Times Past: Civil War-era postmaster helped keep California in the Union

Special to The TribuneOctober 6, 2012 

Alexander Murray felt politically isolated at the beginning of the Civil War.

San Luis Obispo’s postmaster apologized for the small donation, $524, he was forwarding to the United States Sanitary Commission on Nov. 27, 1862. But, he added, “taking into consideration the few unconditional Union men there are located here, it is beyond my expectations.”

The Sanitary Commission was a private relief agency directed by noted architect Frederick Law Olmsted, supporting sick and wounded federal soldiers. A predecessor of the American Red Cross, it had thousands of volunteers and raised more than $25 million during the Civil War.

Alexander Murray, brother of the founder of this paper, Walter Murray, was the San Luis Obispo county contact for the USSC. His position as postmaster paid very little, although it did make him the local representative of federal authority. His income came from running the main saloon in San Luis Obispo. From that position, he kept tabs on local opinion and often was not happy with what he heard in the barroom.

As the secession crises grew after Lincoln’s election in 1860, virtually all of neighboring Southern California was caught up in a groundswell of pro-Southern sentiment.

With the news of the fall of Ft. Sumter in Charleston, S.C., secessionists in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties began flying the flag of the “Bear Flag Republic,” normally California’s state flag, instead of the Stars and Stripes.

In the township of El Monte, a group of pro-rebellion men calling themselves the “Monte Mounted Rifles,” asked California Governor John G. Downey for arms supposedly to put down lawlessness in the Mojave Desert. Downey had pledged to support the Union, but instructed the State armory to ship the weapons. Only the transfer of three companies of U. S. Cavalry from Forts Mojave and Tejon and alert Federal officials at the seaport of San Pedro prevented the “Monte Rangers” from getting their rifles.

In Feb. 1862 the Los Angeles Star newspaper was barred from the U.S. mails. In October 1862, the Star’s editor, Henry Hamilton, was arrested for “treasonable publications” and held by Federal troops for 10 days.

In letters to pro-Union men, Alexander and Walter Murray shared their awareness that California’s remaining in the Union could not be taken for granted. Even their Masonic Lodge was badly divided on the issue. The Californian upon whom they based much of their hope for rallying opinion was a Unitarian minister born in New York City, Thomas Starr King.

King’s ceaseless activity in behalf of the Union cause raised more than $1.5 million for the USSC. His fiery oratory inspired isolated Union men like the Murray brothers. When he died of diphtheria in 1864, he was credited by President Lincoln with keeping California in the Union.

For more than 90 years, a statue of King stood alongside that of Fr. Junipero Serra as California’s representative in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol. In 2006, King was replaced with a statue of President Ronald Reagan. King’s statue now stands in a Civil War garden in the California State Capitol Park.

Readers may wish to read a new book by Glenna Matthews, “The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California.”

•  •  •

On Tuesday, October 16 at 6 p.m. I’ll be speaking to the King David Masonic Lodge, linking Thomas Starr King to an influx of county leaders following the Civil War. The Lodge is located at 859 Marsh St. This event is free and open to the public.

 

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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