'We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist' – Los Angeles When the Civil War Began | KCET
'We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist' – Los Angeles When the Civil War Began
The shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor started on Friday, April 12, 1861. The Civil War had begun.
In Los Angeles, where the news would arrive almost two weeks later, an Army captain – sole representative of the United States military – waited in an adobe warehouse at the edge of the city. Army muskets, ammunition, and cavalry sabers had been hidden under sacks of oats and flour. He had shown his wife where the pistols were kept. Together, they would make some defense of the Army’s stores when the secessionist “Monte boys” came to take them.
Captain Winfield Scott Hancock expected that a raid on his warehouse would start the annexation of Southern California to the secessionist cause. He believed that many Angeleños would welcome it.
The decomposition of the United States into northern and southern factions had been driven partly by California statehood in 1850. Admission of California as a “free soil” state (whose constitution outlawed slavery[i]) destabilized the balance of political power in Congress. The effects rippled through the decade, hastening the collapse of the Whig Party, putting secessionist and unionist Democrats at odds, and allowing new parties – the Know Nothings and the Republicans – to contend for federal offices.
Californians were similarly estranged. Sectional differences and tensions within the Democratic Party encouraged division of the state into northern and southern territories. The Territory of Colorado would have included all of the southern part of California from the Mexican border to Kern and Kings counties. If the new territory was open to slavery, it might one day restore the political balance of “free soil” and “slave” states and suspend the issue of slavery for another generation.
The California legislature (described as “intensely pro-slavery”[ii]) passed the Pico Act in 1859, calling on Congress to divide the state. It was signed by Governor John B. Weller, overwhelmingly approved by voters in Southern California,[iii] and sent to Washington.
“We are for a Pacific Republic”
Governor Weller did not expect the Territory of Colorado to relieve the political crisis, even if Congress could be persuaded. Disunion was too far advanced. If it wasn’t civil war, the result would be two weaker nations at constant odds. Distant California, Weller thought, would mean little to either North or South except to be taxed.
Weller offered the alluring alternative of independence. “If the wild spirit of fanaticism which now pervades the land,” he said, “should destroy (our) magnificent confederacy – which God forbid – (California) will not go with the south or north, but here upon the shores of the Pacific found a mighty republic, which may in the end prove the greatest of all.”[iv]
Others agreed. “We are for a Pacific Republic,” the editor of the Sonora Democrat declared. “(California) has all the elements of greatness within her borders. Situated thousands of miles from the distracted States, she would be an asylum of peace and safety …”[v] The San Francisco Herald joined in as well. Angeleños Henry Hamilton, publisher of the Los Angeles Star, and Los Angeles County Judge Benjamin Hayes also endorsed the plan.
In Stockton, a home-made flag with the legend “Pacific Republic” briefly flew.
When John Downey – an Angeleño, Democrat, and secession sympathizer – became governor in early 1860,[vi] he was less certain about independence. But Downey needed to be cautious. California’s representatives in Congress – Senators Milton Latham and William Gwin and Representatives John Burch and Charles Scott – believed that the complaints of the southern states were valid. Publically, they called for California’s neutrality in the event of civil war and hinted at the state’s eventual independence.
The fantasy of a western republic, extending from Canada into northern Mexico and from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains, seemed more real when news of Fort Sumter reached Los Angeles on the afternoon of April 24, 1861. Henry Hamilton, secessionist publisher of the Los Angeles Star, wondered in print, “Shall we, too, strike for independence – or, like whipped spaniels, crawl at the feet of either a Southern or a Northern Confederacy?”[vii]
A fractured California, a Confederate California, or a neutral California – the alternatives, based on the reports of reliable Union men in California, seemed real enough in Washington. The War Department, knowing his loyalty to Texas, had already recalled Brigadier-General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander[viii] of the US Army in California, from his post at the San Francisco presidio. Johnston resigned his commission in early April but continued to serve until Brigadier-General Edwin Sumner arrived from the East to replace him.
