Los Angeles: The Civil War’s Forgotten Front

By Ziv Carmi ’23

The role of the state of California is often seen as inconsequential to the momentous events of the Civil War occurring thousands of miles east. However, despite its distance from the larger conflict, California reflected the sectional division of the period. Indeed, Southern California[1], particularly Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, can be seen as a “forgotten front” of the Civil War, a secessionist stronghold that has faded in the collective consciousness of historical memory, but which speaks to both the universality of cultural and political division within the United States. As in the eastern portion of the country, demographic variance brought about the split between Unionists and Confederate sympathizers, creating an environment mirroring the needs and concerns of Easterners engulfed by the raging secession crisis and outbreak of war. Even after Appomattox, Southern California’s experience during this period represented a microcosm of a post-war United States attempting to grapple with the challenge of unsettled questions following the war, mainly the role of former Confederates in American political society and the nature of “reconstructing” the Union.

Only ten years old on the eve of the Civil War, California was still a developing state in 1860. Between 1847 and the first federal census (conducted in 1860), the population had almost tripled to approximately 308,000.[2] Despite this growth, however, there was still no rail link to the east, making the state feel isolated from the rest of the country (legislation creating the Transcontinental Railroad would be passed during the wartime years, and it would be finished in 1869).[3] Nevertheless, a fierce sectionalism permeated the state just as it did much of the country.

One of the best examples of the divisions within California is the results of the 1860 election. While generally, the trend was that either Lincoln or Stephen Douglas won the more populated counties while John Breckinridge took the more rural ones, the details are more complex. In Northern California, the voting patterns were far more diverse across the area than in the South; Lincoln handily won all of the counties in the Bay Area (with the exception of San Mateo), Douglas won a majority of the counties in the inland north and parts of the coastal north (as well as Sacramento), and Breckinridge won most of the central inland counties and a portion of the northern coast.

On the other hand, with the exception of two counties, all of Southern California voted for Breckinridge. Despite this monolithic appearance, the voting patterns of the Southern Californian counties are interesting: One of them, Santa Barbara County (present day Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, following its split in the early 1870s) voted heavily for Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat, aligning itself more with the rural Northern Californian counties than its neighbors, while the other, San Bernadino County (which included portions of modern-day Riverside County) voted for Lincoln, aligning itself with the more-populated coastal Bay Area.

While more research is needed to reach a conclusion about why these two counties voted the way they did, the numbers are shocking! The Sacramento Daily Union reported that, within Santa Barbara County, Breckinridge received 123 votes (about 26%), while Douglas got 305 (about 64%), Lincoln got only 46 (just under 10%), and Bell did not get a single vote. On the other hand, in San Bernadino County, Breckinridge received 192 votes (about 23%), Douglas 224 (about 27%), Lincoln 307 (about 37%), and Bell 98 (about 12%). Compared to their neighbor, Los Angeles County, where Breckinridge received 686 votes (about 39.5%), Douglas received 494 votes (about 28.5%), Lincoln received 352 votes (about 20%), and Bell received 201 votes (about 11.5%), the difference is clear.[4] The significant variances in voting patterns amongst these three counties might speak to larger national trends revealing the non-monolithic political sentiments even within regions, demonstrating that beyond the larger political developments across 1860s America, things were more complex than they seemed at even the most local of levels.

Even within individual counties, political sentiments were extraordinarily diverse. For example, once the war broke out, the city of San Bernadino became a staging and training ground for secessionists and Confederate sympathizers, despite the larger county supporting Lincoln by a margin of 10%. On the other hand, in some areas, such as the precinct of Agua Mansa in the southern portion of the county, where Lincoln won nearly 91% of the vote, Republican support was extraordinarily strong. These examples alone highlight that the 1860 election in California merits significantly more research because of the unusual circumstances surrounding the ways in which citizens voted, both across a singular state and within particular regions and counties of that state.

1860 Election by County (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

At this point in California’s history, the majority of the population lived in the north, either in Sacramento or the Bay Area, where most of the people who had moved west during the Gold Rush settled. On the other hand, Los Angeles was still a relatively unpopulated area, with only 9,221 people reported in Los Angeles County on the 1860 census. Indeed, unlike the sprawling city of the modern day, the “city” of Los Angeles had a population of 4,385 in 1860![5] Unlike Northern California, which was settled by people from all over America and the world seeking their fortune during the Gold Rush (and thus, largely did not hold distinct connections to the antebellum plantation culture), many Southern Californians had traveled West from Southern, slaveholding areas. These ensuing cultural differences became even more evident when, in 1859, the state legislature approved dividing California in two, with the northern half slated to remain “California” while the southern half[6] was to become “Colorado Territory.” This motion, however, became lost in the shuffle of national politics as tensions over slavery grew more inflamed in Congress.

