The intriquing case of California Confederates

September 1
Keith Keller

The Civil War continues to resonate in the American consciousness when we consider race relations or whether our government should be a large Federal republic as proposed by Alexander Hamilton as opposed to a “State’s Rights” orientated (Thomas) Jeffersonian democracy. Read between the lines of the rhetoric during any modern election cycle and you will find that these issues surface again and again in a multitude of forms or guises. The voters in the former Confederacy have a big say regarding the election of a president and both major political parties know it. Yet, most Americans tend to remember the big names and huge battles of the war such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Gettysburg and Antietam.

Although California was far from the major actions of the Civil War it was considered very important by both sides because of its riches and geographic position near Mexico. While California dealt with its Native-American population very harshly it was an anti-slavery Union state. However; a number of California’s cities were hotbeds of pro-Southern sympathies including Los Angeles, Santa Rosa, Visalia and Sacramento. This was a major concern to Union commanders who quickly moved troops from the West to strengthen garrisons in the Golden State. Union soldiers protected wagon trains of California gold heading East.

The problem for a California Confederate was how to get to the war. There were three routes available. First, one might travel to Los Angeles and then cross the Mojave and Sonora deserts (braving Union patrols and bands of Native-Americans) to reach the C.S.A. via Texas. This was the method chosen by General Albert S. Johnson (a Texan) and a group of cavalry who managed to make the difficult journey after resigning his position as Federal Commandant of California. A very able man, Johnson died while leading the Rebels during the terrible battle of Shiloh when a Yankee bullet severed the femoral artery in his leg. We do know that there was a poignant dinner held somewhere in L.A. where a number of officers said, “goodbye” before going North or South. Many of these men were to meet again as enemies at Gettysburg.

The other ways to reach the Civil War were by sea. The traveler could sail to the Panama Isthmus, cross the mountainous jungles and await a ship to the East Coast. The other method was to sail around South America and then hope to reach the warring states of North America. This was a very dangerous enterprise due to the dangers of travel during the era not to mention the risk of capture by Union warships.

California did send significant numbers of volunteers to aid the North including the famed, “California 100” regiment. However; it is interesting to note some of the Confederates who participated in the war and in many cases survived it to return. William Wood Porter served under Confederate Generals Crittenden, A.S. Johnson and John Bell Hood as a Captain. He did make it back to his home town of Santa Rosa, had an active career and lived to experience the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. He was in the congregation of Santa Rosa’s, “Church of the Incarnation” (Episcopal-1868) along with other ex-Rebels and Yankees. It is believed that there may be 11 to 25 Confederates buried in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. Estimates regarding Southerners are rough guesses while the Union Army was able to keep much better records regarding Civil War veterans from California.

There was even a Civil War, “battle” in Sonoma County. In 1865 a pro-Union party rode North from Petaluma to stop a pro-Confederate group heading South from Santa Rosa. Fortunately for the participants and unfortunately for historians nothing much happened. President U.S. Grant did make a speech from the balcony of the Washoe House in 1869 where this incident occurred.

Northern California women served the Confederacy well as spies. Mrs. Rose Greenhow lived in San Francisco and found her way to Washington, D.C. A charismatic woman, she gained a great deal of information by charming Union officers. Due to her Southern sympathies she was briefly detained by the detective Allen Pinkerton (Lincoln’s bodyguard and a spy for Union General George B. McClellan). Greenhow was released to the Confederacy and then traveled to England and France. She drowned while attempting to smuggle European gold into the South. Lucy Coit (of the famed “Coit Tower” family) was also known to be a Confederate spy. Lily Hitchcock served the South as well. Her most famous escapade involved another Californian, Gen. Joseph Lancaster Brent. After being arrested at sea and a long, subsequent legal struggle Brent managed his release and went on to fight for the Confederacy. Before heading to the South he gave Lily Hitchcock information on the defenses of California which she smuggled to the South in a bag of dirty laundry.

Another interesting case is that of the Garnett brothers both of whom became Confederate generals. Robert S. Garnett who died early in the war designed the State Seal of California while his brother, Richard B. Garnett was killed during Pickett’s Charge on the third day of Gettysburg. The list of California Rebels goes on. Daniel Showalter served in the California State Assembly before retiring to Mexico. David S. Terry became Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, lived in Mexico, returned to live in Stockton and died in a gunfight. Erskine Thom was Mayor of Los Angeles and a California State Senator (his nephew, Erskine S. Ross briefly served on the California bench). Lieutenant George W. Gift served under A.S. Johnson and settled in Napa. One fascinating fact is that Sonoma County was the only county in California to vote against Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and 1864. I make no comment on Sonoma County politics here other than to note that it is moderately liberal these days on the surface.

The Confederate commerce raider “Shenandoah” was busy burning American whaling ships late in the war. After enjoying many spectacular blazes amidst the ice floes (the crews were not harmed) the raider was hailed by a British ship off the coast of California. After being informed that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox the “Shenandoah” sailed to England to give up the fight rather than return to a defeated Confederacy.

Standard histories of the Civil War do deal with the major battles, great historical figures and political ramifications of the conflict. Yet, we tend to forget the massive scale this war was fought on. Even though they lost the war, the South invaded Kentucky, Pennsylvania and New Mexico without success. The North succeeded in conquering all the Confederate states except Florida and Texas (another topic for possible political satire today). Confederate diplomats lobbied for recognition in England, France and Brazil. Their small navy operated above the Artic Circle, in the Sea of Japan and the Atlantic. Most of the Cherokee Nation (perhaps not forgetting, “The Trail of Tears”) fought for the South a move that did not improve their future prospects under the United States. Of course, the Union effort was even greater in scope due to the vast resources of the North. After “The Emancipation Proclamation” began to free the slaves the North held the upper hand morally as well. A victorious Confederacy certainly may have sought California, much of the West, Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Considering all of this; is it any wonder that California was so important during the Civil War?

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