Category Archives: Civil War

John W. Robinson Sees Gray

Picture 2Recently, I wrote a brief post reflecting on the presence of Confederate sympathies in Southern California. I concluded that Southern California – while clearly Democratic – was not necessarily Confederate. Perhaps they other things on their minds…perhaps. At any rate, I was not convinced that legions of Southern Californians were ready to rally around the Stars and Bars.

A commenter very nicely suggested that a look at John W. Robinson’s Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 might help me along in my thinking. So I have had a chance to read Robinson over the weekend and I am still not convinced, as Robinson’s cover would have you believe, that Los Angeles (or any other Southern California city) counted among its residents a “clear majority” of secessionists.

I will be the first to admit that the Confederacy had its proponents in the City of Angels. The “Chivalry,” as they were known – a group of southerners who resided in the Los Angeles area and stood firmly behind secession – were an influential lot and boasted some prominent members among its ranks.

But Robinson analyses this group and a few of its confreres in some troubling ways. To begin. Robinson notes little of the ebb and flow of wartime allegiances until the very last few pages of the book, when Union victory and Lincoln’s assassination pulled Angelenos together. Robinson’s Los Angeles is a mostly unbending city where residents shift little with news from the East – an unlikely tale as voting records alone would indicate between 1860 and 61 (more on that later).

Second, Robinson conflates Democratic griping and groaning with secession and loyalty to the Confederacy. The Democratic Party in Southern California in the 1850s and 60s was a fragile lot. Many were certainly opposed to the war and the Lincoln administration and many could be convinced that the southern states should be left to do what they wanted – indeed…to go in peace. But this does not make them secessionists.

Finally, the most problematic aspect of Robinosn’s argument is that he relies almost exclusively on one source: the vitriolic anti-abolition and pro-Confederate newspaper Los Angeles Star. Headed by Henry Hamilton, an Irishman not known for his love of Lincoln, black people, or anything northern, his paper was filled with vehemence against a war waged mercilessly against the white people of the South. Hamilton himself was something of a mystery. He seems at once to favor joining the Confederacy, restoring the Union as it was, or claiming neutrality and forming a Pacific Republic.

It is indeed true that Confederate sympathizers made their voices heard in Los Angeles, but I am still not convinced that they constituted an overwhelming majority – as Robinson suggests. And it doesn’t seem that the United States government was overly concerned either. They certainly stationed federal troops in the area to maintain the peace should anyone decide to get out of hand and seize government property in the name of Jeff Davis…there was at least some precaution there. But there was no martial law, no suspension of habeas corpus, and the few who were arrested were quickly released after signing loyalty oaths.

If someone can direct me to some really strong evidence that the Secesh held sway in LA, I will be happy to revise my thinking. In fact, I welcome it – such evidence would make a terrific story! But until then, I will stick to my premise that many in Los Angeles were opposed to the Lincoln administration and even the war, but were not necessarily donning the Rebel gray.

With compliments,


Southern California and the Confederacy

HD_TheUnionisDissolvedYou hear tell from time to time from academic circles and elsewhere that the southern counties of the state of California leaned toward the southern states during the secession crisis and sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War. The logic is simple, really. 1) The 1860 voting returns clearly show that while the Republicans could claim California as a whole, the southern counties voted decidedly against Abraham Lincoln – and instead, returned a respectable vote for John C. Breckinridge – the state rights/Southern Democrat candidate. 2) Land holders, profiting from a labor system held over from the mission years that in many ways resembled southern chattel slavery, could relate to the southern master class and their efforts to keep their institutions intact in an independent nation.

While both of the points are unquestionably accurate, did they make Southern Californians rebels? I am not convinced.

I am beginning to sense a pattern forming as I read through much of the literature on Southern California during the 1850s. There is another possible reason why Southern Californians would have looked favorably on a state rights effort that had more to do with internal issues rather than national ones. Southern Californians had independence on the mind, as it were. Influential individuals recognized that Southern California was indeed a distinctive region and had been, for at least a few years since California gained admittance to the Union, been pushing for a separation from the northern part of the state (along the Tehachapi Range north of Santa Barbara). In fact, the issue was set for a vote and a petition to Congress –  and it looked as though Southern California was heading for statehood…until the Civil War broke out and put the issue off for a while.

Could Southern Californians (few that they were in 1860) have been localizing a national crisis to fuel a secession movement of their own? Perhaps. But I do not think that the region ever solidly backed the Confederacy or the Confederate War effort beyond a few isolated examples of rebel revelry. We’ll see. I am sure I will have much more to report on this subject as my research continues. N.B. The push for statehood never really regained the momentum it had lost in 1861 – but more on that later. Your thoughts are, as always, more than welcome.

With compliments,