With the defeat of Mexico in 1847, California and other Mexican territories were ceded to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. At the time the nation was divided equally between 13 free states and 13 slave states. With the addition of vast new, agriculturally-rich territories, including California, the debate over slavery intensified. California itself was divided over the issue, as a large number of slave-owning Southerners had travelled to California to seek their fortunes in the 1849 Gold Rush, and many brought their slaves.
Southerners residing in California accounted for a substantial portion of the population. Following the Gold Rush of 1849 California was settled primarily by Midwestern and Southern farmers, miners and businessmen. In 1860 California had a population of some 430,000. About 130,000 were voters. Of them 50,000 were Northern born, 30,000 Southern born, and another 50,000 were foreign born, mostly Irish, British, and German. Thus, Southerners, most of whom were Confederate sympathizers, exercised a good deal of influence in the state. Southern Democrats sympathetic to secession were in the majority in Southern California and Tulare County, and were in large numbers in San Joaquin, Santa Clara, Monterey, and San Francisco counties.
In October 1849, the first California Constitution Convention was held. One of the most heated debates of the Convention was on the status of slavery in the new state. While some Southerners were staunchly in favor of giving official sanction to slavery in California, Northern abolitionists and Anglo-American miners who did not want competition from the slave-holders in the gold fields were well-represented at the convention. The chairman of the convention was William Gwin a slaveholder from Tennessee. Gwin, however, was much more interested in gaining control of the California Democratic Party than he was in favoring either side of the debate. To the later chagrin of his fellow Southern members of Congress, he did not write the institution of slavery into the 1849 Constitution. The Compromise of 1850 later permitted California to be admitted to the Union as a free state. Gwin and war hero/abolitionist John C. Frémont became California’s first Senators.
Following California’s admission to the Union, Californios (Spanish-speaking Catholic people of all races born in California before 1848) were dissatisfied with inequitable taxes and land laws and pro-slavery Southerners in lightly populated, rural Southern California. In the 1850s this group attempted to achieve separate statehood or territorial status from Northern California. The last and most successful attempt was the Pico Act of 1859 which was passed by the California State Legislature, signed by the State governor John B. Weller and was approved overwhelmingly by voters in the proposed Territory of Colorado. It was then sent to Washington with a strong advocate in Senator Milton Latham. However the secession crisis following the election of Lincoln in 1860 led to the proposal never coming to a vote.
California was, in many ways, a border state. Both the California State Senate and the State Assembly was decidedly Democrat. Moreover, the governor, John Downey, was a Democrat, but a strong pro-Union supporter. During the secession crisis following Lincoln’s election, Federal troops were under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston, in Benicia, headquarters of the Department of the Pacific. General Johnston strongly believed in the Southern right to secede but regretted that it was occurring. A group of Southern sympathizers in the state made plans to secede with Oregon to form a “Pacific Republic”. The success of their plans rested on the cooperation of General Johnston. Johnston met with some of these Southern men, but before they could propose anything to him he told them that he had heard rumors of an attempt to seize the San Francisco forts and arsenal at Benicia, that he had prepared for that and would defend the facilities under his command with all his resources and to the last drop of his blood. He told them to tell this to their Southern friends. Deprived of his aid the plans for California and Oregon to secede from the United States never came to fruition. Meanwhile Union men feared Johnston would aid such a plot and communicated their fears to Washington asking for his replacement. Brig. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner was soon sent west via Panama to replace Johnston in March 1861. Johnston resigned his commission on April 9, and after Sumner arrived on April 25 turned over his command and moved to Los Angeles.
In early 1861, several Volunteer Companies of the California Militia had disbanded because of divided loyalties and new pro-Union ones were sworn in across the state under the supervision of County sheriffs and judges. Many of these units saw no action but some were to form the companies of the earliest California Volunteer regiments. Others like the Petaluma Guard and Emmet Rifles in Sonoma County suppressed a secessionist disturbance in Healdsburg, in 1862. Union commanders relied on the San Bernardino Mounted Rifles and their Captain Clarence E. Bennett for intelligence and help to hold the pro-Southern San Bernardino County for the Union in late 1861 as Federal troops were being withdrawn and replaced by California Volunteers.
Notable as the only pro-Southern militia unit, the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles was organized on March 7, 1861, in Los Angeles County. It included more than a few Californios in its leadership and its ranks, including the County Sheriff Tomas Avila Sanchez. Its leader was one of his Undersheriffs Alonzo Ridley and included several of his deputies. A. J. King, another Undersheriff of Los Angeles County (and former member of the earlier “Monte Rangers”), and other influential men in El Monte, formed another secessionist militia, the Monte Mounted Rifles on March 23, 1861. However, A. J. King soon ran afoul of Federal authorities. According to the Sacramento Union of April 30, 1861, King was brought before Colonel Carleton and was made to take an oath of allegiance to the Union and was then released. On April 26, 1861, the Monte Mounted Rifles had asked Governor Downey for arms. The governor sent the arms, but army officers at San Pedro held them up, preventing the activation of the Monte Mounted Rifles.
