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Civil War's 150th Anniversary: A Look At California's Role

Laura J. Nelson |
April 12, 2011 | 5:07 p.m. PDT

Senior Staff Reporter

(Courtesy of Creative Commons).
(Courtesy of Creative Commons).

The smoke-filled Civil War battlefields anchored in the collective memory of America are decidedly Southern: Gettysburg, Fort Sumter, Shiloh.

The Golden State, not so much.

No major Civil War battles were fought in California, and the state – just 11 years old when the war began – was more than 2,500 miles from the Mason-Dixon line. But that doesn't mean California didn't participate.

On the 150th anniversary of the first battle of the Civil War, Neon Tommy examines various roles California played during the war.

• • • •

A Financial Backer

During the first three years of the war, more than $170 million in gold passed through the Port of San Francisco. That specie soon became a primary source of income for the Union.

A Hotbed For Secessionists

In 1860, more than 30,000 of California's 130,000 registered voters – or about 23 percent – were Southern-born. The remaining 100,000 were split evenly between Northerners and foreigners. Lincoln carried California in 1860, but only won three of every eight votes. In L.A., where the L.A.-Times's Steve Harvey said secessionists could have been the majority, Lincoln only received 179 votes, less than 25 percent of votes cast. 

And a movement in the 1850s advocated for southern California to break off and form its own state. Secession seemed a distinct possibility until 1861, when the Union sent troops into the state to keep things under control.

Although San Francisco didn't seem to support the proposed north-south split in California, the Confederate press thrived there. The "Copperhead Press" building, run by so-called "Copperheads" who advocated for an immediate truce with the Confederates, was burnt down by a mob after Lincoln's assassination. 

San Bernadino County was full of Southerners who had relocated to Holcolm Valley during the Gold Rush. They soon joined forces with Mormons in the area who were unhappy with federal troops' treatment of their relatives in Utah in 1858. 

And after rumors swirled that Confederate privateers were going to seize Catalina Island as a home base for their gold raiding operations along the coast, all private residents were evacuated.

A Host To The Military

California played host to a handful of crucial military forts and camps, in part due to fears that the state would attempt to secede.

Union authorities, particularly worried about Los Angeles, established a number of camps in Southern California: Culver City (Camp Latham), greater LA (Camp Drum, now the last remaining war-era military facility in LA), San Diego County (Camp Wright), and San Bernadino County (Camp Carleton and Camp Morris). 

Alcatraz began during the Civil War as Fort Alcatraz, a Federal penitentiary.

A Manpower Machine

California sent nearly 17,000 troops to the Union Army – more troops per capita than any other state, according to the California Military Museum.

Physically, the Californian troops were bigger and stronger: their shoe sizes, hat bands and trouser lengths were all larger than those of the Eastern troops. And by the end of the war, California volunteers occupied more territory in the West than the entire Union Army in the East.

An Aid To The Southwest

For the CSA, winning Arizona and New Mexico would open a shining path to the ports of Los Angeles and San Francisco, where they could expand their territory, tap into California's precious metals, divert Union resources and build relationships with European and Asian countries.

Battles in the Southwest were crucial for that reason. Troops from California and other states battled not only the Confederate Army, but also combative Native American tribes, heat in the three-digit range and severe dehydration in desert conditions and wool uniforms.

A Few More L.A. Ties To The Civil War From The Times:

  • Several of LA's streets bear Civil War ties: Rosecrans Avenue was named for Union Army general William Rosecrans, who moved to Los Angeles after the war. Los Angeles National Cemetary near Westwood contains a Gettysburg Avenue, an Atietam Avenue and an Appomattox Drive.  More than 10,000 Civil War soldiers are buried there.
  • More than 30 Confederate soldiers are buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery
  • A grandson of U.S. President and Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant was a professor of geology at UCLA



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