Before I get started, I want to make one thing clear. This episode is in no way an in-depth account of what happened in and around California during the Civil War. I chose this topic because I believe it is a subject that desperately needs to be discussed, particularly due to the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the reactions of certain people over the removal of monuments to white supremacists and oppression. If anything, this episode serves as an invitation to think critically about the events currently happening in the United States, and as an ask to do your own research, to learn more about the history of this country (including the not-great parts of it, which we oftentimes like to overlook). In fact, I encourage it.
Our story begins 14 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1846. California came under the control of the United States after the Bear Flag Revolt, where American settlers rebelled against the Mexican government that had control over California (that is the briefest of summaries and does not do the Bear Flag Revolt justice, but it deserves its own episode!). Two years later, in 1848, gold was discovered along the American River. This discovery, as we know, sent thousands of pioneers from the eastern regions of the United States flocking to California, seeking gold and a new life in the west. San Francisco’s population exploded from 1,000 residents to over 25,000 in just a few years. The discovery of gold, combined with the surge in population, made the United States government realize that San Francisco Bay probably needed some military protection.
The U.S. took over the former Mexican military installation Bateria de Yerba Buena in 1848 and established Point San Jose Military Reservation (today it’s known as Fort Mason). This site overlooks both the Bay and Alcatraz Island, so it was a pretty solid position for the U.S. military to be in. It wasn’t until 1851, after California was officially a state, that President Millard Fillmore established more military fortifications in the Bay, and allowed for the U.S. Army to take over the Presidio and the Castillo San Joaquin (now called Fort Point). The military had identified Alcatraz as primo defensive land in the late 1840s, but didn’t begin construction of the fort until 1853.
While the military was building up the defenses around San Francisco Bay, more and more settlers were packing up their lives and moving west in hopes of striking it rich. These settlers came from all over the established United States, and included both those who were pro- and anti-slavery. Many slave owners brought their slaves with them to the west.
And of course, the influx in population and the control the U.S. had over the territory of California meant that there was a push from both residents and Congress to admit the territory as a state in the Union. Now, remember, we’re 10 years out from the Civil War. England abolished slavery in 1833, and many abolitionists at the time were pushing for the United States to abolish the slave trade on American soil as well. Tensions in Congress were high, and each state admitted to the Union risked tipping the balance in favor of the slave-holding South, or the free states to the North.
Before California was admitted, the balance was even at 15-15. If the territory joined the Union, the balance of power would be lost, so Congress went about creating a series of compromises that would maintain a sense of fairness between the North and South. In 1850, California was admitted as the 31st state in the Union, as part of the….you guessed it, Compromise of 1850. The Southern states allowed for the admittance of California as a free state, as long as fugitive slave laws were stronger and better enforced, and Congress agreed not to interfere with interstate slave traffic in the South. In addition to California becoming a free state, the slave trade was abolished in Washington, D.C.
While on the surface, it seemed like California would be a new state free of slavery, in reality, that was in no way the case. As I previously mentioned, slaveholders had emigrated from the South to California with their slaves, and had no intention of parting with them. In 1852, there were approximately 300 African American slaves living in the state, mostly in the southern half. Free African Americans lived in San Francisco, Sacramento, and the northern half of the state. But California’s newly-written constitution failed to cover many of the specifics in regards to slavery, and so it remained an institution even though the state was admitted as a free state.
Shortly before California was admitted to the Union, the California legislature passed “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” This sounds like it was the passage of an act that would protect Native Americans, right? It did the exact opposite. This act allowed for the forcible removal of Native Americans from their tribal lands, stripped them of all rights, and allowed for them to be enslaved by the Anglo-Americans that had taken their land. By 1860, over 10,000 Native Americans were enslaved in the so-called free state of California – and the law was only repealed in 1937.
I wanted to point this out because I think it’s important that we recognize that not all history is going to be something you want to hear, or something you’re going to be proud of. We tend to think of California today as a very progressive state, but this wasn’t always the case. There’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the history of racism in California. The act for the government and protection of Indians was something I had never heard about until I started doing research for this episode, and I think it’s an important piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten, particularly as it pertains to the issue of slavery in the United States.
