The Myth of Southern Reaction – By Rich Madrid

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The following is a contributor post by Mr. Rich Madrid, a former Navy LT, Civil War historian and all-around good guy. I’ve left the piece unedited, in its original form, adjusting just a few things in terms of spacing and formatting. Enjoy. – Matthew

Popular American Civil War mythology posits that Southern disunion was a reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860.  Southerners seceded from a union they felt to be hostile toward states’ rights and the southern way of life.  Slavery was a benign institution.  The slaves were happy in bondage.  The goal was the perpetuation of a narrative of heroic struggle against the forces of tyranny that would last long after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House.  Indeed, Gary Gallagher notes,

“The architects of the Lost Cause acted from various motives. They collectively sought to justify their own actions and allow themselves and other former Confederates to find something positive in all-encompassing failure. They also wanted to provide their children and future generations of white Southerners with a ‘correct’ narrative of the war.”[1]

In the antebellum era, southerners led failed expeditions into new territories in the hopes of acquiring new lands to continue their slave-planter economy, into places like Cuba and Nicaragua.  On the homefront, South Carolina threatened to secede to twice: 1) Once in 1833 using the tariff and the threat to their economy as a pretext that President Andrew Jackson quickly squashed, and 2) In 1850, over the issue of California statehood established by the Compromise of 1850.  Ironically, South Carolina had their own secessionist supporters in the new state of California.  California tried and failed three times to secede during the period of 1849-1860 form their own northwest republic.  The prevailing evidence shows that indeed Southerners and their allies were preoccupied with disunion prior the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The roots of Southern disunion in the antebellum era have many causes, not least among them the issue of slavery and the battle over newly acquired territories.  California garnered national attention when gold was discovered in early 1848.  By 1849, word of the California gold rush had spread across the world, bringing upwards of 90,000 “forty-niners” from the United States, Latin America, and Asia. That year also saw creation of a state constitution, governorship, and legislature, and as part of the Compromise of 1850, California officially became a U.S. state.

The irony in the debate of over the causes of secession from the federal government is that while Southerners today and in the Civil War era tried relentlessly to claim that they were provoked by the federal government, it was Southern politicians openly fomenting revolution and baiting the federal government by challenging all attempts at dividing the newly acquired western territories.  This national conflict spilled over into California by 1849 at the state constitutional convention when Mississippi slave-owner William Gwin made the first of three attempts to obtain pro-slavery territory in California by deliberately drawing the state’s eastern boundary at the edge of the Rocky Mountains.  His rationality was that the state would be so large that the United States Congress would never approve it.[2]  The Northern men to convention discovered Gwin’s plan and secured passage of a boundary reconsideration in the convention’s final hours, making the new boundary the crest of the Sierra Nevada’s.

State legislature battles raged for a decade between Southern and Northern Californians and whether or not Southern California, made up of pro-slavery southerners, should secede and form a new state to the union that would maintain the South’s balance of power nationally by granting two pro-slavery Southerners to the U.S. Senate.  The 2nd attempt took place in 1854 when Assemblyman Jefferson Hunt of San Bernardino introduced a bill in the legislature that would divide California between the coast from Santa Cruz to San Diego and the interior portion of the state.  The bill was supplanted by a bill by members that would divide the state into three territories: Shasta (present-day northern California), California (present-day central California from Santa Cruz to the San Bernardino Mountains and east), and Colorado (present-day Southern California.  The bill passed the Assembly with little opposition but stalled before it reached the Senate.  Since California politics was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats at every level, legislators were confident this bill would pass the next session of the legislature in 1855, thus giving the national party six additional votes in Congress instead of two.  However, the Know Nothing Party dominated the elections and won the governorship that year as well as electing state legislators and Congressmen to Congress.  The bill died thereafter.

The final attempt at secession followed a wave of Democratic Party resurgence in 1857, retaking seats in key government positions such as the governor’s office and other executive offices and retaking legislative seats back from the American Party.  Assemblyman Andres Pico introduced a bill in the Assembly that would split California in two, with six southern counties forming the territory of Colorado (Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Tulare).  The bill overwhelmingly passed in the state legislature and was signed by Governor John Weller and was put to a referendum vote in the 1859 general election in those six counties, where it too passed by overwhelming majorities with 2,477 votes for and 828 votes against.[3] The proposal was sent to Congress where it met with little fanfare and was stifled by the current sectional crisis.  Neither President Buchanan nor Congress was willing to split California in two.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 ushered in a new era of disunion among pro-slavery secessionists in California.  General Albert Sydney Johnston, then in charge of the Department of the Pacific and the Federal Armory in Benicia, California, proclaimed, in the face of conspiracy to commit treason and seize the armory, that he would defend his post until the last man.  Plans to create a Pacific republic out of territory in Northern California and part of Oregon rested on General Johnston’s cooperation.[4]  Knowing that his sympathies lay with the secessionist cause caused him to be removed from his post and was replaced with General Edwin Sumner.  General Johnston subsequently resigned his Army commission and rode south and east across New Mexico territory and Texas and assumed command of the Confederacy’s western armies.[5]

