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,

Keith

7 thoughts on “John W. Robinson Sees Gray”

  1. I can’t disagree with you, but anecdotally wasn’t California the place where the secesh Mark Twain found succour after being scared out of the Nevada Territory?

    1. Thanks for the comment Lyle – but I believe Mr. Clemens spent his California days in the San Francisco area.

      1. Oh, I know he went to the San Francisco area afterwards. Northern California isn’t southern California of course, but it is still California. Where Mark Twain chose to go doesn’t undermine your argument about southern California obviously. It is just an anecdote about the state’s open mindedness at the time.

        Twain’s time in northern California seems to have changed him though. He’s apparently a different man once he leaves.

        1. Thanks Lyle – Civil War era California is such a fascinating place to study…with so many conflicting loyalties flying about (not to mention the northerners’ loyalties to gold!). Have you read Kevin Starr’s California? He has some interesting things to say about Twain’s time in the Golden State.

          1. My pleasure. You’ll enjoy it – the book is a great general history of the state.

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