Sumner was warned that Johnston knew of secessionist conspirators in San Francisco (which was true) and he suspected that Johnston might also be one of the architects of the Pacific Republic scheme (he wasn’t). But Sumner and those who advised him saw disunion everywhere in California.
Writing to the Army Adjutant General on April 28, just four days after his arrival in San Francisco, Sumner lamented,[ix]
Ominously, Sumner warned the War Department that “the troops now here will hold their positions, but if there should be a general uprising of the people, they could not … put it down.”
“Hot-bed of disloyalty”
The spirit of disunion grew worse in Southern California while Captain Hancock and his wife waited through the first three weeks of April. He surrounded the Army storehouse in Los Angeles with the high-walled wagons that hauled military freight. He collected enough pistols at his home to arm “a few loyal friends.”[x] Among the few[xi] likely to stand with him were District Attorney Ezra Drown, rancher and pro-Union polemicist Jonathan Warner, publisher Charles Conway of the Semi-Weekly Southern News, and Los Angeles port operator Phineas Banning.
General Sumner in San Francisco was pessimistic about popular support for the Union cause, particularly in Southern California. “I believe there is a large majority of Union men in the State,” he reported, “but they are supine with confidence, while there is an active and zealous party of secessionists who will make all the mischief they can.”[xii]
Warner could have included Mayor Damien Marchesseault among secessionist sympathizers in Los Angeles, along with attorneys Edward Kewen and Volney Howard, wealthy rancher Benjamin Wilson, physician John Griffin (brother-in-law of General Albert Sidney Johnston), former Assemblymen Daniel Showalter and Joseph Lancaster Brent, and former State Senator Cameron Thom.
Judge Benjamin Hayes, although he remained publically ambivalent, assured his sister in February that “the tone of the people here (Los Angeles) is Southern to a greater extent than might be supposed …”[xv]
Sympathy for secession had lately become something more serious for Hancock. Under the pretense of enrolling a volunteer militia for the defense of Los Angeles, secessionist leaders in February had begun recruiting among ex-southerners and native Californios. Joseph Lancaster Brent urged Judge William Dryden to formally enroll the members of what was called the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles. In March, attorney George Gift mustered a force (at least on paper) of 80 members at the county courthouse.
The membership roll was as diverse as Los Angeles. It included, along with Brent and Gift, Sheriff Tomás Sanchez, Undersheriff Alonzo Ridley, at least four other city and county law enforcement officials, and members of the Californio, German, Irish, and Jewish communities. Most were, to one degree or another, secessionist.
Alonzo Ridley, as the unit’s captain, petitioned Adjutant General William Kibbe of the California state militia to supply 80 rifles, Colt pistols, and sabers. Ridley was confident that the arms could be requisitioned in Los Angeles,[xvi] even though it was generally known that secessionists led the Mounted Rifles.
They weren’t the only show of secessionist force in early 1861. The newly organized Monte Mounted Rifles, led by Los Angeles County Undersheriff[xvii] Andrew King, made a similar request for arms. Union supporters complained of para-military organizations openly drilling in El Monte, San Bernardino, and the Holcomb Valley mining camps where a shadowy organization called the Knights of the Golden Circle was found to be training recruits who would leave for “Dixie” and service in the Confederate States army.
Secessionist officials, armed conspirators, and Confederate recruiters – so “many active and influential citizens who are hostile to the Government whose efforts for its disintegration are strenuous and undisguised” – made Southern California, for Union men, “the nursery, resort, and hot-bed of disloyalty.” [xviii]
“A county not to be relied upon”
Henry Hamilton, publisher of the Star, actively fostered the spirit of disloyalty in Los Angeles. Hamilton had mocked Lincoln during the election of 1860 and loudly supported the southern states in abandoning the Union in advance of Lincoln’s inauguration. In February 1861, Hamilton had suggested that disunion should lead to an impossible compromise. “Even if secession should run its full course, and there be presented a consolidated South against the aggressions of a united North, there may, even in that attitude … arise negotiations for a union … in which the rights of the South shall be fully and fairly stipulated and guaranteed.”[xix]
Southern rights necessarily included the right to own human property, which Hamilton defended as fundamental to the principles of the Constitution. As John W. Robinson has argued, “Historians of the pre-Civil War period would be hard put to find anywhere a more vociferous advocate of slavery.”[xx]
Hamilton was an “inflexible Confederate sympathizer” who rallied secessionist Angeleños with editorials that championed states’ rights and white supremacy. He denounced Republicans, unionist Democrats, and anyone who sought to abolish slavery. He would, the following year, describe the Civil War explicitly as a race war.