Shortly after Johnston left his post in Benicia, but prior to him heading east to join the Confederate cause, he made his way to Los Angeles before slipping out of sight in the midst of federal Army search parties.  Prior to the US Army arriving in Los Angeles to put down pro-secessionist rebellions, several of California’s militias had been disbanded due to divided union and confederate loyalties. A growing secessionist movement began forming when news of the first states to secede had reached the west coast.  Two bands of pro-confederate loyalists to successfully form were the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, among its most famous members was Los Angeles County Sheriff Tomas Avila Sanchez, himself a confederate sympathizer, and the Monte Boys, led by AJ King, another Los Angeles Sheriff.  News of the attack on Fort Sumter reached the west coast by April 24, crushing any hopes the Mounted Rifles had of serving the Confederacy in California.  Not long after, two Federal armies took up positions in Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties (present day Big Bear) to quell any disloyal activities.  The fate of the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles was determined by the war out in the east, where several members of the militia soon found themselves after unsuccessful attempts at creating a Confederate proxy state in California.  Once they disbanded, they primarily joined up with the Texas regiments.  General Lewis Armistead, who had escorted Johnston out east as part of the Mounted Rifles, later died leading Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.  Nonetheless, the presence of federal troops in Los Angeles soon succeeded in quashing any resistance to the Unionist cause.  Confederate sympathizers were caught trying to subvert enlistments into the Union Army, stirring up election day riots, and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.  Union disloyalists were among the first prisoners to occupy the newly commissioned prison on Alcatraz Island, under command of the Department of the Pacific.

Reverberations were felt all across the country as rebels disloyal to the Union sought to control federal lands and armories in an attempt to supply their own war effort.  One thing that likely saved California was the distance it had between the western front of the war and itself as news took weeks to travel, giving federal armies’ ample opportunity to position themselves as defenders of the Union.  Another reason California remained relatively stable during the war was that it saw a huge economic boost after the federal government had integrated the west into the rest of the nation by means of the transcontinental railroad and the transcontinental telegraph line.  The war did much to modernize California, both economically and culturally, in no small part due to the resourcefulness of Californians to willingly resist their disloyal brethren.

This venture into California history just prior to the Civil War was eye-opening for a native Californian like myself, who grew up west of Los Angeles in Orange County, today still battling with its own pockets of neo-Confederate sympathizers and home to a handful of hate groups sympathetic to a cause still popular in Civil War myth.  The paranoia surrounding the election of Abraham Lincoln caused many pro-slavery sympathizers to take up arms in a preventive war aimed maintaining the status quo. There is no credible evidence that President Lincoln was interested in eradicating the institution of slavery after his election (though recent scholarship suggests that he was eventually headed that way), yet rebels as far west in Los Angeles felt the need to foment rebellion and push for secession for the sole purpose of maintaining the peculiar institution and an archaic way of life in the face of a rapidly advancing society and the prospects for new economic opportunity west of the Mississippi and into what is present day Colorado and California.  If any attempts at secession or if the state legislature had been able to split California into two states, it would have maintained the balance of power in the 1850s to largely favor the South in Congress, as any new state would have given the Senate two more pro-slavery votes and the Senate would not have gained a Republican majority until 1862 vice 1860.  However, the addition of two or potentially 3 electoral votes in a new state would not have influenced the outcome of Lincoln’s election.  And I think we are thankful for that.


[1] Gallagher, Gary and Alan T. Nolan, eds. 2000. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[2] Guinn, J.M. 1905. “How California Escaped State Division.” The Quarterly – Historical Society of Southern California, 5-6, pg 223-232.

[3] Ibid, pg 230.

[4] It should be noted that this story to create a Pacific Republic has yet to be substantiated, yet nonetheless exists in the lore surrounding California seccession. See Matthews, Glenna. 2012. The Golden State in the Civil War; Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the birth of Modern California. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[5] General Johnston was later killed at the Battle of Shiloh.

Dropping the Monuments and the Excuses

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If you follow Civil War news — and I imagine if you’re visiting the blog you just might — you’re probably aware that New Orleans decided this week to remove four Confederate monuments from public display within its city limits. The removal comes in the wake of a national surge of similar events, as institutions and municipalities across the country have considered disassociating themselves with Confederate iconography.

Still (as always) much controversy abounds about the appropriateness of removing the monuments from public grounds. Aside from the Southern “heritage” circles where this does not come as a surprise, a small number of contrarian academic historians and Civil War hobbyists have made the argument that removing these monuments erases history and destroys an educational opportunity. This argument has been perpetuated on several historical blogs and even the Wall Street Journal, each too frustratingly shallow for me to even link.

Gallagher on Memory; Dissent on “Turning Points”

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Just a quick post this week. I’ve been wrapped up with traveling, paperwork and holiday stuff these past two weeks. That time of year.

I *love* the history “trade” mags. Civil War Times and Civil War Monitor are among my favorite things to see tucked into my mailbox. Awesome imagery, and tons of finely edited anecdotes from people with a finger on popular history, often less wooden than the academic stuff you get elsewhere.

In the latest Civil War Times, University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher has an interesting little column on memory. It’s fascinating start to finish, and much of it I agree with entirely. There are a few things, though, which I think are a little “academic groupthink” or in the bubble, and again demonstrate the difficulty and intrigue of memory studies.

The Role of “Galvanized Yankees” and the Frontier Scout

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One of the lesser known initiatives of the Union Army — first starting at the outbreak of military options in 1861 and returning after a federal ban in 1864 — was the mustering of Confederate prisoners into Union service. They would become known as the “Galvanized Yankees”, a term meant to describe the thin layer of loyalty with a steely resolve present underneath.

Should Confederates Be Considered “U.S. Veterans”? — How Memory Influences the Debate

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Should Confederates Be Considered “U.S. Veterans”? — How Memory Influences the Debate

Are Confederates “US Veterans”?

It’s a question that gets at the heart of Civil War Memory and Heritage studies, and one that most recently has had some practical influence on our nation’s federal military grounds and historical sites.