5: California and the Secession Menace
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When the Southern states withdrew, a conspiracy was on foot to force
California out of the Union, and organize a new Republic of the Pacific
with the Sierra Madre and the Rocky Mountains for its Eastern boundary.
This proposed commonwealth, when once erected, and when it had
subjugated all Union men in the West who dared oppose it, would
eventually unite with the Confederacy; and in event of the latter's
success—which at the opening of the war to many seemed certain—the
territory of the Confederate States of America would embrace the entire
Southwest, and stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Aside from its
general plans, the exact details of this plot are of course impossible
to secure. But that the conspiracy existed has never been disproved.
That the rebel sympathizers in California were plotting, as soon as the
War began, to take the Presidio at the entrance to the Golden Gate,
together with the forts on Alcatraz Island, the Custom House, the Mint,
the Post Office, and all United States property, and then having made
the formation of their Republic certain, invade the Mexican State of
Sonora and annex it to the new commonwealth, has never been gainsaid.
That these conspiracies existed and were held in grave seriousness is
revealed by the official correspondence of that time. That they had been
fomenting for many months is apparently revealed by this additional
fact: during Buchanan's administration, John B. Floyd, a southern man
who gave up his position to fight for the Confederacy, was Secretary of
War. When the Rebellion started, it was found(1) that Floyd, while in
office, had removed 135,430 firearms, together with much ammunition and
heavy ordnance, from the big Government arsenal at Springfield,
Massachusetts, and distributed them at various points in the South and
Southwest. Of this number, fifty thousand(2) were sent to California
where twenty-five thousand muskets had already been stored. And all this
was done underhandedly, without the knowledge of Congress.
California was unfortunate in having as a representative in the United
States Senate at this time, William Gwin, also a man of southern birth
who had cast his fortunes in the Golden State at the outset, when the
gold boom was on. Until secession was imminent, Gwin served his adopted
state well enough. His encouragement of the Pony Express enterprise has
already been pointed out. It is doubtful if he were statesman enough to
have foreseen the significant part this organization was to play in the
early stages of the War. Otherwise his efforts in its behalf must have
been lacking—though the careers of political adventurers like Gwin are
full of strange inconsistencies(3).
Speaking in the Senate, on December 12, 1859, Gwin declared, that he
believed that "all slave holding states of this confederacy can
establish a separate and independent government that will be impregnable
to the assaults of all foreign enemies." He further went on to show that
they had the power to do it, and asserted that if the southern states
went out of the Union, "California would be with the South." Then, as a
convincing proof of his duplicity, he had these pro-rebel statements
stricken from the official report of his speech, that his constituents
might not take fright, and perhaps spoil some of the designs which he
and his scheming colleagues had upon California. Of course these remarks
reached the ears of his constituents anyhow, and though prefaced by a
studied evasiveness on his part, they contributed much to the feeling of
unrest and insecurity that then prevailed along the Coast.
It is of course a well-known fact that California never did secede, and
that soon after the war began, she swung definitely and conclusively
into the Union column. The danger of secession was wholly potential. Yet
potential dangers are none the less real. Had it not been for the
determined energies of a few loyalists in California, led by General E.
A. Sumner and cooperating with the Federal Government by means of the
swiftest communication then possible—the Pony Express—history today,
might read differently.
Now to turn once more to the potential dangers(4) that made the
California crisis a reality. About three-eighths of the population were
of southern descent and solidly united in sympathy for the Confederate
states. This vigorous minority included upwards of sixteen thousand
Knights of the Golden Circle, a pro-Confederate secret organization that
was active and dangerous in all the doubtful states in winning over to
the southern cause those who feebly protested loyalty to the Union but
who opposed war. Many of these "knights" were prosperous and substantial
citizens who, working under the guise of their local respectability,
exerted a profound influence. Here then, at the outset, was a vigorous
and not a small minority, whose influence was greatly out of proportion
to their numbers because of their zeal; and who would have seized the
balance of power unless held in check by an aroused Union sentiment and
Another class of men to be feared was a small but powerful group
representing much wealth, a financial class which proverbially shuns war
because of the expense which war involves; a class that always insists
upon peace, even at the cost of compromised honor. These men, with the
influence which their money commanded, would inevitably espouse the side
that seemed the most likely of speedy success; and in view of the early
successes of the Confederate armies and the zealous proselytizing of
rebel sympathizers in their midst they were a potential risk to loyal
The native Spanish or Mexican classes then numerically strong in that
state, were appealed to by the anti-Unionists from various cunning
approaches, chief of which was the theory that the many real estate
troubles and complicated land titles by which they had been annoyed
since the separation from Old Mexico in 1847, would be promptly adjusted
under Confederate authority. While nearly all these natives were
ignorant, many held considerable property and they in turn influenced
their poorer brethren. Chimerical as this argument may sound, it had
Another group of persons also large potentially and a serious menace
when proselyted by the apostles of rebellion, were the squatters and
trespassers who were occupying land to which they had no lawful right.
