California and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

Mission San Juan CapistranoMission San Juan Capistrano. (Photo: Orange County Archives flickr CC)

Although few people associate the Golden State with the Civil War, in fact, during the war years California was transformed in a multitude of ways – as was most of the country, though the transformation to the east is better-known. In early 1861 California was a remote outpost. Neither people nor mail could travel to and from the state except by a long, arduous, and possibly hazardous journey. Starting in April 1860, the Pony Express from Sacramento to St. Joseph, Missouri cut the time of mail delivery to about 10 days, a welcome development. After the outbreak of war, even this more rapid transmission of news was burdensome, however, because it meant that Californians were too long in the dark about momentous events. By the same token, the state’s scenic splendors were only beginning to be known in the East. Of course, Easterners knew about the gold, but most likely they knew little else that was positive, given the state’s rampant violence in the 1850s. A chain of events starting in late April 1860, though, helped make California and the East better acquainted with one another.

That month a young Unitarian clergyman, Thomas Starr King, arrived in San Francisco from Boston and almost immediately sought out Yosemite and other especially scenic features of the landscape. A few Americans, most notably newspaper editor Horace Greeley, had written about Yosemite before this, but when King began to publish a series of lyrical articles in the Boston Evening Transcript beginning in December 1860, he extolled not only the grandeur of the Sierras, but also the rolling hills of the San Francisco Bay Area and the view from Mount Diablo in the East Bay. His correspondence reveals how much readers appreciated these articles, including such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Before John Muir arrived in the state in 1868, King was the person most closely associated with nature writing about California. He even saw to it that Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes received Carleton Watkins’s pioneering photographs of the Big Trees in Yosemite.

Though not unique in his northern loyalties, King became a particularly effective sparkplug for rallying the state to the Union cause. More than 16,000 California men volunteered, though they mostly served in the West. What’s more, Californians from many different social groups – including Chinese merchants in San Francisco – donated generously to the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the predecessor to the Red Cross and the most important vehicle for providing humanitarian relief to northern soldiers.

That the California donations reached the New York office of the USSC quickly was thanks to another innovation of the war years, the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line in October 1861. Now funds could be wired across country – and war news could reach the Golden State far more rapidly. When this technology was coupled with the passage of the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, California was on its way to being well-integrated into the rest of the country by war’s end.

Another momentous event of the war years occurred in 1864 when Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state of California, legislation that paved the way for both the state park system and for Yosemite to become a national park in 1890. Thus even during the bloody war, the California landscape began to receive official national attention, attention that would bear fruit in the following century, when the state’s scenery would draw people from all over the world.

California’s Spanish colonial missions gained attention during the war, too. Secularized by Mexico in the early 1830s and returned to private ownership, the missions began to be returned to the Catholic Church in the late 1840s. But one of the most famous missions, San Juan Capistrano, celebrates a sesquicentennial very soon, because Abraham Lincoln signed documents returning it to the church on March 18, 1865.

Far less remote in 1865 than in 1860 and having demonstrated the capacity to rally for a larger civic purpose (despite the presence of a vocal group of pro-Confederates), California could claim its place as a member of the national community at war’s end. This is not to say that there were no costs to these developments – costs to be borne by Chinese railroad workers, displaced and brutally mistreated Native Californians, and dispossessed Californios, as the Latinos born in Mexican California were known. It is to say that it’s high time for the Golden State to be written into the national narrative of the country’s most significant event.

About the Author

Glenna Matthews

Glenna Matthews is an independent scholar with a doctorate in American history from Stanford. After giving up tenure at Oklahoma State University to return to her native state, she’s taught at several of the leading universities in California as a visiting associate professor. Her first book was Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. She also collects cookbooks.

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