For most Americans, the words California and the Civil War have nothing to do with each other. Yet, California played a surprisingly important role in that epic conflict. Long ignored by most historians and documentary film makers, California's contributions and sacrifices, both in men and materiel, deserve a national audience, While a few Americans might know that shipments of gold from California helped keep the Union solvent during the Civil War, almost no one know that California had more volunteers per capita in the Union Army than any other state. Nor is it generally known that by war's end California volunteers in the West occupied more territory than did the Union Army in the east.
Nearly 17,000 Californians enlisted to fight. Most of these men were keep busy in the West, but several companies of California volunteers saw action in the East as the California One Hundred or later the California Cavalry Battalion. These volunteers served with the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry and fought in 31 engagements, many of them in the Shenandoah Valley. Other California volunteers served with distinction in New York and Pennsylvania regiments. Edward Baker is but one example. A noted orator and early California Republican, Baker formed the 1st California Regiment. Baker died while leading the regiment in a charge across an open field in the battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861 and the regiment was then claimed by Pennsylvania and renamed the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.
Californians always seemed to be in the thick of the fighting and suffered a high rate of casualties, This is all the more surprising because California was, in many ways, a border state. Southerners residing in California accounted for a substantial portion of the population. In 1860 California had a population of some 430,000. About 130,000 were voters. Of them 50,000 were Northern born, 30,000 Southern born, and another 50,000 were foreign born, mostly Irish, British, and German. Thus, Southerners, most of whom were Confederate sympathizers, exercise a good deal of influence in the state. Furthermore, California was not a Republican state in 1860, both the California State Senate and the State Assembly were decidedly Democrat. Moreover, the governor, John Downey, was a Democrat. The governor, though, was a staunch Union man and he was able to stop the pro-Southern Democrats from winning control of his party.
With the Democrats split, Lincoln was able to carry California in the November 1860 election, although he won only 3 of every 8 votes. Early in 1861, in response to Lincoln's victory, pro-Southern Democrats issued a call for the secession of California and the creation of an independent Pacific Republic that would include Oregon and Washington, and possibly Now Mexico and Utah. Pro-Union Democrats responded with a huge rally in San Francisco. Some 15,000 participated, a figure equal to the number of voters in the city,
With passions inflamed, an ugly rumor spread, saying that Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Department of the Pacific, was part of a Southern conspiracy. Although General Johnston, a Texan, would later resign from the U.S. Army and become one of the Confederacy's leading generals before he was killed at the battle of Shiloh in April 1962, he was no part of a conspiracy. During the spring of 1861 Gen. Johnston remained true to his Oath to the Federal government. He garrisoned Fort Point in San Francisco and strengthened Alcatraz before turning over all government property in good order to Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner late in April 1861.
It was also late in April 1861 that the Pony Express brought news to California of the surrender of Fort Sumter on 14 April in South Carolina. The war was now on. The fact that it took 10 days, and by a combination of telegraph and Pony Express at that, to get the word to California says something about how far removed the Golden State was from the action. This did not, however, keep Californians from volunteering by the thousands.
Most Californians who joined the army saw service in the West, Altogether two regiments of cavalry, eight regiments of infantry, and two smaller units were organized in California and performed some kind of duty in the West, Some watched Southern sympathizers. Others fought Indians. Still others fought Confederates. Companies of California volunteers could be found stationed not only in California but in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. Two large expeditions, one under the command of General Patrick Edward Connor and the other led by General James H. Carleton, insured that the Central and the Southern Overland Mail routes stayed open.
