We Californians tend to think that the American Civil War all happened back east, where the South rebelled and the North fought to maintain the Union. But California, a state since 1850, played a significant role in the War between the States. Richard Hurley tells the story in California and the Civil War (The History Press, 2017.)
Both Northerners and Southerners came to the Golden State during the Gold Rush, and in their new environment they clung to their old loyalties. Southerners may have been a minority in the population (which also contained a large contingent of the foreign-born) but they were in control in the state capital. The Democratic Party, which dominated state politics during the 1850s, was run by men such as U.S. Senator William Gwin, a Mississippian and a slave-holder. They were known as the “Chivalry” or “Chivs.”
Hurley gives his readers the political situation leading up to the outbreak of war, and the choices that Californians faced in 1860. He tells how General Albert Sidney Johnston, a Kentuckian, saved the state for the Union by remained loyal to his duty as commander of the U.S. Army of the Pacific until he could resign his commission and join the Confederate Army.
California had a population made up primarily of young men, and they readily volunteered for military duty. Although eager to fight in the East, most of the recruits took over the duties of the U.S. Army in the West, guarding the mails and fighting Indians. The narrative ranges across the Southwest as the California Volunteers prevent Southern forces from reaching California and its gold.
Gold was the great necessity of the North and the great goal of the South. General Grant acknowledged the importance of this resource, saying, “I do not know what we should do in this great national emergency were it not for the gold sent from California.” Hurley tells exciting tales of Southern attempts to get the gold, both by stagecoach robbery and the privateering plot of Asbury Harpending and his confederates.
Hurley also recounts the career of now-forgotten orator, the Rev. Thomas Starr King, whose speeches in support of the Union rallied Californians to the cause. At one time Starr King, small and frail but mighty, was the most popular man in California. And he tells the wonderful tale of Reuel Gridley and the bag of flour that he auctioned off over and over, raising thousands of dollars for the Sanitary Fund.
Generously illustrated with drawings, maps, and photographs, Hurley’s book is an excellent introduction to a topic too little known. He tells his stories clearly, concisely, and with verve and dash.
I can also recommend the historical novel written by Richard Hurley and T.J. Meekins, Queen of the Northern Mines (2011), which takes place during the same period and fictionalizes some of the important episodes of the Civil War in California.