Many of these men were reckless; some had already been entangled in the
courts because of their false land claims. Hence their attitude toward
the existing Government was ugly and defiant. Yet they were now assured
that they might remain on their lands forever undisturbed, under a rebel
Added to all these sources of danger was the attitude of the thousands
of well-meaning people—who, regardless of rebel solicitation, were at
first indifferent. They thought that the great distance which separated
them from the seat of war made it a matter of but little importance
whether California aroused herself or not. They were of course
counseling neutrality as the easiest way of avoiding trouble.
Turning now to the forces, moral, military, and political, that were
working to save California—first there was a loyal newspaper press,
which saw and followed its duty with unflinching devotion. It firmly
held before the people the loyal responsibility of the state and
declared that the ties of union were too sacred to be broken. It was the
moral duty of the people to remain loyal. It truthfully asserted that
California's influence in the Federal Union should be an example for
other states to follow. If the idea of a Pacific Republic were
repudiated by their own citizens, such action would discourage secession
elsewhere and be a great moral handicap to that movement. And the press
further pointed out with convincing clearness, that should the Union be
dissolved, the project for a Pacific Railroad(5) with which the future
of the Commonwealth was inevitably committed, would likely fail.
Aroused by the moral importance of its position, the state legislature,
early in the winter of 1860-1861, had passed a resolution of fidelity to
the Union, in which it declared "That California is ready to maintain
the rights and honor of the National Government at home and abroad, and
at all times to respond to any requisitions that may be made upon her to
defend the Republic against foreign or domestic foes." Succeeding events
proved the genuineness of this resolve.
In the early spring of 1861, the War Department sent General Edwin A.
Sumner to take command of the Military Department of the Pacific with
headquarters at San Francisco, supplanting General Albert Sidney
Johnston who resigned to fight for the South. This was a most fortunate
appointment, as Sumner proved a resourceful and capable official,
ideally suited to meet the crisis before him. Nor does this reflect in
any way upon the superb soldierly qualities of his predecessor. Johnston
was no doubt too manly an officer to take part in the romantic
conspiracies about him. He was every inch a brave soldier who did his
fighting in the open. Like Robert E. Lee, he joined the Confederacy in
conscientious good faith, and he met death bravely at Shiloh in April,
Sumner was a man of action and he faced the situation squarely. To him,
California and the nation will always be indebted. One of his first
decisive acts was to check the secession movement in Southern California
by placing a strong detachment of soldiers at Los Angeles. This force
proved enough to stop any incipient uprisings in that part of the state.
Some of the disturbing element in this district then moved over into
Nevada where cooperation was made with the pro-Confederate men there.
The Nevada rebel faction had made considerable headway by assuring
unsuspecting persons that it was acting on the authority of the
Confederate Government. On June 5, 1861, the rebel flag was unfurled at
Virginia City. Again Sumner acted. He immediately sent a Federal force
to garrison Fort Churchill, and a body of men under Major Blake and
Captain Moore seized all arms found in the possession of suspected
persons. A rebel militia company with four hundred men enrolled and one
hundred under arms was found and dispersed by the Federals. This
decisive action completely stopped any uprisings across the state line,
uprisings which might easily have spread into California.
In the meantime, under General Sumner's direction, soldiers had been
enlisted and were being rapidly drilled for any emergency. The War
Department, on being advised of this available force, at once sent the
following dispatch, which, with those that follow are typical of the
correspondence which the Pony Express couriers were now rushing across
the Continent toward and from Washington.
Telegraph and Pony Express.
Washington, July 24, 1861.
Brigadier General Sumner,
Commanding Department of the Pacific.
One regiment of infantry and five companies of cavalry have been
accepted from California to aid in protecting the overland mail route
via Salt Lake.
Please detail officers to muster these troops into service. Blanks will
be sent by steamer.
By order: George D. Ruggles.
Assistant Adjutant General.
