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California and the Civil War

– Historical Themes

This page is dedicated to information about California's experience of the Civil War – both military and civil. Here are some of the themes presented in the exhibit, multimedia presentation, and DVD.

Please join us again as we add more stories from the Golden State's improbable past.

The Pivotal Election of 1860

The presidential election of 1860 featured four candidates, chosen largely along sectional lines. This excerpt from our multimedia presentation, California and the Civil War, explains this critical election and shows how it split the Union. Special emphasis on California's divided political allegiance.

General Johnston's Choice

Unionists' concerns were heightened by the fact that General Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the US Army on the Pacific Coast. Johnston was a Southerner, with strong ties to the State of Texas. When Texas seceded in the spring of 1861, Johnston was in a position to hand over the defenses of the Pacific Coast to Southern sympathizers. He was also commanded the federal arsenals, which contained weapons for 75,000 men. California's fate – peace or insurrection – depended on Johnston's loyalty to the oath he had taken as a US officer.

At the start of the war, California's congressional delegation was composed of members of the "chivalry," the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party that wanted to bind the state to the South. Southern President Jefferson Davis was assured that the Pacific Coast would give a great deal of trouble to the Union – if not secede entirely.

Fort Point, San Francisco

This installation, along with Fort Alcatraz, were the keys to the defense of the San Francisco Bay.

Unionists' suspicions about Johnston were heard in Washington by the incoming Lincoln administration, who promptly sent out General Edwin V. Sumner, a rock-ribbed New Englander, to replace Johnston as commander on the Pacific Coast. Johnston did not know he had been superseded. Hearing that Texas had seceded, Johnston resigned before learning of Sumner's appointment.

Despite Republican fears, Johnston's tenure in command was exemplary, from the moment he assumed command until Sumner took over. Once relieved, Johnston traveled south to Los Angeles. He was 58 and ready to retire after a lifetime of service.

In the end, though, Johnston couldn't accept civilian life while his adopted state of Texas was at war. Johnston enlisted as a private in a local Secesh militia group, the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, and joined them in a desperate journey across the Southwest in June and July 1861.

Johnston died on April 6, 1862, while leading his men at the Battle of Shiloh.

Crossing the Southwest

Johnston led the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles on an 800-mile journey from California to Texas, dodging Federal patrols and Chiricahua Apaches along the way. His son later characterized the journey:

The route lay through one of the hottest regions in the world, where the thermometer often marked over 120 degrees in the shade, when shade could be found...

Thomas Starr King – the man who saved California for the Union

 

In the turmoil that accompanied the unraveling of the Union in early 1861, California's course was very much up in the air. The 1859 elections had been a triumph for the "Chivalry," the pro-slavery Democrats who sided with the South. But the rift in Democratic ranks widened dramatically after the infamous Broderick-Terry duel, in which California's pro-slavery Chief Justice shot and killed the state's Free-Soil US Senator in a struggle for leadership in the party. The young Republican Party was positioned to harness pro-Union sentiment in the Golden State, but the party's most able orator, Edward Baker, had just departed for Oregon to follow his political star and become that state's US Senator.

 

 

Into this tumult and uncertainty stepped the Reverend Thomas Starr King, a 5' 2," 120-pound dynamo who had perfected his public speaking skills during his years on the Lyceum lecture circuit back East. King was an charismatic orator whose graceful good humor and eloquence won applause as he criss-crossed the state, speaking out for the Union.  So successful were King's efforts that Abraham Lincoln dubbed him "the man who saved California for the Union."

As loyal control of the state government grew more secure, King turned to raising funds to support the United States Sanitary Commission, the foremost soldier's aid society in the North. The USSC, or "Sanitary," as it was called, provided the support for wounded soldiers and their families that the federal government was ill-equipped to offer. Under King's leadership, California raised a quarter of all the funds that supported the Sanitary's efforts.

King's unwavering commitment to his causes came at a cost. His health had never been strong, and he refused to moderate his crushing schedule. In March 1864, Starr King fell ill with diphtheria and then contracted pneumonia.  He died at age 39, having literally worked himself to death in the cause of his faith and country.

 

Thomas Starr King addressing a crowd on Market Street in San Francisco

The banners display quotes from Daniel Webster's famous defense of the Union on the floor of the Senate.

Asbury Harpending and the Chapman Affair

 

Asbury Harpending was an aristocratic young Kentuckian who had already lived a lifetime's worth of adventures when the Civil War broke out. He had achieved great success in the Northern Mines of California and knew the value to the Union government of the massive gold shipments that sailed from San Francisco to New York.

He secured a letter of marque from Jefferson Davis, authorizing a bold privateering scheme on the Pacific Coast. Harpending and his confederates purchased a schooner named the J.M. Chapman and filled her hold with crates of guns and a band of partisans.

 

 

Pacific Mail steamships laden with gold were Harpending's targets.

Individual vessels often carried over a million dollars.

 

At the eleventh hour, the plot was foiled by San Francisco's famous detective Isaiah Lees. Marines from the US sloop of war Cyane boarded the Chapman and captured the conspirators. Harpending was sentenced to ten years in prison, but benefited from a general pardon after ten months. He became a reconciled U.S. citizen after the war.

Divided California?

Before the Civil War, many Southern Californians were keen for a division of the state. A political coalition of Californios and Southern sympathizers passed the Pico Act of 1859, a scheme to split California at the 36th parallel and create a slave-holding territory out of the six southernmost counties. The Pico Act was in Washington awaiting ratification when the Secession Crisis hit and many Southern senators and representatives quit the federal capital and returned to their states.

The Knights of the Golden Circle

This organization was formed before the war to support Southern ideology and expansionism. It functioned as a fifth column in California and the Mid-West during the war.

As the Knights were a highly secretive organization, it is unlikely we will ever know their true numbers.

General Sumner, who succeeded General Johnston as commander on the West Coast, stated that "the secession party in this state numbers about 32,000 men and they are very restless and zealous, which gives them great influence."

For more about Rev. Thomas Starr King

David Briggs provides a biographical sketch of the minster whom Abraham Lincoln dubbed, "The man who saved California for the Union!"

A Partisan Looks Back

In 1872, Harpending became embroiled in "The Great Diamond Hoax," one of the most spectacular swindles in the history of the West. He later wrote a book modestly entitled: The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Episodes in the Life of Asbury Harpending - An Epic of Early California.

It is a wonderfully-written tale, exonerating Harpending of all wrong-doing. It also provides fascinating insight into the attempts of Southern partisans to bring California into the war on the Confederate side. Harpending's accuracy is still open to debate.

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