In 1861 a Confederate force from Texas, under the command of Lt. Col. John R. Baylor, captured Fort Fillmore and Fort Mesilla. Then in 1862 a Texas unit commanded by Gen. Henry Sibley defeated a Union force under Col. E.R.S. Canby at the Battle of Valverde. Gen. Sibley then captured the towns of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and prepared to assault the Union's last stronghold, Fort Union, which guarded the Santa Fe Trail. To guard against a flanking attack from California, Gen. Sibley sent Captain Robert Hunter westward to capture Tucson, which the Texans did with ease
In response, cavalry and infantry from the California Volunteers were organized into what became known as the California Column. Colonel James H. Carleton was given command of the column. Carleton was a 20-year veteran of the Amy who had fought in the Mexican War during the 1840s and in engagements with Indian during the 1850s, He attained the rank of major before he retired and settled in California. When the Civil War erupted, Governor Downey appointed Carleton colonel of the 1st Infantry Regiment, California Volunteers.
In April 1862 Colonel Carleton led the California Column across the Colorado River to Fort Yuma and then along the Gila River on the old Gila Trail, Colonel Edward Fitzgerald Beale, famous for leading the U. S. Army's Camel Corps experiment, advised against using the Gila Trail, saying that the great size of the California Column would quickly exhaust the scant supply of water and grass on the route, Colonel Carleton, however, was up to the task. In a brilliant display of logistical planning, he broke his long column into smaller units and maintained enough separation to insure that the limited supply of water and grass was not overtaxed,
Eighty miles up the Gila Trail, Colonel Carleton's men saw their first action, At Grinnell's Ranch scouts from the California Column ran into some of Capt. Hunter's Texas Confederates. The skirmish was indecisive but it did constitute the westernmost action of the Civil War, a fact largely unknown even to historians who specialize in the war. Shortly after the skirmish at Grinnell's Ranch, the, Confederates trapped and captured some of the California Column's scouts at the Pima and Maricopa Indian villages, near the site of today's Phoenix.
Then, in the Battle of Picacho Pass, California volunteers got revenge. They whipped the Texans thoroughly and retook Tucson. The door was now open to New. Mexico and the stage set for a decisive battle with the Confederates. However, before the Californians arrived a unit from Colorado Volunteers defeated the Confederates in the Battle of Glorieta Pass, near Pecos, New Mexico, and the Confederates retreated to Texas, Colonel Carleton pushed the California Column into New Mexico and onto Texas where he captured Forts Bliss, Davis, and Quitman, The Californians engaged in their last battle of the campaign on the return trip, The battle was not against Confederates but against Mangas Coloradas and his Warm Springs band of Apache in southern Arizona.
Several companies of Californians remained behind in New Mexico and Texas for the duration of the war. Company K. 1st California Volunteer Infantry for example, was stationed at Ft. Union until April 1865 and was then transferred to Fort Lamed, Kansas where it remained until June, company K patrolled the Cimarron Trail and fought a number of skirmishes with the Apache and Kiowa and later escorted supply trains between Fort Lamed and Fort Leavenworth.
Colonel Carleton was promoted to brigadier general during the expedition and in September he assumed command of the Department of New Mexico, which included both New Mexico and Arizona. Meanwhile, the bulk of the California Column returned to the Golden State. The boys found themselves very much the honored veterans, Brigadier General George Wright, the commander of the Department of the Pacific, said: "I have never seen a finer body of Volunteer troops than those raised in this state." The Amy's top brass agreed, Chief of Staff, Major General Henry W. Halleck said: "It is one of the most creditable marches on record. I only wish our Army here (in the East) had the mobility and endurance of the California troops."
At the same time that Carleton and the California Column was helping to secure the Southwest, Colonel Patrick Edward Connor was leading a force of cavalry and infantry from the California Volunteers through the Great Basin and central Rockies on a mission to protect lines of communication, the U. S. Mail, and overland emigrants,
Colonel Connor was an Irish immigrant who began life in the United States serving an enlistment in the Army. During the Mexican War, Connor became the captain of a company of volunteers and fought with distinction. After the war he settled in California and was successful in business and politics. He also became one of the leading officers in the state militia, commanding the Stockton Blues. When the Civil War erupted, Governor Downey appointed Connor Colonel of the 3rd Regiment of Infantry, California Volunteers.