While recognizing the great need of extending proper military protection
to the mail route, it must have been disheartening to Sumner and the
loyalists to see this force ordered into service outside the state. For
now, late in the summer of 1861, the time of national crisis—the
Californian trouble was approaching its climax. On July 20, the Union
army had been beaten at Bull Run and driven back, a rabble of fugitives,
into the panic stricken capital. Then came weeks and months of delay and
uncertainty while the overcautious McClellan sought to build up a new
military machine. The entire North was overspread with gloom; the
Confederates were jubilant and full of self-confidence. In California
the psychological situation was similar but even more acute, for
encouraged by Confederate success, the rebel faction became bolder than
ever, and openly planned to win the state election to be held on
September 4. If successful at the polls, the reins of organized
political power would pass into its hands and a secession convention
would be a direct possibility. And to intensify the danger was the
confirmed indifference or stubbornness of many citizens who seemed to
place petty personal differences before the interests of the state and
nation at large.
As is well known, Lincoln and the Federal Government accepted the defeat
at Bull Run calmly, and set about with grim determination to whip the
South at any cost. The President asked Congress for four hundred
thousand men and was voted five hundred thousand. In pursuance of such
policies, these urgent dispatches were hurried across the country:
Washington, August 14, 1861.
Hon. John G. Downey,
Governor of California, Sacramento City, Cal.
Please organize, equip, and have mustered into service, at the earliest
date possible, four regiments of infantry and one regiment of cavalry,
to be placed at the disposal of General Sumner.
Secretary of War.
By telegraph to Fort Kearney and thence by Pony Express and telegraph.
War Department, August 15, 1861.
Hon. John G. Downey,
Governor of California, Sacramento City, Cal.
In filling the requisition given you August 14th, for five regiments,
please make General J. H. Carleton of San Francisco, colonel of a
cavalry regiment, and give him proper authority to organize as promptly
Secretary of War.
Telegraph and Pony Express and telegraph.
The work of enlisting the five thousand men thus requisitioned was
carried forward with great rapidity. Within two weeks, on the 28th, the
Pony Express brought word that the War Department was about to order
this force overland into Texas, to act, no doubt, as a barrier to the
advancing Confederate armies who were then planning an invasion of New
Mexico as the first decisive step in carrying the conflict into the
heart of the Southwest. It was understood, further, that General Sumner
would be ordered to vacate his position as Commander of the Department
of the Pacific and lead his recruits into the service.
To the authorities at Washington, a campaign of aggression with western
troops had no doubt seemed the best means of defending California and
adjacent territory from Confederate attack. To the Unionists of
California, the report that their troops and Sumner were to leave the
state spelt extreme discouragement. They had felt some degree of hope
and security so long as organized forces were in their midst, and the
presence of Sumner everywhere inspired confidence among discouraged
patriots. To be deprived of their soldiers was bad enough; to lose
Sumner was intolerable. Accordingly, a formal petition protesting
against this action, was drawn up, addressed to the War Department, and
signed by important firms and prominent business men of San
In this petition they said among other things, that the War Department
probably was not aware of the real state of affairs in California, and
they openly requested that the order, be rescinded. They declared that a
majority of the California State officers were out-and-out secessionists
and that the others were at least hostile to the administration and
would accept a peace policy at any sacrifice. They were suspicious of
the Governor's loyalty and declared that, "Every appointment made by our
Governor within the last three months, unmistakably indicates his entire
sympathy and cooperation with those plotting to sever California from
her allegiance to the Union, and that, too, at the hazard of Civil
Continuing at detailed length, the petitioners spoke of the great effort
being put forth by the secession element to win the forthcoming
election. Whereas their opponents were united, the Union party was
divided into a Douglas and a Republican faction. Should the
anti-Unionists triumph, they declared there were reasons to expect not
merely the loss of California to the Union ranks but internecine strife
and fratricidal murders such as were then ravaging the Missouri and
The petition then pointed out the truly great importance of California
to the Union, and asserted that no precaution leading to the
preservation of her loyalty should be overlooked. It was a thousand
times easier to retain a state in allegiance than to overcome disloyalty
disguised as state authority. The best way to check treasonable
activities was to convince traitors of their helplessness. The
petitioners further declared that to deprive California of needed United
States military support just then, would be a direct encouragement to
traitors. An ounce of precaution was worth a pound of cure.
The loyalists triumphed in the state election on September 4, 1861, and
on that date the California crisis was safely passed. The contest, to be
sure, had revealed about twenty thousand anti-Union voters in the state,
but the success of the Union faction restored their feeling of
self-confidence. The pendulum had at last swung safely in the right
direction, and henceforth California could be and was reckoned as a
loyal asset to the Union. Such expressions of disloyalty as her
secessionists continued to disclose, were of a sporadic and flimsy
nature, never materializing into a formidable sentiment; and, adding to
their discouragement, the failure of the Confederate invasion of New
Mexico in 1862, was no doubt an important factor in suppressing any
further open desires for secession.