Hamilton was not alone. Edward Kewen[xxi], a nativist and white supremacist, had given rousing speeches before cheering Los Angeles audiences in the weeks leading up to the 1860 election. So had California’s newly elected U.S. Senator, Milton Latham. Democrats in the pro-secession Breckenridge Club had met in front of the Montgomery Saloon in Los Angeles every Tuesday evening before the election, often to hear Kewen speak, followed by a torchlight procession up Main Street to the old Plaza.
Having told listeners “I must confess … I am not enamored with this word loyalty,”[xxii] Kewen continued to stir up secessionist support during the first months of 1861. “Hardly a day goes by, wrote a worried Jonathan Warner, “without leading to the discovery that individuals unsuspected of disloyalty are deeply tainted with disloyalty.”[xxiii]
There was a great deal of loose talk at the bar at the Bella Union Hotel, where ex-southerners and pro-secessionists gathered, sometimes to spill out on the street with shouts of “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!” and boozy choruses of “We'll Drive the Bloody Tyrant Lincoln From Our Dear Native Soil.” With an air of urgent expectation, armed riders from San Bernardino and El Monte would appear at the Plaza, only to ride off again. Union men increasingly felt intimidated.
Charles Conway, publisher of the Semi-Weekly Southern News, understood their anxiety. His paper stood in opposition to secession and Southern California’s drift toward annexation to the newly created Confederate States.[xxiv] He attacked Hamilton, calling him a traitor, and deplored the extent of secessionist enthusiasm that Hamilton’s Star had encouraged.
“We shall be set down as a county not to be relied upon, and as a county containing naught but traitors and conspirators,” Conway would later warn. [xxv] He eventually called for the suppression of Hamilton’s paper. “No other government in the world suffers itself to be misrepresented and maligned by its citizens," he would complain, "and it is time our Government should prove no exception.”[xxvi]
“More danger of disaffection”
Both secessionists and Union men in Los Angeles expected California to be dramatically changed by the onrush of events following the fall of Fort Sumter. What form that change would take remained unclear.
Legislation to divide the state into northern and southern territories had gone to Congress two years before, but Congressional action was unlikely. The state’s pro-secession Congressional delegation had advocated the Pacific Republic scheme, but it was too fantastic to generate support now that war had begun.[xxvii] Neutrality did have support from secessionists and many Democrats, but no mechanism other than secession could enforce it. Joining the entire state to the Confederacy was unlikely, but Southern California might be annexed to the Confederate States, if momentum toward secession could be maintained.
A. S. Johnston left San Francisco on April 25 after resigning his commission. Although a committed secessionist, Johnston was a thorough soldier. He knew Hancock’s vulnerability in Los Angeles and doubtlessly warned General Sumner. And Sumner knew the psychological effect a successful move against Army supplies would have on secessionist Angeleños. It might be the signal for the “general uprising” he feared.[xxviii]
In Los Angeles, Hancock had literally circled the wagons in anticipation of a raid on his store of arms. There was little he could do now but observe, report to Sumner, and wait.
On April 29, Sumner wrote the War Department:[xxix]
On Sumner’s order, troops from Fort Mojave and later from Fort Tejon began preparations to relieve Hancock and block secessionist ambitions in Southern California. In support of the troop movements, Hancock set two wagon trains in motion to collect stores from both forts, but it would take weeks. Until federal troops arrived, Hancock and his store of arms remained at risk.
