Northern California and the Civil War

Union Forces Rush to Fortify San Francisco Bay

Pro-South Democrats Called for California to Secede, while Southern Sympathizers Pleaded With a Future Confederate General to Turn Over Union Guns and Ammunition. A Small Group of Rebels Were Quietly Arming a Schooner to Seize a Mail Steamer Carrying Gold, Then Sail Away to Attack Union Shipping.

Sunday, August 31 2008 11:06   California
The idea was simple: outfit a schooner for war, recruit a crew of Southern sympathizers, capture one of the mail steamers that each month sailed out of San Francisco Bay carrying at least a million dollars in gold, then go terrorize the Pacific Coast as a Confederate privateer.

The plot didn't come out of a Hollywood producer's script. It was real, and except for a slip of the tongue by one of the crewmen bragging during a night of drinking (as one account suggests) might have become more than just a minor footnote in California's role in Civil War history.
Union sailors, revenue agents and San Francisco police were ready at dawn on a cold March 15 in 1863 when the schooner J.M. Chapman, loaded with war supplies and 16 rebels hidden in a lower hold, quietly left the dock. The Union forces pounced. J.M. Chapman was seized without any resistance, the crew members arrested.

At the start of the Civil War, California was a hotbed of Southern supporters. While entering the Union in 1850 as a free state, many settlers had come from Southern states and the topic of slavery was a hair trigger for many. The Presidential election of 1860 found most California Democrats split over the issue, giving the state to Abraham Lincoln over his opponent, Stephen Douglas.

As Lincoln took office, many pro-South Democrats began talking about seceding to create an independent Pacific nation. Pro-Union Democrats quickly responded with a huge rally in San Francisco. As many as 15,000 supporters showed up to yell, cheer and parade for keeping California in the Union.

But that didn't stop talk of secession. Pockets of Confederate sympathizers could be found in the Central Valley, Sacramento and San Francisco Bay. In the name of the Confederacy, a handful of Southern sympathizers robbed a few stagecoaches making runs between Virginia City and Sacramento. They were mostly caught. One Confederate guerilla, Tom Poole from Santa Cruz, ended up being hanged.

But for one man's personal code of honor, armed rebellion against Union forces might have become more than just talk. The man was Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston, then commander of the Union Army's Department of the Pacific.

Born in the South, Johnston was a West Point graduate and veteran of many engagements including the War with Mexico. A respected career Army officer, he spent much time in Texas and considered it to be his home. When the South broke away, Johnston felt compelled to resign his commission and go home to Texas and the Confederacy.

Johnston's position as commander of the Army's Pacific forces gave him tremendous power. Southern sympathizers hoped, even prayed that he would use his power on behalf of the Confederacy, supply them with arms and ammunition and become a leader in getting California to break away.

The Union was worried that he might do just that.

A new commander, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, was quietly dispatched under sealed orders to go to San Francisco and relieve Johnston. In late April 1861, surprised with the sudden appearance of his replacement, Johnston obeyed orders and stepped aside. Johnston's resignation from the Union Army was accepted and the Texan fled southward, fell in with the Los Angeles Rifles (a militia unit "going over" to the Confederacy), eventually reaching Texas.

Confederate President Jefferson David was overjoyed, giving Johnston a commission as a general, and putting him in command of Western forces, making him the second highest ranking general in the Confederacy. Early in 1862, however, Johnston was mortally wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. Considered a brilliant leader, his death was a blow to the Confederacy.

What later came out was that Johnston had felt honor bound to uphold his duty and fulfill his role as the commander of all federal forces in San Francisco Bay. When pressed by Southern sympathizers, Johnston stood firm.

"I have heard foolish talk about an attempt to seize the strongholds of government under my charge," he wrote. "Knowing this, I have prepared for emergencies, and will defend the property of the United States with every resource at my command, and with the last drop of blood in my body. Tell that to our Southern friends!"

The Benicia Arsenal on the east side of San Francisco Bay was vulnerable, and Johnston acted quickly. He ordered more than 10,000 muskets and 150,000 rounds of ammunition to be moved to the Union post on Alcatraz Island for safe keeping.