The demographic and cultural differences between the “settled” north and more frontier-like south informed the vastly diverging political attitudes of the two halves of the state. In 1861, the pro-Southern sentiments of Los Angeles visibly manifested in early 1861. Following Albert Sidney Johnston’s resignation from the US Army, General Edwin Sumner was placed in charge of the Department of the Pacific, noting shortly thereafter that “dissatisfaction in the southern part of the State is increasing and becoming dangerous and it is necessary to throw reinforcement into that section immediately.”[7] Indeed, Sumner ordered troops from Fort Mojave in Arizona to Los Angeles, posting them, along with troops from Fort Tejon, near the town, anticipating an uprising. Sending Federal troops to garrison in the Los Angeles area was paramount, since, at the time, the only Federal outpost was a one-man quartermaster depot operated by Winfield Scott Hancock, the sole military presence in Los Angeles.[8] To the Union war effort, retaining control of Southern California was necessary. Not only could it provide an easy path for Confederate forces to invade the northern part of the state and seize the natural resources there (namely gold to finance their war effort), but it would also open a series of harbors that Southerners could use to circumvent the Union blockade of their ports.[9]

Hancock’s armory warehouse, the sole US Military posting in Los Angeles at the outbreak of war (courtesy of the California State Library).

Sumner’s concerns of internal unrest were indeed justified. Upon hearing of the shelling of Fort Sumter, many Southern Californians began flying the Bear Flag of the California Republic, now a clear sign of their support for states’ rights and secessionism.[10] Furthermore, the Bella Union Hotel, one of the most highly regarded hotels in Los Angeles, placed a large portrait of P.G.T. Beauregard, the commanding general at Fort Sumter, in their lobby, celebrating the Southerner who had achieved the Confederacy’s first victory. As the war progressed, pro-secessionist sentiments grew so strong that the city of Los Angeles canceled its July 4th celebrations in 1863 and 1864 as a protest against the Union.[11]

Bella Union Hotel, pictured in 1865 (courtesy of the California History Collection at the USC Library)

In fact, most prominent Angeleños were pro-secession. Local Unionist rancher Jonathan Warner wrote to the Sacramento Daily Union in April 1862, lamenting that

 “All our judges are secessionist [Hayes and Dryden] or at least strongly tinctured with it. Our Sheriff [Tomás Sanchez] is a secessionist; our Deputy Sheriff [Andrew King] ditto; our County Clerk [John Shore] ditto – in one word, all our own public officials, with the exception of the District Attorney [Ezra Drown] and County Surveyor [William Moore] are secessionists, root and branch.”[12]

Besides public officials, the media in Los Angeles was also sympathetic to the South. Henry Hamilton, the publisher of the Los Angeles Star, actively fostered secession, having fiercely criticized Lincoln even prior to his election. Hamilton published regular articles promoting states’ rights, white supremacy, and, following the Emancipation Proclamation, published an editorial stating that,

“By the stroke of his pen, Mr. Lincoln frees every slave in rebeldom — robs every master of his servant, every household of its property. Was ever such an outrage perpetrated in the name of law, or such foul perjury committed, as by this man, sworn to maintain the Constitution and govern by the laws.”[13]

Hamilton was not the only figure spreading Confederate rhetoric in Los Angeles. Edward Kewen, a former Attorney General (the state’s first) and native Mississippian, along with Senator Milton Latham (who had been elected as Governor in 1859 and held the position for five days before resigning to take the Senate position) regularly spoke out on behalf of the Confederate cause, holding rallies in the city outside of a popular saloon.[14]

Beyond simply expressing their support for the Confederacy, Angeleños tried to openly fight against the Federal Government. In March 1861, Los Angeles County Undersheriff Andrew King (who would be arrested for “treasonable expressions” in 1862) raised the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a pro-secessionist militia based in El Monte.[15] This group (often called the “Monte boys”) included several other county officials, including King’s boss, Sheriff Tomás Avila Sanchez. However, Federal forces quickly confiscated their arms, rendering this group useless shortly after its formation.[16]

While the Monte boys were quickly broken apart, other groups remained a threat to the Federal military. Prior to Sumner’s move of Federal troops to Los Angeles, in May 1861, Hancock learned that over fifty men were planning to meet at the Plaza in the center of Los Angeles, raise the pro-secession Bear Flag over the courthouse, and presumably, raid his armory.