On May 4, Hancock wrote to Sumner that if there “should be a difficulty in California it is likely that it will first show its head (in Los Angeles), but I do not think the matter is ripe yet for any serious movement.” Hancock went on to warn Sumner that[xxx]
Hancock thought the city’s Union men were capable of giving him aid (encouraged perhaps by news of the troop movements underway) but “those persons who have heretofore been influential and active leaders in politics, and have exercised great control over the people, are encouraging difficulties here by open avowals of their opinions.” Hancock knew, he told Sumner, that a small artillery piece was in the hands of the secessionists and asked that Fort Tejon or Fort Mojave bring two, 12-pound howitzers. With dry understatement, Hancock wrote that “the moral effect would not be trifling in case of a difficulty.”
Hancock’s contradictory report to Sumner – Los Angeles was quiet and Union men confident but the city was restless and the Army’s response to “a difficulty” would require heavy artillery – illustrates the uncertainty that both Sumner and Hancock felt.. If Hancock were to be driven from his post, secession would have had its first victory in separating Southern California from the Union.
Both Sumner and Hancock had to consider the implications of A. S. Johnston’s arrival on May 2, trailing a cloud of rumors about his connection to secession conspiracies and the Pacific Republic scheme. After turning over his command of the Army’s Department of the Pacific to Sumner, Johnston and his family were now living with his wife’s brother, Dr. Griffin, in Los Angeles.
If Johnston had been active in plotting with secessionists to bring California into the Confederacy, Sumner and Hancock knew, then Los Angeles would naturally have been Johnston’s destination to begin the rebellion.
Hancock’s immediate concern was who would arrive first – mounted Army dragoons or “the Monte boys” and other like-minded secessionists. Rowdies in El Monte and San Bernardino had already begun to parade the bear flag of the California Republic, now taken to be a symbol of secession. Hancock expected that the next attempt to “raise aloft the flag of the ‘bear’” would come in Los Angeles on May 12, before federal troops were expected to arrive.
Hancock had learned that a group of 50 or more riders planned to meet at the Plaza and raise the flag of secession over the county courthouse. And would that end, after drinks at the Bella Union, with stripping the Army depot of its guns and ammunition?
But a different plot was underway. The secessionist leaders of the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles worried that an assault on Hancock would put their own plan at risk. They now intended to slip out of the county, cross the Colorado River at Yuma, disappear into the disputed Arizona territory, and make their way to Texas and the Confederate States.
Sheriff Sanchez (who was a 2nd lieutenant in the Mounted Rifles) hastily persuaded “the Monte boys” to hold off any demonstration in Los Angeles, and Alonzo Ridley, as captain of the Mounted Rifles, met with Johnston and invited him to join in their escape from Los Angeles.
“Gone to Dixie”
On May 14, Major James Carleton and 50 mounted troopers from Fort Tejon finally rode into Los Angeles. They set up a temporary encampment about half-a-mile from the Army depot, placed strategically so as to oversee Hancock’s position and close enough to the center of town to respond the provocations of secessionists. Carleton named the site Camp Fitzgerald.
Hancock, his wife, and the Army supplies were safe. The moment had passed when secessionists might have raised a force of several hundred from El Monte, San Bernardino, and among the Californios in Los Angeles. Enough force, perhaps, to have persuaded Confederate units operating along the Texas/New Mexico border to make a thrust across the Colorado River into Southern California.[xxxi]
Hancock was ordered to active service in the East (and eventually to become a Union hero at Gettysburg). Before he left with his family in July, Hancock’s daughter rechristened Phineas Banning’s new steam tender with her name: Ada Hancock
The threat of insurrection in Southern California had ended, but Los Angeles would continue to be troubled by secessionist agitators abetted, Colonel Carleton told Sumner, by a sheriff who wouldn’t arrest them; judges who wouldn’t try them; and juries that wouldn’t convict them.