On March 28, 1861, the newly formed Arizona Territory voted to separate from New Mexico Territory and join the Confederacy. This had increased Union officials’ fears of a secessionist design to separate Southern California from the state and join the Confederacy. This fear was based on the demonstrated desire for separation in the vote for the Pico Act, the strength of secessionists in the area and their declared intentions and activities, especially in forming militia companies.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Southern California secession was still a possibility as the populace was largely in favor of it. Militias with secessionist sympathies had been formed, and Bear Flags, the banner of the Bear Flag Revolt, had been flown for several months by secessionists in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. After word of the Battle of Fort Sumter reached California, there were public demonstrations by secessionists. However secession quickly became impossible when three companies of Federal cavalry were moved from Fort Mojave and Fort Tejon into Los Angeles in May and June 1861. Around this time local Union authorities grew suspicious of Albert Sidney Johnson and issued a warrant for his arrest. Johnson joined the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles as a private and left Warner’s Ranch on May 27 in their journey across the southwestern deserts to Texas, crossing the Colorado River into the Confederate Territory of Arizona, on July 4, 1861. The Los Angeles Mounted Rifles disbanded and members joined the Confederate Army when they reached the Arizona Territorial capital of Mesilla (now in New Mexico). Like other pro-Confederates leaving California for the Confederacy, the volunteers joined up principally with Texas regiments. General Johnston joined the fight in the east as a general with the Confederacy and was later killed leading their army at the Battle of Shiloh.
The only Confederate flag captured in California during the Civil War took place on July 4, 1861, in Sacramento. During Independence Day celebrations, secessionist Major J. P. Gillis celebrated the independence of the United States from Britain as well as the southern states from the Union. He unfurled a Confederate flag of his own design and proceeded to march down the street to both the applause and jeers of onlookers. Jack Biderman and Curtis Clark, enraged by Gillis’ actions, accosted him and “captured” the flag. The flag itself is based on the first Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars. However, the canton contains seventeen stars rather than the Confederate’s seven. Because the flag was captured by Jack Biderman, it is often also referred to as the “Biderman Flag”.
As he was recalling Federal troops to the east, on July 24, 1861, the Secretary of War called on Governor John G. Downey to furnish one regiment of infantry and five companies of cavalry to guard the overland mail route from Carson City to Salt Lake City. Three weeks later four more regiments of infantry and a regiment of cavalry were requested. All of these were volunteer units recruited and organized in the northern part of the state, around the San Francisco Bay region and the mining camps; few recruits came from Southern California. These volunteers replaced the regular troops transferred to the east before the end of 1861.
Charged with all the supervision of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Santa Barbara Counties, on August 14, 1861, Major William Scott Ketchum steamed from San Francisco to San Pedro and made a rapid march to encamp near San Bernardino on August 26 and with Companies D and G of the 4th Infantry Regiment later reinforced at the beginning of September by a detachment of ninety First U.S. Dragoons and a howitzer. Except for frequent sniping at his camp, Ketchum’s garrison stifled any secessionist uprising from Belleville and a show of force by the Dragoons in the streets of San Bernardino at the end of election day quelled a secessionist political demonstration during the September gubernatorial elections in San Bernardino County.
California is credited with providing 15,725 volunteers for the Union, plus five companies for the Massachusetts Cavalry and eight for the Washington Territory Infantry. Nevada provided 159 men for the California total and 1,158 for her own volunteer units. New Mexico sent an estimated 3,500 men to the war. Arizona Guards were formed under the Confederate occupation and were replaced by Arizona Rangers when the Union reestablished itself in the territory.
War Between the States events in California
September 7, 1861: Following the elections there was a gunfight resulting from a robbery of travelers to Bear Valley and Holcomb Valley on the pack trail in the Upper Santa Ana Canyon where the Santa Ana River runs out of the San Bernardino Mountains. It was suspected that secessionists had been the culprits, doing the robbery as part of a larger plan of robberies in the valleys of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties. However, no such plan materialized.
November 29, 1861: At Minter Ranch, in the hills just south and west of the San Jose Valley, where Warner’s Ranch and the military post of Camp Wright was located. Dan Showalter’s party of secessionists were attempting to avoid the post and make their way across the desert to join the Confederate Army in Texas. They were pursued from Temecula by a Volunteer Cavalry patrol from the camp, intercepted and captured without shots being fired. Later after being imprisoned at Fort Yuma, Showalter and the others were released after swearing loyalty to the Union, but they made their way to the Confederacy later.
June 24, 1862: Camp Babbitt is established by two companies of the 2nd California Cavalry, one mile from the town of Visalia, Tulare County, the post was intended to maintain order in the area where rabid pro Confederate partisans were creating unrest.
March 15 1863: Asbury Harpending, after traveling secretly to Richmond to obtain a letter of marque, joined with other California members of the Knights of the Golden Circle in San Francisco to outfit the schooner J. M. Chapman as a Confederate privateer in San Francisco Bay. Their object was to raid commerce on the Pacific coast carrying gold and silver shipments, to capture and carry it back to support the Confederacy. Their attempt was detected and they were seized on March 15, during the night of their intended departure by the USS Cyane, revenue officers and San Francisco police.
