At the start of the Civil War, California wasn’t a sure bet to stay in the Union. It had an active and vociferous population of Southern sympathizers, who dominated the California’s government during the first decade of statehood. But in the bitter years before the war, the state’s politics spun out of control. The dominant Democratic Party broke apart over slavery and Secession. The quarrel peaked in 1859, when California's pro-slavery Chief Justice shot and killed its free-soil US Senator in a duel. This violence shook California voters and weakened the Democratic hold on the state. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln and the upstart Republican Party won California by about 700 votes, even though less than a third of California’s voters cast their ballots for him.
When war came, Californians were anything but complacent. Almost 16,000 men (mostly from Northern California) volunteered to serve the Union. They signed up to fight Rebels, but found themselves dispersed across the West, where they replaced the regular army. Californian Volunteers waged brutal campaigns against the Navajo, Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, Paiute, and Shoshone peoples in battles that have been largely lost to history – overshadowed by the wholesale carnage taking place back East.
Life in wartime California was strongly affected by the crisis. Secessionist sentiment burned hot in the southern and central parts of the state, where whole communities pledged themselves to the Rebel cause. Some even attempted to launch partisan campaigns. One daring gang tried to sail a privateer out of the San Francisco!
The United States' most important election was also its most complicated. Voters had to chose between four candidates, some of whose names did not appear on the ballot outside their native section of the country.
A Southern general headed the US Army Department of the Pacific at the start of the war. If he had wanted to, he could have plunged California into bloody partisan warfare.
An aristocratic young Southerner was determined to strike a blow on the Pacific Coast. His aim was to seize the gold shipments from San Francisco that underpinned the United States' credit and allowed the Union to buy arms abroad.
The presidential election of 1860 featured four candidates, chosen largely along sectional lines. This excerpt from our multimedia presentation, California and the Civil War, explains this critical election and shows how it split the Union. Special emphasis on California's divided political allegiance.
Unionists' concerns were heightened by the fact that General Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the US Army on the Pacific Coast. Johnston was a Southerner, with strong ties to the State of Texas. When Texas seceded in the spring of 1861, Johnston was in a position to hand over the defenses of the Pacific Coast to Southern sympathizers. He was also commanded the federal arsenals, which contained weapons for 75,000 men. California's fate – peace or insurrection – depended on Johnston's loyalty to the oath he had taken as a US officer.
At the start of the war, California's congressional delegation was composed of members of the "chivalry," the pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party that wanted to bind the state to the South. Southern President Jefferson Davis was assured that the Pacific Coast would give a great deal of trouble to the Union – if not secede entirely.
Unionists' suspicions about Johnston were heard in Washington by the incoming Lincoln administration, who promptly sent out General Edwin V. Sumner, a rock-ribbed New Englander, to replace Johnston as commander on the Pacific Coast. Johnston did not know he had been superseded. Hearing that Texas had seceded, Johnston resigned before learning of Sumner's appointment.
Despite Republican fears, Johnston's tenure in command was exemplary, from the moment he assumed command until Sumner took over. Once relieved, Johnston traveled south to Los Angeles. He was 58 and ready to retire after a lifetime of service.
In the end, though, Johnston couldn't accept civilian life while his adopted state of Texas was at war. Johnston enlisted as a private in a local Secesh militia group, the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, and joined them in a desperate journey across the Southwest in June and July 1861.
Johnston died on April 6, 1862, while leading his men at the Battle of Shiloh.
Asbury Harpending was an aristocratic young Kentuckian who had already lived a lifetime's worth of adventures when the Civil War broke out. He had achieved great success in the Northern Mines of California and knew the value to the Union government of the massive gold shipments that sailed from San Francisco to New York.
He secured a letter of marque from Jefferson Davis, authorizing a bold privateering scheme on the Pacific Coast. Harpending and his confederates purchased a schooner named the J.M. Chapman and filled her hold with crates of guns and a band of partisans.
At the eleventh hour, the plot was foiled by San Francisco's famous detective Isaiah Lees. Marines from the US sloop of war Cyane boarded the Chapman and captured the conspirators. Harpending was sentenced to ten years in prison, but benefited from a general pardon after ten months. He became a reconciled U.S. citizen after the war.