The boys from El Monte would continue through the war to swagger through doors of the Bella Union Hotel with the implication that they still might deliver vigilante “justice” to upstart Unionists. Tomás Sanchez would remain sheriff of Los Angeles County, despite his connection to leading secessionists.[xxxii] Dr. Griffin, Judge Hayes, Benjamin Wilson, and other secessionist Angeleños would continue to sympathize with the Confederacy, to the point of contributing substantially to organizations that aided wounded and disabled Confederate soldiers. And Henry Hamilton would continue to publish anti-Lincoln editorials in the Star until he was elected to the state Legislature.
A. S. Johnston, along with the most ardent secessionists among the Mounted Rifles, quietly left Los Angeles on June 16, crossed into Arizona, and with the help of secessionists there joined the Confederate States army. The Johnston/Mounted Rifles party wasn’t the first to make the desert crossing and the not last. An estimated 250 Southern Californians, many from Los Angeles, joined the Confederacy by that route.
Only two Angeleños volunteered to join the Union army: Horace Bell and the city’s zanjero Charles Jenkins.
Jefferson Davis made Johnston the second-ranking general of the Confederate Army. He died early in the war at the battle of Shiloh, Alonzo Ridley by his side. George Gift, who had presided over the original mustering of the Mounted Rifles, became a Confederate naval officer. Joseph Brent found his own way to the Confederate States, ultimately becoming an army brigade commander. So did Cameron Thom, who became a captain in the Confederate army, returned to Los Angeles, and served at the city’s mayor from 1882 to 1884.
That leading men in Los Angeles remained openly secessionist for so long and that so many Confederate volunteers passed through the city at the start of the war troubled Unionists then and those who wrote about the Civil War in its immediate aftermath.
Had Los Angeles remained attached to the state and the Union only by the presence of Army troops, as Charles Conway of the Semi-Weekly News believed? Or had a policy of toleration on the part of some Army commanders, obliged to work with disloyal city and county officials, actually preserved Southern California, whose militant secessionists had “gone to Dixie” across the Colorado River rather than fight at home?
The question doesn’t have an unequivocal answer, which is why the Civil War remains a powerful lens through which to examine how Angeleños saw themselves then and how we see ourselves as Angeleños today.
In April 1862, County Undersheriff Andrew King was arrested at his office by a troop of cavalry for the use of “treasonable expressions,” cheering for Jefferson Davis, and displaying a large portrait of Confederate General Beauregard. After taking an oath of loyalty that he regarded as meaningless, King was released, as every man arrested in Los Angeles for treasonable activity during the Civil War would be.
When the war ended, former Undersheriff Alonzo Ridley joined another dubious cause and died fighting for Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. Edward Kewen, white supremacist and former state legislator, was now willing to accept that African Americans had some civil rights. And Andrew King now ran a newspaper (ironically, what was left of Conway’s pro-Union paper).
Challenged in late 1865 to define where he and other secessionist Angeleños stood, now that the Confederacy had been defeated, King wrote a defiant reply. “We have been and are yet secessionist,” he insisted.[xxxiii] There were many Angeleños would have silently agreed.
[i]“Free soil” did not mean anti-slavery. California before the Civil War limited more than any other “free” state the civil rights of African Americans.
[ii]Imogene Spaulding, “The Attitude of California to the Civil War,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, vol. 9, nos. 1-2, 107.
[iii] Voters in the state’s six southern counties supported division of the state by 2477 for and 828 against.
[iv] “Governor’s Message,” Journal of the Senate of the State of California at the 11th Session of the Legislature (Sacramento, T. C. Potts, 186.), 60.
[v] Quoted by Spaulding, “The Attitude of California to the Civil War,” Annual Publication, 108.
[vi] Downey was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor in January 1860. Five days later, Governor Milton Latham resigned after being elected (by the state legislature) to fill the vacancy left by the death of US Senator David C. Broderick. Broderick had been killed in a duel over the division of California into “free soil” and “slave” territories in September 1859. Downey assumed the governorship on January 14, 1860.
