By Hayden McDonald ’25
From the fields of Pennsylvania to the towns of Virginia, from the hills of Kentucky to the plantations of Georgia, the American Civil War wrought death and destruction across the eastern United States. The so-called “western theater” of the conflict was constrained, in large part, to the Deep South and territory due east of the Mississippi river. The war is easily contracted to fit the framework of North vs. South. What, then, of the “Far West”? Discussions of the Civil War seem oddly out of place on the Pacific Coast, though both California and Oregon had been admitted into the Union in 1850 and 1859 respectively. For Americans living in the far west, the war was, in many regards, distant–a mere side note to daily life. But the news of the fearful clashes in the east reverberated across the plains and mountains, and reached the ears of Californians all the same, the ultimate repercussions of that fighting sure to impact the nature of settlement in the adjacent western territories. California, despite its relatively small contributions to the Union war effort, remained loyal. This is not to say, however, that all the citizens of the Golden State were of the same mind when it came to secession. Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina–these are some of the states that were most clearly divided during the war. Few, however, remember the divisions within California, nor the strong sentiments she housed for both the North and the South.
Accounts of Gettysburg, the battle which swiftly gained a reputation as the largest and most decisive of the conflict, echoed across the wide nation all the way to California, where they were met with two vastly different interpretations. A few months after the battle, a Bay Area newspaper named the Pacific Appeal published an account of a lecture given by a Reverend T. Starr King, an influential Californian minister and Unionist. In a lecture delivered at an African Methodist Episcopal Church on the history of the Mississippi River Valley, Reverend Starr King strayed from his present topic to offer a few remarks on the “patience and valor of American soldiers.” There is no question who exactly he meant by “American soldiers.” As he says of the late battle in Pennsylvania, “the valor of Gettysburg has never been surpassed, I believe in any battle in the world. The wicked hopes and the fierce expectations of the enemies of civilization” were valiantly struck down by the armies of the North. These “enemies of civilization” relied upon the institution of slavery as the economic backbone of their nation, one which Reverend Starr King found morally repugnant and fiscally unviable, stating, “the paper based on the visionary opulence of a great slave empire was worth even less than the Confederate bills.” The Confederacy was doomed through and through, he argued vehemently, and God’s favor would undoubtedly shine upon the Northern cause in the end, as the Union victory at Gettysburg had now “foretold.” With all this talk of slavery, freedom, and moralism, it is worth noting that Starr King’s audience for this lecture would have been predominantly African-American, though as the editor points out, “there were many white persons present.” Starr King was himself an abolitionist, and although California was a Free State, not everyone was enthused about that fact. His comments on the righteousness of abolition and the Union Cause fell on sympathetic ears amongst the parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
Compare the moralizing and nationalistic sentiments of Reverend Starr King’s lecture with an article published by the Los Angeles Star, the largest newspaper in southern California. Los Angeles was known at the time for housing a rather vocal population of pro-Confederate, pro-Secessionist advocates. Henry Hamilton, the head editor of the Star in the war years, was an acknowledged Confederate sympathizer, so much so that he was arrested and forced to take the oath of loyalty to the Union. It was this man who, in January of 1864, published an article attacking President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In it, he argued that “Mr.” Lincoln’s assertions regarding the moral fidelity of the Northern war effort were anything but. For him, Northerners were fighting to “ignore the distinctions of race and amalgamate their descendants with four millions of negroes.” It would not take too much extrapolation to guess Hamilton’s stance on the issue of slavery. Furthermore, according to Hamilton, rather than espousing any lofty ideals about the perpetuation of American democracy, Lincoln’s address clearly revealed that he was fighting to institute a “system where the minority rule over the majority.” Henry Hamilton’s article is, in many ways, a caricature of both prewar and postwar Southern justifications for secession. In it, he embraces all of the hallmarks of the Lost Cause — from States Rights to the inferiority of African Americans — long before the Southern cause is actually lost.
Where, then, is the unity in California’s approach to the Civil War? The state remained loyal, but clearly not all of its citizens agreed with that stance, as proven by Mr. Hamilton and his followers. California never saw any fighting in the Civil War, and the bloodshed of the conflict remained comfortably far-off for many of its citizens, but in a time of civil conflict where the stakes are high for both those directly and indirectly involved, sectarian divides sprout up everywhere, even on the opposite side of the country.