During the 1850s, the U.S. military began working to fortify San Francisco Bay. What is now Fort Point was once an adobe structure built by the Spanish called Castillo de San Joaquin that had been left to deteriorate after Mexican independence was won. Its location at the mouth of the Golden Gate made it ideal for military defense. The U.S. Army Corps began work on the multi-level casemated fortification in 1853. Fort Point has 7 foot-thick walls and its architecture is typical of Third System forts – apparently Fort Point is the only one of its kind on the West Coast (there were many on the East Coast).
I went to visit the other day (in the blazing heat wave), and it was so cool! Forts are always a little spooky because the casemates are super dark and everything echos weirdly, but this fort is literally underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, so you come out into the parade ground and look up, and there are the rafters for this massive bridge. While I was there, I learned that the fort was built so close to the water line specifically so cannonballs would ricochet off the water and hit enemy ships as close to the water line as possible – which would make them sink faster. Crazy!
At the same time, the Army began construction on Alcatraz Island. If you’ve seen the island, you know it has a very rugged terrain, and the buildings are perched high off the water. While the Army originally wanted to construct the fort on Alcatraz in the same style as Fort Point (close to the water line), they recognized the strategic advantages of working with the existing landscape. Workers created steep walls around the island (impossible to invade and escape), and cannons were placed facing north, south, and west. And, fun fact, the lighthouse on Alcatraz was the first built on the Pacific Coast! I’ve only been to Alcatraz once, the first time I ever visited California, and I don’t really remember much about that visit. What I do remember focused more on the federal penitentiary that the fort eventually became, but it was also used as a prison before, during, and after the Civil War.
The cause of the Civil War is oftentimes attributed to the issue of states rights, but we know that this is really a cover for what the war was really about: the issue of slavery. But I found an interesting piece of information while researching, which detailed how, in 1859, California petitioned the federal government to divide into 2 states (a northern state and a southern state), but Congress said no. This decision by Congress pushed many Californians to support secession from the Union over the issue of states’ rights. Now, there were also many slaveholders living in Southern California, so it’s clear that slavery was still at the heart of Confederate support in the state, but I thought that was an interesting piece of information to share.
The Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina; but California didn’t learn of the news for 12 days because of the extreme distance between it and the rest of the Union. That distance, however, didn’t mean that California sat on the sidelines – quite the contrary.
The war sparked the need for California gold more than ever – it helped the Union deal with inflation, backed the currency, and really overall played a substantial role in funding the Union throughout the war (without California gold, the outcome could have been very different). Because of how valuable California gold was, the military installations along San Francisco Bay were reinforced, as the Union army was wary of the Confederacy joining forces with Great Britain to attack San Francisco. The Confederacy would have also benefited from Southern California’s open harbors, as the Union had blockaded every harbor along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
In northern cities such as San Francisco, there were pro-Union rallies and thousands of men clamored to join volunteer regiments to help fight to keep the Union together. As I mentioned earlier, the southern portion of California was home to many former southerners, many of whom were still slaveholders — and they held many of the same views and opinions as the Confederacy. Some southern Californians supported secession from the Union, and formed groups to show their sympathies, including the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, and a few chapters of the Knights of the Golden Circle.
California State Parks has a small online exhibit about California during the Civil War, and one of the images they have up is a scan of a stereo card that would be viewed in a stereoscope. The image is called “The White Slave”, and depicts a well-dressed African American man standing, having his shoes shined by a kneeling white boy. On the wall behind the shoeshine is a poster that reads “Tonight: The White Slave!” It depicts the fear of white men becoming second-class citizens to their former slaves – this sentiment still exists in the United States today, and it’s really unfortunate and disgusting.
While no battles took place on California soil during the Civil War, plenty of Californians were involved in the fight. In September of 1861, Oregon Senator Edward Baker, who had previously lived in San Francisco and Sacramento, went to Philadelphia to fund and command what became known as the California Brigade – a group of California soldiers that marched into battle under the Pennsylvania flag.
That same year, a group of eastern-born Californians led by Massachusetts-born James Sewall Reed, approached Massachusetts governor John Andrew with a proposal: to send 100 California cavalrymen to fight for Massachusetts. Governor Andrew agreed, under the condition that Reed and his men equip themselves and fund their own travel. Nicknamed the “California 100,” company A of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry arrived and organized at Camp Meigs in Readville, MA (really close to where my dad lives!) and was raised in December 1862. Soon after, companies E, F, L, and M were raised in California, and together they became known as the “California Battalion”.
