In the decade between California’s admission to the Union in 1850 and the start of the Civil War in 1861, seething national tensions over slavery and succession reached across the continent to impact the development of statehood in California.
In 1849, President Zachary Taylor, mindful that the admission of California to the Union as a free state would upset the even balance of power in Congress between pro- and anti-slavery senators, directed his military governor in California, General Bennett Riley, to form a government as quickly as possible, and deal quickly with the issue of slavery. Because the Senate had just approved the admission of Oregon as a free U.S. territory in 1848, Taylor knew that Southern senators would want the next state admitted to the Union to support slavery. Although Taylor was himself a former slave owner, he believed that California, having outlawed slavery when it was a Mexican territory, should not have it imposed by outsiders. Elected president as a member of the Whig party, Taylor took care to support the anti-slavery or “free-soiler” wing of California’s Democratic Party. He funneled federal patronage and jobs to California’s young senator, David C. Broderick, a former ward boss for New York’s Tammany Hall. This led to a decade-long feud between California’s two leading politicians of the era, the other being William Gwin, a former plantation owner from Tennessee. He led the “Chivalry” faction of the Democratic Party, comprised of recent California immigrants from Southern states.
In September, 1849, only nine months after the discovery of gold, the state sent 48 delegates to Monterey to draft a state constitution and decide other aspects of government. A majority of the delegates came from Northern California and represented the interests of the state’s mining community. These voters believed deeply in the dignity of labor. They were aghast that a plantation owner might send slaves to work a mining claim and enjoy the rewards without personal toil and effort. The delegates unanimously approved the state’s constitution declaring California as a free state.
Given the national stalemate over slavery, California was admitted to the Union only with the Senate’s passage of the Compromise of 1850. This package of five different pieces of legislation, cobbled together through the efforts of three legendary senators (Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and Stephen Douglas of Illinois), gave the South an expanded boundary of Texas (a slave state), allowed for the possibility of slavery in the New Mexico and Utah territories, strengthened the fugitive slave act, while at the same time outlawing the slave trade in the Washington, DC and accepting California to the Union as a free state.
Leland Stanford, one of the “big four” Sacramento-based businessmen who invested in the Central Pacific Railroad, ran for governor in 1859 as a member of the new Republican party. He was elected on his second try in 1861, the same year that the Civil War began. Meanwhile, the pro-slavery, Chivalry wing of the Democratic Party united with the Southern California-based Californios and cattle barons, who resented the heavy land taxes imposed by Northern Californian politicians, and petitioned the federal government to divide the state with the southern portion loyal to the Confederacy. The petition, arriving on the eve of Civil War, was ignored. Governor Stanford was able to get the state legislature to pass a resolution proclaiming California’s loyalty to the Union cause. He is credited with saving the state from division and remaining loyal to the Union.
California was geographically remote from the Civil War’s battles. East Coast politicians deemed it too expensive to transport any of California’s 258,000 male residents to the battlefront. (The Confederacy, which could have used the additional soldiers, was so lacking in funds they couldn’t even consider the option of assisting or organizing such recruitment.)
Some pro-union Californians volunteered to fight with the Second Massachusetts Cavalry and traveled on their own to enlist. The majority of California’s Civil War participants protected trade routes and steamer ships sailing out of San Francisco and San Diego harbors, laden with gold. In 1862, the Confederacy invaded New Mexico under the leadership of Brigadier General Henry Sibley. Union General George Wright, stationed first in Oregon and by 1862 in Southern California, ordered up a California column of eleven infantry companies, two cavalries, and two artillery batteries to march to New Mexico to repel the Confederate’s advance. They reached Tucson by July and later marched to the Rio Grande but the Confederates had already withdrawn from the area. Still, their presence is given credit for preventing any further excursions by southern troops into western territories.
California’s gold turned out to have more impact on the Union than any contingent of California soldiers during the conflict. Steamer ships leaving San Francisco to sail through the Panama Canal to Washington, DC, carried on average one to two million in gold to support the North’s credit with Britain and France. The largest amount that California sent east was $46 million in gold, the purpose of which was to buy arms, food, and clothing for more than a million Union soldiers. In addition, the state’s miners contributed more than $1 million to the Sanitary Commission—the Red Cross of its day—amounting to one-fourth of the total raised during the war. General Ulysses S. Grant credits California with providing the financial assistance which enabled the Union to win the war.
- Students analyze the multiple causes, key events, and complex consquences of the Civil War.