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California And The Secession Menace

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 - whic
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[15] 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[16] 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[17].

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[18] 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

military intimidation.

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

much weight.

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[19] 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.

Adjutant-General's Office.

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:

War Department.

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.

Simon Cameron,

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

as possible.

Simon Cameron,

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

Kansas border.

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[22].

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

the Union.

[15] Bancroft.

[16] lbid.

[17] 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.

[18] Senate documents.

[19] 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.

[20] 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.


[21] In the writer's judgment, these charges against Governor Downey

were prejudicial and unjust.

[22] 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.