Sumner was not called East until the October following the election. His
removal of course caused keen regret along the coast; but Colonel George
Wright, his successor in charge of the Department of the Pacific, proved
a masterful man and in every way equal to the situation. In the long
run, Colonel Wright probably was as satisfactory to the loyal people of
California as General Sumner had been. The five thousand troops were not
detailed for duty in the South. Like the first detachment of fifteen
hundred, their efforts were directed mainly to protecting the overland
mails and guarding the frontier(8).
Throughout this crisis, news was received twice a week by the Pony
Express, and, be it remembered, in less than half the time required by
the old stage coach. Of its services then, no better words can be used
than those of Hubert Howe Bancroft.
It was the pony to which every one looked for deliverance; men prayed
for the safety of the little beast, and trembled lest the service should
be discontinued. Telegraphic dispatches from Washington and New York
were sent to St. Louis and thence to Fort Kearney, whence the pony
brought them to Sacramento where they were telegraphed to San Francisco.
Great was the relief of the people when Hole's bill for a daily mail
service was passed and the service changed from the Southern to the
Central route, as it was early in the summer. * * * Yet after all, it
was to the flying pony that all eyes and hearts were turned.
The Pony Express was a real factor in the preservation of California to
(3) After the War had started, Gwin deserted California and the Union
and joined the Confederacy. When this power was broken up, he fled to
Mexico and entered the service of Maximilian, then puppet emperor of
that unfortunate country. Maximilian bestowed an abundance of hollow
honors upon the renegade senator, and made him Duke of the Province of
Sonora, which region Gwin and his clique had doubtless coveted as an
integral part of their projected "Republic of the Pacific." Because of
this empty title, the nickname, "Duke," was ever afterward given him.
When Maximilian's soap bubble monarchy had disappeared, Gwin finally
returned to California where he passed his old age in retirement.
(4) Senate documents.
(5) All parties in California were unanimous in their desire for a
transcontinental railroad. No political faction there could receive any
support unless it strongly endorsed this project.
(6) The signers of this petition were: Robert C. Rogers, Macondray &
Co., Jno. Sime & Co., J. B. Thomas, W. W. Stow, Horace P. James, Geo. F.
Bragg & Co., Flint, Peabody & Co., Wm. B. Johnston, D. 0. Mills, H. M.
Newhall & Co., Henry Schmildell, Murphy Grant & Co., Wm. T. Coleman &
Co., DeWitt Kittle & Co., Richard M. Jessup, Graves Williams & Buckley,
Donohoe, Ralston & Co., H. M. Nuzlee, Geo. C. Shreve & Co., Peter
Danahue, Kellogg, Hewston & Co., Moses Ellis & Co., R. D. W. Davis &
Co., L. B. Beuchley & Co., Wm. A. Dana, Jones, Dixon & Co., J. Y.
Halleck & Co., Forbes & Babcock, A. T. Lawton, Geo. J. Brooks & Co.,
Jno. B. Newton & Co., Chas. W. Brooks & Co., James Patrick & Co., Locke
& Montague, Janson, Bond & Co., Jennings & Brewster, Treadwell & Co.,
William Alvord & Co., Shattuck & Hendley, Randall & Jones, J. B. Weir &
Co., B. C. Hand & Co., 0. H. Giffin & Bro., Dodge & Shaw, Tubbs & Co.,
J. Whitney, Jr., C. Adolph Low & Co., Haynes & Lawton, J. D. Farnell,
C. E. Hitchcock, Geo. Howes & Co., Sam Merritt, Jacob Underhill & Co.,
Morgan Stone & Co., J. W. Brittan, T. H. & J. S. Bacon, R. B. Swain &
Co., Fargo & Co., Nathaniel Page, Stevens Baker & Co., A. E. Brewster &
Co., Fay, Brooks & Backus, Wm. Norris, and E. H. Parker.
(Above data taken from Government Secret Correspondence. Ordered printed
by the second session of the 50th Congress in 1889, Senate Document No.
(7) In the writer's judgment, these charges against Governor Downey
were prejudicial and unjust.
(8) During the War of the Rebellion, California raised 16,231 troops,
more than the whole United States army had been at the commencement of
hostilities. Practically all these soldiers were assigned to routine and
patrol duty in the far West, such as keeping down Indian revolts, and
garrisoning forts, as a defense against any uprising of Indians, or
protection against Confederate invasion. The exceptions were the
California Hundred, and the California Four Hundred, volunteer
detachments who went East of their own accord and won undying honors in
the thick of the struggle.
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