Under orders from the federal government, Colonel Connor led a combined force of cavalry and infantry over the Sierra Nevada and across the Great Basin to Utah. The fiery Irishman soon fell to quarreling with Mormon leaders, The loyalty of the Mormons had always been suspect and the recent Utah War had only made things worse The pugnacious and fierce Connor was not one to deal tactfully with the Mormons. On the other hand, Connor was an outstanding military leader. A superior officer described him as "a man of observation, undaunted firmness, and self-possession under all circumstances."
Colonel Connor found no Confederates in Utah but he did find plenty of hostile Indians. The spread of Mormon settlements northward from Salt Lake City and a gold rush to Montana in 1862 had angered Chief Bear Hunter and his Shoshones. The Indians soon took to the warpath, plundering, murdering, and raping. Early in 1863 Colonel Connor devised a bold plan for a midwinter Campaign against Chief Bear Hunter, then camped on the Bear River in the northeastern corner of Utah.
Pushing through snow and ice in sub-zero temperatures, Colonel Connor moved his California Volunteers, some 300 of them, rapidly northward. Chief Bear Hunter learned of Colonel Connor's approach but resolved to Stand and fight. He had more than 350 well armed warriors, many of them with the latest American rifles, and his village occupied a strong natural defensive position in a steep-sided ravine. The Shoshone had further strengthened their position by constructing rock and earthen parapets.
Colonel Connor and his California troops arrived at the Shoshone position on 29 January 1863. There was two feet of snow on the ground and the temperature was close to zero. The Indians were dug in and ready for action. Colonel Connor, an outstanding tactician, deployed elements of his force in flanking movements and soon had the Indians confused and pinned down. Nonetheless, the Indians fought with great courage. As Colonel Connor reported: The Indians "continued fighting with unyielding obstinacy, frequently engaging hand to hand with the troops until killed in their hiding places," After four hours of fighting, the surviving warriors broke and fled. They left behind 224 dead, including Chief Bear Hunter. In addition, 164 Indian women and children were taken prisoner. The California troops suffered 21 dead, 46 wounded, and 70 disabled by frostbite.
The crushing defeat of the Shoshone in the Battle of Bear River earned Colonel Conner a promotion to brigadier general, He followed up the victory with rapid movement of this troops, constant scouting and patrolling, and a number of small engagements and skirmishes that took his men into Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Nebraska, One company was eventually stationed at Fort Laramie in eastern Wyoming. By the fall of 1863, General Connor reported that "all routes of travel through Utah Territory to Nevada and California and to the Beaver Head and Boise river gold mines, my now be used with safety."
At the same time that the California Volunteers were operating in the Southwest and in the Great Basin and Rockies, they were also doing their duty in the Owens Valley. In April 1862, Lieutenant Colonel George S. Evans led men from the Second Cavalry, California Volunteers into the valley to aid homesteaders and ranchers who were barely hanging on against attacks and ambushes by Paiute warriors.
On the Fourth of July 1862, Col, Evans began the construction of a military post on Oak Creek in the heart of the valley. In honor of the day, he christened it Camp Independence. For the next several years companies of troopers from the Second Cavalry sallied forth from the camp to patrol the valley. During the spring and summer the action was frequent but usually of the skirmish variety, Each fall the Indians came in and made peace. They then lived off government rations until spring when they began their depredations again. There were dozens of skirmishes in the valley before Captain Moses A. McLaughlin developed a number of innovative tactics for dealing with the more than 500 Paiute warriors in the valley and the surrounding foothills.
All together the California Volunteers occupied more than a million square miles of territory and had troops in the field from as early as August 1861 until as late as June 1965 The efforts of the California man were not only critical in keeping California part of the Union and in keeping the flow of gold to Washington uninterrupted but also in keeping the Far West federal territory. Their contributions have long been ignored or little understood.
Updated 24 December 2008