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Civil War: How Southern California Tried to Split from Northern California

Civil War veterans take part in a 1935 Memorial Day ceremony inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Courtesy Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
Civil War veterans take part in a 1935 Memorial Day ceremony inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Courtesy Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

One hundred fifty years ago this week, a dispute over a federal fort located in the seceded state of South Carolina erupted into the Civil War. That war would soon engulf much of the nation in armed conflict, claiming the lives of over 600,000 soldiers. While distant Los Angeles, separated from the rest of the nation by long sea voyages or arduous overland treks, was largely spared from the horrors of war, many Southern Californians may not be aware of how close the region came to provoking its own secessionist conflict.

At the time, Southern California lacked a major population center; Los Angeles was then a town of less than 5,000 people. The region's sparse population largely consisted of recent arrivals from the rest of the United States, including many from the South, and Californios from the state's Mexican era, some of them dissatisfied with American rule and still harboring painful memories of the state's conquest only fifteen years prior.

Andrés Pico. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.
Andrés Pico. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

California entered the Union in 1850, but throughout its first decade of statehood many Southern Californians agitated for a split from the northern (and more populous) part of the state. They nearly succeeded.

In 1859, California State Assemblyman Andrés Pico, a Californio who had commanded the Mexican forces against the U.S. Army in 1846 at the Battle of San Pasqual, introduced a bill that would split California in two. Under Pico's proposal, the northern part of the state would remain California, while the state's five southernmost counties—Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo—would be reconstituted as a federally-administered territory and named after the Colorado River. (Present-day Colorado did not get its name until 1861.)

Both houses of the California legislature passed the bill, which was then signed by Governor John Weller, and approved in a referendum by two-thirds of voters in the affected counties. It was then sent to the federal capital, where it received a chilly reception; racked by sectional tensions, Congress and President James Buchanan declined to take action on the proposal.

Tomas A. Sanchez, L.A. county sheriff and founding lieutenant of the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a Confederate militia unit. Courtesy of the USC Libraries' California Historical Society Collection
Tomas A. Sanchez, L.A. county sheriff and founding lieutenant of the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a Confederate militia unit. Courtesy of the USC Libraries' California Historical Society Collection

After several Southern states, led by South Carolina, left the Union and organized themselves as the Confederate States of America, Southern California secessionists took matters into their own hands and formed the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles. This secessionist militia counted several prominent Angeleños among its backers and even relied upon the service of the Los Angeles County Sheriff, Tomas Avila Sanchez, as one of its founding lieutenants.

Union authorities were alarmed. The commander of Union forces in California, Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston, was a known Southern sympathizer who would eventually resign his commission and join the Confederate Army. Johnston's replacement, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, later wrote to his superiors at the War Department about Los Angeles:

There is more danger of disaffection at this place than any other in the State. There are a number of influential men there who are decided Secessionists, and if we should have any difficulty it will commence there.

Once word of the war's start, at the Battle of Fort Sumter in South Carolina, reached Los Angeles in April 1861, the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles rode out for Texas to join the war. Sheriff Sanchez, who had used his position to help arm the unit, remained in L.A. to fulfill his duties to the county and was re-elected sheriff twice.

With the Mounted Rifles out of the state, in rode Union forces dispatched to quell Southern California's secessionist impulses. On August 25, 1861, troops under the command of Major William Scott Ketchum secretly moved into San Bernardino amid rumors of rebellion. The next month, in the nearby mining town of Belleville (close to the present-day site of Big Bear Lake), the presence of Union dragoons in the streets quashed a election-day riot by secessionists.

Throughout the war, the presence of federal troops and, later, California militia units loyal to the Union, succeeded in stymieing the efforts of those who would rather see Southern California join the Confederacy.

Statue of Harrison Gray Otis, a Civil War veteran and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, in Westlake Park. Courtesy of the USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection.
Statue of Harrison Gray Otis, a Civil War veteran and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, in Westlake Park. Courtesy of the USC Libraries, California Historical Society Collection.

In the decades after the Civil War, Union veterans arrived—along with other newcomers—en masse and made their mark on Southern California. Harrison Gray Otis, a veteran of the Union Army, arrived on the Pacific coast in 1876 and later held court in Los Angeles as publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Thaddeus Lowe, appointed by Lincoln as chief aeronaut of the Balloon Corps, retired to Pasadena in 1890 and founded the Mount Lowe Railway, which transported pleasure-seekers up a narrow-gauge railway and funicular high into the San Gabriel Mountains.

Union Army officer's trunk. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.
Union Army officer's trunk. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

The William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University holds a Union officer's trunk in its Special Collections believed to belong to William S. Rosecrans, a Union general who commanded the Army of the Cumberland. After the war, Rosecrans moved to Los Angeles and purchased the seaside Rancho San Pedro. As a prominent Angeleño, Rosecrans represented Southern California in Congress from 1881 to 1885 and gave his name to Rosecrans Avenue.

Gravestone of a soldier of the California Native Cavalry. Photograph by and courtesy of Nick Smith.
Gravestone of a soldier of the California Native Cavalry. Photograph by and courtesy of Nick Smith.

Nick Smith, a researcher at the Pasadena Public Library, studies the stories of Civil War veterans who made new lives in Southern California. Smith shared the photograph above, which shows the grave of a member of the California Native Cavalry, a battalion raised in Southern California of Spanish-speaking volunteers. The soldier above was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, which, Smith notes, is home to "several hundred other Civil War soldiers, an unusually large number for its size."

The Huntington Library, an L.A. as Subject member institution, recently announced plans for an exhibition of its extensive collection of Civil War photographs and documents. The exhibit is expected to open in October 2012.

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Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.