When the first shot of the American Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter off the coast of South Carolina on April 12, 1861, nearly six thousand miles away, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was a sovereign nation.
On August 26, 1861, five months after the outbreak of hostilities and four months after the news of Civil War arrived in Honolulu, Kamehameha IV issued a Proclamation that, in part, stated, “hostilities are now unhappily pending between the Government of the United States, and certain States thereof styling themselves “The Confederate States of America”.”
With the Proclamation, the King also stated “Our neutrality between said contending parties.”
The discussion of neutrality versus partisanship had to include the reality that the Hawaiian kingdom had no standing army, and most importantly, no navy to protect its harbors if supporting either the Union or Confederacy brought the other side’s vessels to threaten the principal cities of Honolulu or Lāhainā. (Illinois-edu)
Likewise, while the majority of foreigners in Hawaiʻi were Americans from New England who supported the Union cause with great fervor, leadership and advisors to the King included European ties who believed that the Confederacy would succeed in securing its independence.
King Kamehameha IV declared a neutral stance but held largely Unionist sympathies – as did the majority of people living in Hawaiʻi. (NPS)
Although neutrality was declared, Hawaiʻi’s close relationship economically, diplomatically and socially with the United States ensured that the wake of the American Civil War reached the Hawaiian Islands.
Slavery was prohibited by Hawaiʻi’s Constitution of 1852; however, there was considerable debate comparing it to the contact labor system that brought workers from Asia to fill the growing need for labor on the sugar plantations.
This was a kind of indentured servitude, some in Hawaiʻi argued, that was little better than American slavery, a position that tended to fuel opposition to the American slaveholding South.
Prior to the Civil War, whaling and related activities were the primary economic engine of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. The war enabled Hawaiʻi to fill part of the void left by the absence of then-blockaded southern exports, including sugar.
Hawaiian-grown sugar soon replaced much of this southern sugar through the duration of the conflict. By the end of the war, over thirty extremely prosperous plantations were in operation and expanded to new levels previously unheard of before the war’s commencement.
In part, because of this boom in business, the majority of Americans living and working on the islands were devoutly pro-Unionist. In fact, many living in Hawaiʻi had an ardent desire to serve in the armed forces.
Hawaiʻi’s neutrality did not prevent many of its citizens from enlisting in either Union or Confederate forces. One, a Hawaiian from Hilo, was Henry Hoʻolulu Pitman, son of Kinoʻole O Liliha, a Hawaiian high chiefess of Hilo. He enlisted in the Union Army and later died of disease in Richmond, Virginia’s infamous Libby Prison.
A dozen Hawaiians (possibly from captured ships) also served as Confederate sailors aboard the famous raider CSS Shenandoah which circumnavigated the globe and sank or captured nearly forty Union and merchant vessels throughout the Pacific. (Captured sailors could be put in chains below deck, marooned on an island or be given the chance to join the crew of the Southern vessel – many chose the latter.)
About 40 individuals who were born and raised in Hawaiʻi served in the Civil War. As many as 200 immigrants to Hawaiʻi who were living here at the outbreak of the war in 1861 may have served in the conflict.
To honor these men, the Hawaiʻi Sons of the Civil War Memorial Committee installed a bronze and stone memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. It is dedicated to those from Hawai’i who served in the war.
Oʻahu Cemetery has thirty Union veterans who rest in a Grand Army of the Republic section of the burial ground (it is identified with four cannons at each corner.) (The Grand Army of the Republic was founded by Union veterans in Decatur, Illinois, in 1866.)
The war lasted from 1861 to 1865. Immediately following the war, many of the once prosperous sugar plantations collapsed as a result of the northern states reestablishing trade with their southern counterparts.
On May 11, 1865, Ka Nupepa Kuokoa (noting the death of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865) noted “No words of ours can do justice to our grief. … All over the world the friends of liberty and justice, the poor, the oppressed everywhere, will weep for him, the Savior of his country, the Liberator of four million slaves, the People’s friend. … His name will forever be revered … The Nation still lives.”
In 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, a group of Union veterans established “Decoration Day” on May 30 as a time to remember and decorate the graves of service members with flowers, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation.