up opposed to slavery. Some of them even have ideas about equality,” Vance says, though “this is the exception, not the rule among Northerners.”
Hawai‘i had another strong tie to New England: whaling. Since the first whalers entered Island waters in 1819, Native Hawaiians had been eager to sign on as crew. New England was also the epicenter of American shipping, and Island citizens maintained close ties with American sailors. At the outbreak of the Civil War, many New England sailors joined the Union navy, and quite a few of their Native Hawaiian comrades enlisted alongside them.
The Hawaiian Kingdom, too, shared moral sympathy with the Union’s cause: The kingdom’s Constitution had been written primarily by an American, William Little Lee, the first justice of the Hawaiian Kingdom Supreme Court. The document guarantees universal manhood suffrage—all men could vote regardless of race. Slavery was specifically banned, and any slave who arrived in the kingdom would be immediately freed from bondage.
Most Native Hawaiians who joined the Union army were, like Kealoha, assigned to the US Colored Troops. Some, however, did serve in the regular army. Hilo-born Timothy Henry Ho‘olulu Pitman was the son of Kino‘oleoliliha, a Hilo high chiefess. His father was Benjamin Pitman, an American who had become one of Hilo’s most successful businessmen. In 1860 the senior Pitman had returned to Salem, Massachusetts, with his two children after having lost two wives to illness. Timothy was only 17 and still in high school when, without telling his family, he enlisted in the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry—a white regiment. He fought in the Battle of Antietam and in the Maryland Campaign. On the march to Fredericksburg in 1862, he was separated from his regiment, captured and sent to the Confederacy’s notorious Libby Prison in Virginia. Within a couple of weeks, he became gravely ill. Medical care was practically nonexistent and food was scarce. Pitman spent only a short time at Libby before being released in a prisoner exchange, but it was too late. He died of his illness at the Union’s Annapolis Parole Camp in 1863.
More than 150 years after the end of the war, it is impossible to determine the exact number of Hawaiian Kingdom volunteers. About 130 are known to date, but it’s likely the number was larger. Record keeping in the mid-nineteenth century was imprecise, and many records have been lost. Even had everything been recorded, ascertaining who was from Hawai‘i would still be difficult, writes Vance. “There were likely dozens more Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders in service than identified to date, but it may be impossible to ever recover them all, because often the names used in the military records were simplified or invented, such as ‘Joe Maui,’ ‘John Boy,’ or ‘Joseph Kanaka.’ It becomes very difficult to track them later in life or find descendants who might have information about them.” Vance estimates that as many as two hundred Hawaiian Kingdom citizens fought in the war.
The vast majority of those citizens joined the Union, but not all: A few served the Confederacy, if reluctantly. About twenty crewed the CSS Shenandoah, a commerce raider sent to disrupt transpacific shipping—especially the whaling trade, which provided most of America’s fuel oil. Built clandestinely in Great Britain in 1864, the Shenandoah sailed for the Pacific disguised as a merchant ship. By early 1865 it was targeting ships traveling to and from Hawai‘i. Around the time of Lee’s surrender, the Shenandoah captured, pillaged and then sank the Harvest, a Hawai‘i- flagged merchant vessel with twenty-nine Native Hawaiians as crew, off the island of Pohnpei. The captain of the Shenandoah, James E. Waddell, refused to acknowlHarveste Harvest’s Hawaiian registry, believing it to be an American ship. Whenever the Confederate vessel captured a ship, its crew was given a choice: join or be marooned. Most joined.
Even after receiving word of Lee’s surrender, Waddell continued to fight. For the Shenandoah the Civil War wouldn’t end until August 1865, when a British vessel off the coast of Alaska provided Waddell solid evidence that the Confederacy had lost. Waddell re-disguised the ship as a merchant vessel and sailed for Great Britain. On November 6, 1865, he surrendered the ship to British authorities to avoid charges of piracy. Present at the surrender and at the ceremonial lowering of the Confederate naval flag were the ship’s surviving Native Hawaiian crew (one had died while serving). The Shenandoah had not only fired the last shots of the Civil War, it was the only Confederate ship to sail around the globe.
The war would have a lasting economic impact on the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. It marked the death knell of whaling, as the Union had purchased most of the New England whale fleet’s aging ships and sunk them as part of the naval blockade of the Southern states. The war also sparked a boom in Hawai‘i’s nascent sugar cane industry, as the Union needed an alternative to Southern-grown sugar. The shift from whaling to sugar fundamentally altered both the Island landscape and its culture, which saw an influx of immigrant labor from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal and the Philippines to work the growing plantations. Sugar also supplied a profitable replacement commodity that kept Hawai‘i involved in transpacific trade—and which led to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, organized in part by a group of sugar magnates.
Alexander Liholiho did not see the end of the war, succumbing to chronic asthma on November 30, 1863. Wyllie would go on to write an official complaint to Great Britain, demanding compensation for the loss of the Harvest. The kingdom was never repaid. HH
Story by Peter Von Buol.