California’s Role in the Civil War?

By Julian Stern

When we think of the War between the States, we immediately think of the North and the South. The West, specifically California is usually not what we imagine when we think of the conflict that spanned from 1861 to 1865. It is not our fault that we are unaware of our State’s involvement, as many historians and text books overlook this part of our history. Generally, when historians speak of the West in regards to the Civil War, they mean no farther than the Mississippi River. No major battles took place in the Far West, but multiple attempts were made by Confederate armies to gain control of the territories and states west of the Mississippi. For example, Confederate forces, supported by over 800 Cherokee Indians, tried twice to seize control of the border state of Missouri by attacking the federal arsenal in St. Louis. Some Confederate detachments ventured even further west. In 1861, a group of Confederates were turned back as they headed to Colorado and Union forces defeated Confederate forces at Pichaca Pass in Arizona. The events that occurred in California may surprise you.

Though California was officially a member of the Union and supported President Lincoln in both the elections of 1860 and 1864, citizens were very divided. As a matter of fact, Los Angeles was a hotbed of Confederate activity and Confederate sympathizers, as were Vasalia, Sacramento, and Santa Rosa. None of these citizens owned slaves, but they did subscribe to the rebels crusade for states’ rights and a federal government of limited power. This sentiment was so strong that there were multiple attempts at secession. When the state legislature thwarted the idea of secession, many Southern Californians demanded that they should be free to secede from the state of California. In effect separating the state, Northern California would remain a member of the United States of America and Southern California would become a member of the Confederate States of America. Again, this request was rejected by the State legislature.

The Confederate sympathizers were taken very seriously. The Union knew that California was critical because of its bountiful natural resources and its close proximity to Mexico.  Action to quell pro-Confederate sentiment was swift. As word of the Battle of the Fort Sumter reached Californians, public demonstrations by secessionists occurred throughout California. These demonstrations were cut short when three companies of the Federal Calvary were moved into Los Angeles from Fort Mojave and Fort Tejon in May and June of 1861. But the presence of Union troops didn’t suppress all dissent. In 1865, there was a small battle that occurred in Sonoma County. A pro-Union group heading north from Petaluma came across a pro-Confederate group heading south from Santa Rosa. The damage was minimal, but the conflict still noteworthy.

The severity of possible rebellion in Los Angeles was so great that Phineas Banning (founder of the Port of Los Angeles and a die-hard Unionist) paid to have a Union base constructed steps from his mansion, in what is today known as Banning. A portion of this is still standing today. What is left is known as the Drum Barracks and it is operated by the Banning War Museum.

banning house

Those who were eager for the fray, left California for the East. Large numbers of men left to support the North. Some of these groups were very successful and became famous, such as the “California 100” regiment. The Union men had a much easier time getting east then their Confederate counterparts did, as they had set routes and designated outposts to aid them. There were three routes for Confederates to head east. Some set out across the desert to reach Texas. The Los Angeles Mounted Rifles did this; they left Los Angeles May 27, 1861, crossed the Mojave and Senora Deserts, evading Union patrols and hostile Indians and reached Arizona on July 4, 1861. They then slit up and headed to Texas. Other California Confederates traveled by sea. Some sailed to the Panama Isthmus, trekked across the mountainous jungle and boarded a ship on the other side. Still others sailed around Cape Horn to reach the battle fields.

California produced some of the most effective spies of the conflict. The most notable were Lucy Coit, Lily Hitchock and Rose Greenhow of San Francisco . All gathered intelligence for the South. Rose Greenhow is remembered for her unusual demise. Mrs. Greenhow drowned while smuggling gold from Europe into the south. Californians who served the Union during the Civil War were recognized for their service and often used it to gain prominence in business and politics. Likewise, California rebels, did gain positions of prominence in California, but their service to the CSA is largely forgotten. We do know David S. Terry became Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Erksine Thom was mayor of Los Angeles and a state Senator, Robert S. Garnett, the designer of the State Seal of California, became a Confederate General.

When events occur, such as the Civil War, that are so complex, with multiple facets, it is easy to overlook important details. The lack of information about California and the Civil War and California Confederates may be attributed to this. It is easier to say, we were all united, that everyone agreed, that is was a fight of right against wrong, when in fact, we were very much divided , fighting a war for many complex reasons. So next time you read a history book, dig deeper, what you find may surprise you.