The Benham Guard was organized and mustered into the service of the State on June 11, 1856, in response to the Proclamation of Governor J. Neely Johnson declaring San Francisco in a "State of Insurrection". The company was named after their Captain, Calhoun Benham. B. W. Leigh was elected First Lieutenant of the unit.
The reason for the issuance of the Proclamation is a matter of history, but stated here briefly, was the result of the shooting of James King, popular editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, who had been ruthlessly scoring the corrupt politicians and lawless citizens of San Francisco. The shot that fatally wounded Mr. King was fired by James P. Casey. That shot not only took the life of Mr. King and led to the hanging of Mr. Casey, but also started a very serious uprising that could have led to a serious climax.
The Vigilance Committee which had been dormant for several years assembled, and demanded of Sheriff Scannell of San Francisco County, that Mr. Casey be delivered to them for trial and execution. After a conference between Sheriff Scannell, the Mayor and Governor Johnson, the slayer was turned over to the Vigilance Committee. The Vigilantes were growing in numerical force so rapidly that any attempt to hold Casey would have led to bloodshed and further complications.
Nevertheless, Governor Johnson issued a Proclamation declaring San Francisco in a "state of Insurrection" and calling the Militia to arms. The Proclamation was bitterly assailed by most of the press of the State, and when a rumor in San Francisco stated that Major General William Kibbe had demanded of the Vigilance Committee that the arms and two cannons taken from the "California Guard" be returned to the State, the editor of the Sacramento Union commented thusly:
"This military State officer, it seems, made a demand, for certain arms, two cannons, claimed by the State and now in possession of the Vigilance Committee. We do not see clearly why the General should have selected the present time to make the demand, unless the State had an immediate use for guns the time selected to make the demand seemed inauspicious The first gun fired by order of the Military at the people of San Francisco" , continues the editor, "will be the signal for the general rallying from all parts of the State, on the side of the citizens of that City and it causes a shudder to reflect upon the terrible scenes that would follow. An order of the Military to fire on the people of San Francisco is one that the State officers had better pause long before giving."
The editor then pointed out that there was an insurrection in San Francisco in the true sense, but not enough to justify a resort to Military arms.(1)
Trying as the situation was, great credit should be given Governor' Johnson for attempting to uphold properly the constituted authorities in obedience to his oath. The Governor mustered into service new companies of militia and recruited the thinned ranks of the older companies up to the required standard, then ordered them to protect the property and arms of the State, No doubt., the presence of the militia ready for immediate action had a quieting effect on the actions of the Vigilance Committee, so that at no time was its actions and decisions in any way revolting, nor can it be doubted but what justice was meted out honestly.
The Benham.Guard was one of the newly organized companies that served the State in compliance with their oath. Their duties consisted mainly of guarding and watching the property of the State, which was a twenty-four hour program every day, divided into eight hour watches.
When in the latter part of August the Vigilantes believed that the City was well rid of the undesirables, they voted to disband. With the disbanding of the Vigilance Committee and the regular constituted authorities once again restored to their proper positions in the City, Governor Johnson decided to disband the troops on active duty. Accordingly on September 11, 1856 , the Benham Guard was mustered out of the service of the State having served in active duty three months.
(1) Sacramento Union, June 2, 1856, page
1, column 5.