The California 100 marched to Virginia and was involved in raids throughout the state. Often, they would clash with Confederate Major John Mosby’s 43rd Virginia Cavalry, which was known as being a guerrilla battalion responsible for lightning attacks on Union supply lines. However the California 100 kept Mosby’s cavalry at bay, and spent a good deal of their time in the war in Virginia, protecting Union supplies and quashing Confederate attacks throughout the state.
In July 1863, the California Brigade (this is the group of Californians serving in Pennsylvania) took part in Pickett’s Charge, a critical moment on last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The California Brigade was charged with protecting the Angle, which was the middle of the Union line. The California 1st (now called the Pennsylvania 71st) was forced to retreat, but the California 2nd and 3rd (Pennsylvania 69th and 72nd) held their positions, and were instrumental in holding off the Confederate attack. The brigade managed to hold back General Armistead’s charge, and blocked further Confederate advances on the Union line.
In 1864, the California Battalion joined General Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, and was part of the Third Battle of Winchester, the Battle of Tom’s Brook, and the Battle of Cedar Creek, which was the last time the Confederate army made any significant advances on the Union line towards Washington D.C.and helped win Abraham Lincoln re-election.
Meanwhile, back in the west, Californians helped keep the Confederate advances into Arizona and New Mexico at bay. In the summer of 1861, Confederate units had struck into Arizona territory, with the goal of taking not only the ports, but the mineral and land resources of Southern California. Soon after, Captain Winfield Hancock and Major James Carleton of the Union Army erected Camp Drum, half a mile inland from the harbor, in Los Angeles (now Wilmington). In 1862, Major Carlton rode out with the California Column to engage with Confederate forces, with the goal of driving the out of the Arizona Territory. The California Column marched over 2000 miles in the middle of the summer, in full wool uniforms, and didn’t lose a single man (crazy!). Along the way, the Union army encountered the Confederates at Picacho Pass, northwest of present-day Tuscon, AZ. This skirmish is considered to be the westernmost battle of the Civil War.
These are all examples of how Californians committed themselves to the Union cause during the war, but I had a surprisingly difficult time finding examples of Confederate Californian stories. The one that I did manage to find was about the Partisan Rangers, led by Confederate sympathizer Rufus Ingram. In 1864 he was commissioned as a Confederate captain, and recruited members in Southern California, with the aim of helping to fund the Confederate cause. Ingram and his Partisan Rangers robbed stagecoaches throughout the state of California, sending money back to the Confederate Army. In the Bullion Bend robbery, Ingram managed to take $40,000 from a stagecoach in Placerville, only to be apprehended by the Santa Clara County sheriff soon afterwards.
When the war ended in 1865, the news made it to California much quicker than at the outbreak of the war, due to the extension and improvements on the telegraph system. Many of the soldiers that had served in the Union army returned home to California. In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, celebrating Confederate sympathizers were imprisoned at Alcatraz, while the city of San Francisco went into full mourning.
As I said at the top of the episode, this is by no means an exhaustive piece on the history of the Civil War as it relates to California. It is, at best, a cursory glance, a toe in the water of a very deep pool. But as I mentioned, I want to encourage you to take it as an invitation to do your own research and learn more about this period in our nation’s history, and how it affects our country to this day.
That’s going to do it for this episode of A Noble Earthquake. Thanks again for joining me. If you have any comments or questions, or feel that I didn’t address something as well as I could have in this episode, please please PLEASE leave me a comment on Facebook, tweet me, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org – comments and feedback are the only way I can really improve this show!
Big shout out to the National Park Service and the Civil War Trust for providing much of the research for this episode. Many Civil War sites throughout the country are maintained by the National Park Service as National Historic Sites, I encourage all of you listening to visit some in your area.
Thanks again to Marcos Bolanos for the intro and outro music for the podcast, and once again, thank you for joining me!
– National Park Service: California in the Civil War; Fort Point; Civil War at Fort Mason; Civil War at Alcatraz
– Civil War Trust: 10 Facts About California During the Civil War; From Gold Rush to Cavalry Charge; John Singleton Mosby
– California State Parks: The Civil War in California; California’s Struggle with Slavery
– The Drum Barracks Museum: California’s Role in the Civil War; The California Column
– The New York Times: What Did You Do In the Civil War, California?