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The Civil War in California


This page is dedicated to information about California's experience of the Civil War – both military and civil. If you wish to suggest a topic (or better yet, present one!), feel free to contact the webmaster of The Civil War in California.


The pivotal election of 1860

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 mystifying event and shows how it split the Union. Special emphasis on California's divided political allegiance.



Albert Sidney Johnston's Choice

AS Johnston

General Albert Sidney Johnston

When the Civil War began in 1861, Lincoln's closest advisors feared California would break away from the Union and join the South.

There were also fears in Washington that California would proclaim herself a sovereign nation – an independent Republic of the Pacific, joined by Oregon and Washington. These fears were not groundless. John C. Fremont and the Bear Flag rebels had declared California a Republic in 1846. They captured General Vallejo's headquarters at Sonoma with about 80 men, without firing a shot. That's how remote California was then, and how puny her defenses were.

In 1861, under the US flag, things weren't much better. There were only around twelve thousand regular army troops in the West when the war broke out, scattered over a million square miles of wilderness between the Mississippi and the Pacific.

General Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the US Army on the Pacific Coast. He 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. California's fate – peace or insurrection – depended on one man's honor.

1856 map of US

Area open to slavery after repeal of the Missouri Compromise (shown in green).
1856 presidential candidate John C. Fremont is in the upper left.

Asbury Harpending, a Southern partisan in California during the war, later claimed to have been part of a delegation sent to sound General Johnston on the idea of seizing the state's armaments for the South. Harpending quotes Johnston as replying thus:

"I have heard foolish talk about an attempt to seize the strongholds of the government under my charge. Knowing this, I have prepared for emergencies, and will defend the property of the United States with every resource at my command, and with the last drop of blood in my body. Tell that to all our Southern friends."

Johnston was superseded shortly afterward. He was 58 years old and wished to retire to Los Angeles, but was prevailed on to offer his services to the South. He left California with a Secessionist militia unit and made the hazardous crossing across the Southwest to Texas. In April of '62, Johnston died while driving General Grant's Union army to the brink of destruction on the first day of the battle of Shiloh.

Asbury Harpending and the Chapman Affair

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.

mail packet

Mail ships laden with gold were Harpending's targets.
Individual vessels often carried over a million dollars.

Harpending 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 prision, but benefited from a general pardon after ten months. He became a reconciled U.S. citizen after the war.


Rufus Henry Ingram

Ingram rode with the notorious William Quantrill in Missouri's savage internal war. In early 1864, he was out in the Santa Clara Valley of California, raising a troop of partisan rangers. He wished to lead his men back to Texas to fight for the Confederacy. To raise money for the journey, he and a small band rode to Placer County and held up two stagecoaches laden with silver from the Comstock Lode. The value of the loot was enormous – $52,000 – and Ingram issued a receipt to the express drivers in the name of the Confederates States of America. Local law enforcement broke up "Ingram's Partisan Rangers" in a series of desperate gun battles. Ingram eluded capture and returned back East to fight again.


Virginia City Stage

The Virginia City stage in the 1860's. This was
the stage held up by Ingram's "Rangers."





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"Highwayman" from 15,000 Miles by Stage, by Carrie Adell Strahorn,
re-printed by the University of Nebraska Press.
Artist: Charles M. Russell.