"It was a crucial point to make, and the sense of honor that Johnston showed made a difference," Stephen Haller, Park Historian for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, told OldWestNewWest.Com. "If an armed contingent had been formed around San Francisco Bay, it would have complicated things, to say the least."

Dan Sebby, director of the California Military History Museum in Sacramento, agrees. The key to whether blood was to be shed over California rested with Johnston.

"San Francisco was the logistics center for the Army of the Pacific," he explained. "If Johnston had cooperated it would have been a different picture, because all the military supplies could have fallen into enemy hands. The militia would have had many problems, and the port would have been defacto Southern."

Instead, California stayed in Union hands and the wealth of the state continued to flow eastward into Federal coffers.

"California was important because San Francisco had the best harbor on the West Coast, probably the entire Pacific coast of the Americas," said Haller. "San Francisco was a chokepoint for economic development. The economic power was driven by California gold shipments, and silver coming from the Nevada Comstock. Most deep water trade for the Pacific ended up in San Francisco Bay."

Federal leaders in the East decided to rapidly build up forces in San Francisco. Sumner called in Union garrisons from the north. Fort Point, Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, the Presidio, Fort Mason and the Benicia Armory were strengthened with troops, fortified emplacements and heavy guns. Mare Island had already been established as a Navy base, and new seaport fortifications were started.

There is much of Civil War history to see around San Francisco.

"Unlike southern California, where really there's only the Drum Barracks in Los Angeles, San Francisco has a lot of the Civil War for visitors to touch and see," Haller said.

Here's a quick rundown.

Fort Point has been called "the pride of the Pacific," and the "Gibraltar of the West Coast." A four-tiered brick and granite fort designed to hold 126 cannon, it was built between 1853 and 1861 as one of a series of forts to protect the Bay against naval attack, potentially either British or Spanish. Just inside the entrance to the Bay, it was constructed of arched casemates, and was one of a series of massive, vertical-walled forts built at the time, and the only one on the West Coast.

The Presidio dates back to some of the earliest Spanish exploration and occupation of northern California. The U.S. Army took control in 1846. Just after the start of the Civil War the post was expanded and made a key component of the overall defense of the Bay.

Fortress Alcatraz was built on top of an island almost in the middle of the Bay. At the start of the Civil War Alcatraz Island was turned into a stone, brick and earthen stronghold with 111 cannon that nearly encircled the island. It quickly became a prison as well.

Benicia Arsenal is located in the city of Benicia in the East Bay. At the start of the Civil War, it was the primary arsenal for the Union Army. The Benicia Historical Museum complex is now located in some of the original arsenal buildings.

Fort Point and Fortress Alcatraz never had to fire a shot at an enemy vessel, but it almost happened. Shenandoah, a Confederate raider, was poised to enter San Francisco Bay, turn on the city and begin firing. By chance Shenandoah met a passing British ship who's crew shared the news that the war had ended. Shenandoah sailed away, becoming the only Confederate war ship ever to circumnavigate the globe.

There is a lot more of the Civil War to experience in San Francisco Bay, and additional bits and pieces can be found by visiting the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Web site at

The story of California and the Civil War is one of what-ifs and maybes. If Johnston had sided with Southern sympathizers, if the crew of the J.M. Chapman had been able to slip away and begin raiding shipping coming into and out of San Francisco Bay, if Captain Winfield Scott Hancock had not protected arms and ammunition in Los Angeles from being taken by pro-secessionists, if General Sibley's Confederate Texans had been able to reach southern California ... if, if, if.

Billions of dollars in gold (by today's standards) flowed out of California and into the Union war effort. More than 17,000 Californians volunteered to fight for the Union, and the state even contributed some of the finest cavalry-the California 100, for one example-to the war. California militia kept the border with Mexico and even fought many engagements with Indian bands in the state after the regular Army had been sent east.

California's Civil War history may be overlooked by some, but it sure makes for one heck of a story.


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