The Civil War Comes to California

As was mentioned in a post last week, Americans will be marking the 150th anniversaries of the great events of the Civil War over the next four years.  Many of the battles, commanders and regiments of that conflict have become legends, and the narrative of a nation split apart, brother fighting against brother, remains compelling.  However, because these events loom so large in our national memory, it is easy to forget that beyond the legends the life of the nation went on.

View of San Francisco, California, ca. 1855. Whole plate daguerreotype. (click to enlarge) The Society owns a set of three whole plates depicting early San Francisco including this view of the harbor, a view of the hills with Tehama Market and a view of a residential area of the city.

California, for example, experienced the war in a different way from most of the Unites States.  Still a frontier state in 1861, Californians were removed by both time and distance from the conflict raging in the east.  The San Francisco Bulletin, a newspaper of the time, did not print the news of Lincoln’s election until November 14th 1860, one week after the election was held.  During the secession crisis and the early years of the war, news generally took a week or two to reach California from the east coast, because the telegraph did not yet extend across the continent and the remaining distances had to be covered by riders of the pony express.

Despite the distance, Californians were not content to remain on the sidelines of the conflict.  San Francisco and most of northern California were pro union, especially after the Confederate states opened fire on Fort Sumter.  This sentiment is echoed in an article in the Bulletin of May 6, 1861 which advertises a lecture to be given called “The Love of One’s Country.” It suggests that a true patriot cannot sit idly by while the seceding states tear “limb after limb” from the “bleeding body” of the nation.

Also like many others across the nation, the opinion makers of California did not foresee the terrible war that was to come.  On the same day news of Lincoln’s election reached San Francisco, an editorial in the Bulletin predicted the secession crisis would blow over.  Even once it became clear that it would not, the editor was not concerned because in his opinion “the cotton states were powerless.”

Despite the union sentiment in the north of the state, California did not send its volunteer regiments east to fight in the well-known campaigns that define our image of the war.  Instead, it had its own secession crisis to deal with.  In southern California, many settlers from the southern states and Spanish speakers who resented US control, which was less than two decades old, sought to form a new state and either join the Confederacy or declare outright independence.  California troops took up the duties of regular army troops who went east to fight and kept the “secession element,” as the Bulletin labeled it, at bay, while also guarding the western forts, which the regular troops had vacated, against Native American attacks.  Furthermore, California’s volunteers were instrumental in defeating a confederate invasion of modern New Mexico and Arizona when, on May 20th 1862, they forced Southern troops to evacuate the town, causing the Bulletin to gleefully declare: “Tucson Occupied by the Federals!” California, though it is now largely forgotten, fought its own small war within the war.

2 thoughts on “The Civil War Comes to California

  1. Jonathan Lane

    While largely correct, the entry fails to acknowledge the 100 or so members of the California cavalry who came east and joined up with the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Similarly, the 32nd New York infantry was known to have large numbers of men from the West Coast and their colonel was from California. Doubtless there are similar examples for the Confederacy.

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