[vii] “Hostilities Commenced,” Los Angeles Star, April 27, 1861.
[viii] Johnston took command of the Department of the Pacific on December 21, 1860. He resigned on April 9, 1861, when his adopted home state of Texas seceded.
[ix] Sumner to Townsend, April 28, 1861, Operations in: The Pacific Coast, January 1, 1861-June 30, 1865 (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. 1, vol. 50, part 1), 471.
[x]. According to his wife, writing many years later.
[xi] President Lincoln received only 25 per cent of Southern California’s vote in November 1860.
[xii] Sumner to Thomas, June 10, 1861, Operations, 506.
[xiii] The constitution of the Confederate States of America was adopted by seven southern states in March 1861.
[xiv] “Letter from Los Angeles,” Sacramento Daily Union, April 30, 1862.
[xv] Quoted by John W. Robinson in Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), e-book.
[xvi] Throughout the 1850s, the state militia had supplied muskets and other military paraphernalia to quasi-official volunteer units organized in Los Angeles by many of the same men who, in 1861, formed the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles. Some of these arms were collected by Sheriff Tomás Sanchez. After the Johns/Mounted Rifles party left for Texas in June 1861, none of the rifles and sabers sent to Los Angeles could be found, presumably because they had been taken to the Confederacy by Undersheriff Alonzo Ridley.
[xvii] In some accounts, Andrew King is identified as a deputy sheriff; in others, an undersheriff.
[xviii] Ezra Drown, Jonathan Warner, and James Mohan, “Address to the Loyal and Patriotic Voters of Los Angeles County,” clipping in Scrapbook of Benjamin Hayes, vol. 48 (Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley), publication and date not identified.
[xix] “The Crisis,” Los Angeles Star, February 2, 1861.
[xx] John W. Robinson, “A California Copperhead: Henry Hamilton and the Los Angeles Star,” (Journal of the Southwest, Autumn 1981), pp. 113-120
[xxi] Edward John Kewen had been California’s first Attorney General in 1850.
[xxii] Quoted in California and Californians, vol. 2, ed. Rockwell D. Hunt (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1926), 339.
[xxiii] “Letter from Los Angeles,” Daily Alta California, September 29, 1861.
[xxiv] The creation of the Confederate States was announced on February 8, 1861.
[xxv] Semi-Weekly News (Los Angeles), September 6, 1861.
[xxvi] Ibid., July 30, 1862.
[xxvii] Congressman John Burch, in a letter published in the San Francisco Herald on January 3, 1861, strongly endorsed the Pacific Republic scheme. Congressman Charles Scott echoed Burch a few days later in the same newspaper.
[xxviii] This also was the view of Adjutant-General William Kibbe of the state militia.
[xxix] Sumner to Townsend, April 29, 1861, Operations, 474.
[xxx] Hancock to Army Headquarters, May 4, 1861, Operations, 477. Hancock was referring to a small cannon that County Sheriff Sanchez had been keeping (unaccountably, it seems) at the county jail along with other arms.
[xxxi] In July 1861, Texan Volunteers, led by Confederate Colonel John Baylor, captured the southern half of the Arizona Territory and named it the Confederate Territory of Arizona. By February 1862, Confederate units had nearly reached the Colorado River.
[xxxii] Sanchez was re-elected sheriff in 1863 and 1865.
[xxxiii]Los Angeles News, November 24, 1865.
Yosemite National Park has become for me — as it has for many Southern Californians — an annual destination.
Learn how to prepare Mango Lime Tart from "Pati's Mexican Table."
For decades, visitors to Yosemite witnessed the Firefall, a shimmering curtain of glowing embers and hot coals cascading to the valley floor. The tradition highlights the competition that existed between the state’s earliest entrepreneurs.
Whether you prefer to go to a pumpkin patch, get spooked at a haunted house or learn about mourning practices in the Edwardian era, Southern California offers something for everyone.
- 1 of 90
- next ›