Fact checkers will confirm that “Old Abe” won the battle both nationally and in the Gold Rush town of Volcano, California.
The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported on the historic Union Hotel in Benicia where the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag is represented in a very old stained glass window.
Liz and I once lived in Solano County, so this came as no surprise to us. Benicia is located on the Carquinez Strait, where water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers empty into San Pablo and San Francisco bays. The irony of this controversial symbol surviving in the one-time capital of California is that the federal arsenal in Benicia supplied the means of putting down a Confederate uprising in the gold country.
With the news of the fall of Fort 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 Gov. 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 February 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.
There were rumblings in the Mother Lode mining towns as well. Many of the miners were from the south and wanted to “stand up for ‘Old Dixie.’” A sizable Confederate militia calling themselves the “Knights of the Golden Circle” was organized. They planned to seize large shipments of gold and send the precious metal south.
The little valley town of Volcano, located off Highway 88 northeast of Jackson, was the most productive part of the Mother Lode in 1860. The town only has a population 117 today, but in 1860 it was a bustling place with more than 5,000. Members of the Knights owned many of the downtown businesses.
A pro-Union group, “the Volcano Blues,” petitioned the arsenal in Benicia for some artillery. All that could be spared was a 737-pound, Boston-manufactured brass cannon from the Mexican era. It fired a 6-pound ball and could do a great deal of damage to the quickly built wooden structures in Volcano. The gun was transported by riverboat to the Carson Pass road and smuggled into town. It was renamed “Old Abe” and mounted on a movable wooden carriage.
There are many versions of what followed. One, my favorite when I first heard the story as a young boy, is that as the Knights were marching on the town’s main street, a blank charge was fired by the Blues. Some of “The Chivalry,” the Knights’ leadership, was conspiring in the St. George Hotel. They ran out carrying their concealed rebel flag with them. There was no more talk of secession. The image of the cowering Knights of “Old Dixie” delighted me.
A yet more ingeniously fashioned scenario of the events in Volcano in 1862 involves “Old Abe” actually doing some damage to the Confederate cause.
The Volcano Blues sent messages to all the supporters of the Union cause to “open your windows” to keep them from breaking. A blank charge with lots of powder was detonated along Consolation Street. The windows of all the rebel businesses were shattered by the concussion.
Glass was very expensive in 1862.