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,


Citrus is a Good Place to Start

IMG_0117Those of you who were Cosmic America readers may remember a while back when I stumbled across a Union Civil War veteran’s grave in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Unsure of exactly who this person was, I turned to my readership to discover  – with the help of a few people much better at these things than I – that said veteran, one F.A. Whitehead, had served in two branches of the armed forces, had a run-in with the government over desertion (he name was eventually cleared) and wound up as a citrus farmer in Florida and ultimately…Southern California.

As we all know citrus farming was a primary motivating factor for a number of the Civil War era generation when it came to pursuing their livelihood in the West. Of those who moved to the region to proceed with this lucrative vocation, almost all were well-to-do middle class or higher types, and most were middle aged or older.

It took money, patience, and experience to succeed in the citrus business – something perhaps not best suited for a younger, perhaps insolvent individual.

I revisited Hollywood Forever Cemetery today to pay my respects to Whitehead and look for other Union veterans. I found plenty. So again…I turn to my readers. Any information on these fine fellows would be greatly appreciated. I wonder if they were in the citrus business too.

With compliments,


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A Difference Consumption Made

microscope-cellsWell aren’t these handsome little critters? The problem of course, is if you should happen across them, you might just find your self with a case of pulmonary tuberculosis. Our friends in the nineteenth century called it consumption. And it was a killer. By some estimates, in the mid-nineteenth century, consumption accounted for as many as one in seven deaths in certain regions (such as New England) of the United States.

By the 1870s, medical researchers had determined (after a number of years of isolating reports geographically) that climate could greatly help – even cure – those with early stages of consumption. In addition to vigorous activity and proper nutrition, warmth, sunshine, and aridity were believed to reverse the course of the disease.

And consumptives came to Southern California by the trainload. The disease – or rather, the hope of a cure – was thus one of the many motivating factors that brought the Civil War generation to the West in the 1870s and 80s. What is more important is that many, reclaiming their health,  stayed and would help build the region politically, economically, and culturally. Individuals such as James M. Guinn and Thaddeus S. C. Lowe come immediately to mind.

We have the Southern California boosters to thank. During the period the contributed to a real boomtime mania; as one historian suggests – promoting faith in the omnipotence of a healthful climate. Local analysts observed the growth of the “invalid” newcomer community and exactly what they brought to the table.

[quote]Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego counties have been practically developed and made what they are by the Eastern people who came out here for their health. They may be a ‘one-lunged crowd,’ as the facetious Missourians and old-timers dub them, but they have shown an amount of business and enterprise which puts the Californian to shame.[/quote]

And so it turns out that a pretty nasty disease became something of a developmental factor when it comes to the culture of Southern California, and as we will likely see in upcoming posts, sufferers having found their cure who stayed on to make a life in the West contributed handily to the identity of the region.

With compliments,

For an informative and well-written book on consumptives in Southern California by John E. Baur, with a new introduction by Robert G. Frank, Jr., see: The Health Seekers of Southern California 1870-1900.


Who is Harrison Gray Otis?

400px-Harrison_Gray_OtisYou didn’t have to search for long in late-nineteenth century Los Angeles to find a Union Civil War veteran. Sometimes, you would find one who had made quite a name for himself since the war. I give you Harrison Gray Otis – an Ohio native who left journalism to join the army in 1861 as a private, received two wounds in the conflict, and mustered out in 1865 as Captain Otis. Huzzah!

Otis went on in his journalistic career on the West Coast, first in Santa Barbara and finally in Los Angeles, where he took over the editorial position of the fledgling Los Angeles Times. During the war with Spain in 1898, he again left his career to serve in Union blue as General Otis, commander of volunteers in the Philippines.

Otis was a conservative nationalist his entire life. And his service in the Civil War and Spanish-American War reflected his attitudes toward subversives and those he deemed “un-American.” Thus his political stance against Socialism – a movement that was taking hold in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Los Angeles – was vehement. You were either “with me or against me,” he was known to say…leaving no room for fence-sitters.

I’ll be looking more into his career as this project unfolds. For starters we should know that he was instrumental in the promotion of Los Angeles, took part in the San Fernando Valley “land grab’ to benefit from the Owens Valley aqueduct, and was around to see his LA Times building dynamited as part of the battle between conservative “open shop” forces and those who wished to organize labor.  Fun times.

With compliments,


California as an Imagined Place

th One of the angles I am working as I begin this project is the idea of California – specifically Southern California – as an imagined place. I find it necessary to determine what people thought of this western land as they were pondering a possible move. Sure – they were well versed in the Ramona story. But there were a number of images from which they could draw to hopefully envision the landscape that they would soon call home.

Today I offer one vision – an ocean/arboreal scene by one of the great California Impressionists of the late nineteenth century, Guy Rose. Could this be the quintessential California landscape? One might observe the colors and the light playing on the leaves and water and suggest that the work is amiss to a degree. Born in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1860s, Rose trained in Europe and New York before returning to his native land – and he brings a visitor’s eye to his work on the Pacific coast. But would this have struck a familiar chord with migrating easterners trying to imagine and accept as their own a place so seemingly foreign? That question is certainly worth asking. So I will be asking it frequently. Because that’s what I do.

With compliments,


Americana. Public History. Historical Memory.