Bear Flag design similar to what Californian Secessionists might have flown (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

However, at the same time, the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, the sole Confederate military unit that was raised in a free state, was planning to escape Los Angeles, cut through Arizona Territory, and arrive in Texas, where they could join the Confederacy. Their fellow rebels’ plan to take Los Angeles concerned the leaders of the Mounted Rifles, who did not want Federal attention upon them as they planned to leave California. As such, Sheriff Sanchez, a high-ranking member in both groups, persuaded the Monte boys to postpone any demonstration of force in Los Angeles, allowing those who wished to go east and fight, including Alonzo Ridley, another Undersheriff of Los Angeles, to leave and serve with Johnston (indeed, Ridley was by Johnston’s side when the General died at Shiloh).[17]

Despite their public advocation of secessionism, most of the Confederates of Los Angeles remained in office, likely due to their local popularity. Tomás Sanchez was re-elected as Sheriff in 1863 and 1865, serving in the position until 1867. Henry Hamilton was elected to the state Legislature. Cameron Thom, one of the Mounted Riflemen, became a captain in the Confederate Army, returned to Los Angeles after the war, and served as mayor of the city from 1882 to 1884.[18] Astonishingly, the state did not ratify the Fourteenth Amendment until 1959, and only ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in 1962 after the Democrat-dominated legislature rejected it in 1870. As was true across much of the defeated South, Confederate sympathizers still managed to prevail within the state long after the guns fell silent. Some historians, including Heather Cox Richardson, have argued that the outstanding issues behind the Civil War remained contested in the West, most notably the nature of state versus federal authority. For example, according to Richardson, many southern Democrats believed that the geographic isolation of the region meant that it was the only location free from the “dictatorial” Republican government in Washington, suggesting that the post-war West was the natural ideological successor to the idea of “states’ rights” so central to the Confederate mythos and thus, a location for former Confederates to continue fighting for their “Lost Cause.” Perhaps none can summarize the nature of these attitudes better than King, who declared vehemently in 1865, “we have been and are yet secessionist.” Indeed, the strong sympathy towards the South in a postbellum California demonstrates how, though now transformed to become political and ideological, the battles of late 19th-century America extended across the continent to the embattled forgotten front.

[1]In this article, Southern California is defined as the historical counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Bernadino, and San Diego.

[2] Library of Congress, “From Gold Rush to Golden State,” https://www.loc.gov/collections/california-first-person-narratives/articles-and-essays/early-california-history/from-gold-rush-to-golden-state/

[3] Ibid

[4]It is worth noting that in 1864, Lincoln received about 42% of the vote in Los Angeles County, about 80.6% in Santa Barbara County, and about 32.7% of the vote in San Bernadino County, all of which represented significant changes within the voter base from the prior election, suggesting a broader change in attitudes amongst Southern Californians (mostly in favor of Lincoln and the war effort) over the course of the Civil War.

[5] United States Census Bureau. “State of California, 1860 Census.” https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1860/population/1860a-06.pdf

[6] The five counties referred to as “Southern California” in this piece: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernadino.

[7] Walters, “Confederates in Southern California,” 46-47.

[8] Waldie, D.J, “‘We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist’- Los Angeles When the Civil War Began,” KCET, July 10, 2017, https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/we-have-been-and-are-yet-secessionist-los-angeles-when-the-civil-war-began

[9] Drum Barracks. “California in the Civil War.” https://www.drumbarracks.org/index.php/en/history/california-in-the-civil-war

[10] Walters, “Confederates in Southern California,” 44.

[11] Los Angeles Almanac, “The Confederate County of Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Almanac, http://www.laalmanac.com/history/hi728.php

[12] Waldie, “We Have Been.”

[13] LA Almanac, “The Confederate County.”

[14] Waldie, “We Have Been.”

[15] Waldie, “We Have Been.”

[16] Waldie, “We Have Been.”

[17] Waldie, “We Have Been.”

Works Referenced

Armistead, Gene C. “California’s Confederate Militia: The Los Angeles Mounted Rifles.” California State Military Museum, 2003. https://www.militarymuseum.org/LosAngelesMountedRifles2.html

Drum Barracks. “California in the Civil War.” https://www.drumbarracks.org/index.php/en/history/california-in-the-civil-war

Hill, Jennifer. “Los Angeles During the Civil War.” The Toro Historical Review, 1 (2016). https://journals.calstate.edu/tthr/article/view/2604

Library of Congress. “From Gold Rush to Golden State.” https://www.loc.gov/collections/california-first-person-narratives/articles-and-essays/early-california-history/from-gold-rush-to-golden-state/

Los Angeles Almanac. “The Confederate County of Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Almanac. http://www.laalmanac.com/history/hi728.php

Richardson, Heather Cox. West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War. Yale University Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1npj8s.

United States Census Bureau. “State of California, 1860 Census.” https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1860/population/1860a-06.pdf

US Government Publishing Office. “The Fifteenth Amendment.” https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/HMAN-112/html/HMAN-112-pg104.htm

US Government Publishing Office. “The Fourteenth Amendment.” https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/HMAN-112/html/HMAN-112-pg99.htm

Waldie, D.J. “‘We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist’- Los Angeles When the Civil War Began.” KCET, July 10, 2017. https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/we-have-been-and-are-yet-secessionist-los-angeles-when-the-civil-war-began

Walters, Helen B. “Confederates in Southern California.” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, 35, No. 1 (March 1953): 41-54. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41168387

Leave a Reply