January 2, 1864: Company C of the 4th Infantry, California Volunteers, commanded by Captain B. R. West, occupied the island of Santa Catalina. The Army had established the post on the island with the idea of converting it into a reservation for Indians. However, when the proposal was abandoned and so was the post.
In early 1864: Rufus Henry Ingram, formerly with Quantrill’s Raiders, arrived in Santa Clara County and with Tom Poole (formerly a member of the crew of the J. M. Chapman) and organized local Knights of the Golden Circle and commanded them in what became known as Captain Ingram’s Partisan Rangers. In the Bullion Bend Robbery they robbed two stagecoaches near Placerville of their silver and gold, leaving a letter explaining they were not bandits but carrying out a military operation to raise funds for the Confederacy.
Also in early 1864: secessionist Judge George Gordon Belt, a rancher and a former Alcalde in Stockton, organized a group of partisan rangers including John Mason and “Jim Henry” and sent them out to recruit more men and pillage the property of Union men in the countryside. For the next two years the Mason Henry Gang, as they became known, posed as Confederate partisan rangers but acted as outlaws, committing robberies, thefts and murders in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Santa Cruz County, Monterey County, Santa Clara County, and in counties of Southern California. However, despite all these efforts no captured gold was sent to the Confederacy.
In spring of 1864: the Confederate navy ordered Captain Thomas Egenton Hogg and his command to take passage on board a coastal steamer in Panama City, seize her on the high seas, arm her and attack the Pacific Mail steamers and the whalers in the North Pacific. In Havana, the American consul, Thomas Savage, learned about this conspiracy, and notified Rear Admiral George F. Pearson at Panama City. The Admiral had the passengers boarding the steamers at Panama City watched and when Hogg’s command was found aboard the Panama Railroad steamer Salvador, a force from the USS Lancaster arrested them and brought them to San Francisco. Tried by a military commission, they were sentenced to be hanged, but General Irvin McDowell commuted their sentences. To prevent any further attempts to seize Pacific coast shipping, General McDowell ordered each passenger on board American merchant steamers to surrender all weapons when boarding the ship and every passenger and his baggage was searched. All officers were armed for the protection of their ships.
Five places to visit War Between the States History in California
The Drum Barracks: Also known as Camp Drum and the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, is the last remaining original American Civil War era military facility in the Los Angeles area. Located in the Wilmington section of Los Angeles, near the Port of Los Angeles, it has been designated as a California Historic Landmark, a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1987, it has been operated as a Civil War museum that is open to the public. http://www.drumbarracks.org/
Fort Tejon State Historical Park: Fort Tejon is located in the Grapevine Canyon, the main route between California’s great central valley and Southern California. The fort was established to protect and control the Indians who were living on the Sebastian Indian Reservation, and to protect both the Indians and white settlers from raids by the Paiutes, Chemeheui, Mojave, and other Indian groups of the desert regions to the south east. Fort Tejon was first garrisoned by the United States Army on August 10, 1854 and was abandoned ten years later on September 11, 1864. There are restored adobes from the original fort and the park’s museum features exhibits on army life and local history. The park also has a number of beautiful 400 year-old valley oak trees. http://www.forttejon.org/
Benicia Arsenal: This base is known, in part, for an experiment with the military applications of, well, camels (both one-hump and two). After nine years, the camels were sold off during the Civil War, although it’s not clear if the sale had anything to do with the original purchaser – former U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. It was also a staging ground for western troops headed for Civil War battles. The Camel Barn is now a museum and the Arsenal is now home to dozens of artist studios and arts groups. The Arsenal is at Army Point and Interstate 680 in Benicia; the Benicia Historical Museum (Camel Barn) is at 2024 Camel Road. http://www.beniciahistoricalmuseum.org/
Downtown Placerville: Sierra foothills gold and silver were fuel for the Union Army engine, a fact not lost on Thomas Bell Poole, who led a Confederate-leaning crew in the Bullion Bend Robbery in El Dorado County in June 1864 – and was promptly caught and hanged in downtown Placerville. Poole got the rope for the killing of a local deputy more than for the robbery of $40,000 in silver – for which he left a signed receipt. Placerville (formerly Hangtown) still has plenty of Civil War and Gold Rush-era vibes. Highway 50, 45 miles east of Sacramento. http://www.placerville-downtown.org/
Civil War Memorial Grove: When this site near the Capitol building in Sacramento was dedicated in 1897, the trees imported from battlefields – Five Forks, Harpers Ferry, Manassas, Savannah, Vicksburg and Yellow Tavern, as well as from Appomattox – were mere saplings. Only three members of the grove are originals (others have been replaced), but the plaque is still clear about remembering “those who gave up their lives that their country might live.” Capitol Park, about 200 feet southeast of the Capitol, Sacramento. http://capitolmuseum.ca.gov