Critics called the United States’ decision to purchase Alaska from Russia “Seward’s folly,” naming the perceived blunder after the champion of the deal, Secretary of State William H. Seward.
The 1867 Alaska Treaty of Cession was signed with Russia March 30, 1867, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty April 9, and President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty May 28, agreeing on the purchase price of $7.2 million – little more than $125 million in today’s dollars.
Seward had dozens of co-conspirators in realizing his “folly” in the form of U.S. Soldiers and Coast Guardsmen – then members of the Revenue Cutter Service – Oct. 18, 1867, the day Alaska was transferred from Russia to the United States in a ceremony at the former Russian capital for Alaska, Sitka.
Soldiers of U.S. Army Alaska and the Alaska Army National Guard returned to Sitka and joined forces once again with Coast Guardsmen of Coast Guard Air Station Sitka to mark 150 years of the signing during the culmination of Alaska Days Oct. 18.
The military had a pivotal role from the beginning of Alaska’s entry in the Union as a territory. The Revenue Cutter Lincoln delivered federal officials to tour Alaska, and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Lovell Rousseau would play a crucial role during the transfer ceremony.
“1867 was a monumental year for the United States when we secured Alaska from the Russians,” said Brig. Gen. Joseph Streff, Alaska National Guard assistant adjutant general, Army. “And 150 years of history has been tremendous.”
The military effort to ring in the sesquicentennial was spearheaded by U.S. Army Alaska’s 9th Army Band, which played several community concerts during the week and visited local schools to share a love of music.
“The people here are so welcoming to us,” said Col. Mark Colbrook, U.S. Army Alaska deputy commander, sustainment. “The ability to be able to participate in events like this really build strong bonds between the Army and the local community.”
The Alaska Army National Guard took the opportunity to transport an armored humvee and a tracked Small Unit Support Vehicle from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to Sitka by way of an Alaska Air National Guard C-17 Globemaster III to validate rapidly deploying and setting up a command post at Sitka’s Army National Guard armory. Soldiers of A Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, visited Mount Edgecumbe High School to show off the vehicles and share opportunities afforded by joining the National Guard.
“The Alaska Army National Guard is in Sitka to commemorate Alaska Days, but the second thing is we would like to support the community, show our presence, and provide opportunities for future applicants to join our forces,” Streff said.
Streff said the National Guard invested in Sitka’s armory as part of the Guard’s Rural Initiative.
“We designated Sitka as one of the facilities we want to retain within our organization, and as such we have a recruiting initiative within the community and in the high schools,” Streff said. “Sitka has a long history of supporting the National Guard, and we’re looking forward to growing the force down here and returning it to its past strength.”
The Coast Guard celebrated 40 years of stationing at Sitka Oct. 17. The service also renewed Sitka’s status as a Coast Guard city, acknowledging the town’s special relationship with the Coast Guard.
“It means a lot for us to be here, and it means a lot to us to be able to celebrate the renewal of the Coast Guard city,” said Capt. Chip Lewin, commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Sitka. “That’s due because of the welcoming nature of this town and its people to our Coast Guard family.”
The day commemorating the transfer began with a service honoring veterans laid to rest at the Sitka National Cemetery. Wreaths were laid by Army and Coast Guard officials at grave sites, the USARAK Honor Guard fired salute volleys, and a 9th Army Band bugler played taps.
Both services came together during a parade through the town. The USARAK color guard took point, followed by the 9th Army Band, the two National Guard vehicles, the Coast Guard color guard and a formation representing Coast Guard Air Station Sitka.
Service members handed out candy to children lining the streets. The locals gawked and cheered at the rarified sight of so many troops in uniform marching.
At the culminating event of the week, service members and locals reenacted the transfer ceremony of Alaska from Russia to the United States.
The USARAK and Coast Guard color guards took center stage at the top of Castle Hill. The Russian flag was lowered, and the U.S. flag was raised in its place.
Jay Sweeney, portraying Army Maj. Gen. Lovell Rousseau, walked out to greet Ron Conklin, portraying Russian Commissioner Alexi Pestchouroff. Conklin handed Sweeney documents signifying everyone present was now standing on U.S. soil.
The USARAK Honor Guard fired a salute volley at the reading of every state and their admission to the Union. On calling the 49th state, reenactors portraying members of the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Regiment let loose with blank fire from their period firearms.
Lewin placed the day’s activities in perspective.
“We do consider ourselves an integral part of Alaska history,” the captain said. “So we’re very proud to represent the Coast Guard and a long line of heroes who have gone before us, and to try and represent them this day.”
Streff said he was glad to return to the place he grew up in the late 70s and early 80s.
“It’s great to come home,” he said. “It’s neat to see the changes in the city. It’s also great to work with the Coast Guard. The Alaska Army National Guard and the Coast Guard have great team work throughout Alaska.”
After 150 years of Americans enjoying the natural and cultural resources of Alaska, after 15 decades of providing a strategic platform
for projecting military power all over the world, Seward’s ‘folly’ is looking more like a coda to the secretary of state’s wisdom.