California and the Civil War
Who's Got the Gold?
By Colonel Norman S. Marshall
California Center for Military History
This article was published under the title: Protecting the Gold in the winter 1998 issue of the Los Angeles Westerners Corral, pp. 13-15.

In the first three and one-half years of the Civil War there had passed through the Port of San Francisco $173,083,098 from the California mines and the Comstock Lode of Nevada. This immense treasure fed the coffers of the Union in its trials with the Confederacy and marked California as a prime target for Southern sympathizers. In contrast, the Confederacy was starved for cash and credit throughout the entire war. At war's outbreak, there was in the seven Confederate states only $27,000,000 in specie, beyond that lay nothing save the dubious expedients of credit and confidence. To seize gold shipments was the subject of at least two plots.

The Confederate States of America (CSA) lacked the capacity to produce men-of-war and had to rely on European shipyards to produce ships needed to run the blockade of the Southern ports so as to export cotton which was sold to provide funds for ships and other armaments.

The two most famous raiders, both built by British shipyards, were the FLORIDA, captained by John Newland Maffit, and the ALABAMA, under Captain Raphael Semmes.

The FLORIDA, originally named ORETO, was armed in the Bahamas by British suppliers and was rammed and sunk at Bahia, Brazil by a U.S. warship in October 1864 in flagrant violation of International Law, but an action was dictated by wartime necessity.

The ALABAMA, in the winter of 1862-1863 sank 70 United States ships after steaming from Birkenhead, England, over strong American protests, and armed herself in the neutral Azores to begin her career as a commerce raider. The ALABAMA was sunk in a three-hour battle off Cherbourg by the USS KEARSARGE, skippered by Semmes' classmate Thomas Winslow. Ultimately, in 1885, an international tribunal awarded the United States $16,145,830 paid by Great Britain as claims made against the depredations of ALABAMA and FLORIDA.

In California, southern sympathizers named the mining district near Independence the Alabama Hills, which later became the site of numerous western and adventure movies. Northern sympathizers similarly celebrated the defeat of ALABAMA by naming the Sierra Nevada pass Kearsage.

To protect the area, some 17,000 Californians were brought into military service. Practically all enlistees in the army except for 500 sent to Massachusetts as cavalry, served on the western front to thwart Southern incursions and keep peace among the Indians, but as was obvious from the Alabama hills, there was strong pro-southern persuasions which demanded military force to counter. Secessionist "hot heads" were located in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and El Monte which led to counter-steps of stifling the free press and suspension of the Writ of Habeus Corpus which were tolerated by the general populace.

Those "hot heads" were not slumbering malcontents. A real plot to seize the California gold shipments was discovered and thwarted with the seizure of the ship, J.M. CHAPMAN, in San Francisco Bay by the USS CYANE, revenue officers and San Francisco police. A like effort was thwarted by seizure of the SS SAN SALVADOR.

At the outbreak of the war, the United States Pacific Squadron consisted of only six ships. Their tonnage was under 7,000 and there were only 100 guns among them with scarcely 1,000 sailors manning the ships. Their job was to cruise the Pacific Coast protecting commerce from California to Panama and guarding the whaling fleet from Alaska to Hawaii. Their story is told in Aurora Hunt's book, The Army of the Pacific; Its operations in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, plains region, Mexico, etc. 1860-1866, under the chapter The Pacific Squadron of 1861-1866, which follows this article.

Though supplemented during the war to an eventual squadron of 15 ships with crews recruited from San Francisco, their vigilance was very important. The arrival of the monitor, CAMANCHE, in 1863 offered protection to the Port of San Francisco, but only after she was raised from the harbor bottom from her sunken carrier AQUILA. There was even a movement to install a giant chain barrier across the Golden Gate similar to the West Point model during the Revolutionary War.

The efforts proved successful and California's wealth was saved to help the Union. California did recognize the services of its volunteers by providing pensions for soldiers, sailors and marines, a retirement for veterans, benefits for widows and orphans and burial allowances. This short footnote in our State's history is worth remembering.

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Updated 8 February 2016