Times Past

California has unique place in history in debate over Confederate monuments

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery removed this Confederate memorial in mid-August 2017
The Hollywood Forever Cemetery removed this Confederate memorial in mid-August 2017

As the national debate over Confederate monuments continues, it’s worth noting California’s own role in the discussion and its history of statehood as it related to the Civil War.

Close to the Central Coast, Confederates Corners on Highway 68 just west of Salinas, settled by unreconstructed Confederates during the late 1860s, was made famous by John Steinbeck’s fictional “Rebel Corners” in his 1947 novel, “The Wayward Bus.”

Also, a plaque honoring Jefferson Davis resides in San Diego’s Horton Plaza. Fort Bragg, the lumbering town in Mendocino County, is named after Civil War Confederate general Braxton Bragg. The Hollywood Forever Cemetery removed a monument commemorating Confederate veterans last month.

But most of us may miss another link to the Civil War.

California’s admission to the Union as the 31st state was directly linked in a chain of events resulting in as many as 700,000 deaths in the Civil War.

In the aftermath of the Gold Rush, Californians were anxious for statehood. Although California did not officially become a state until Sept. 9, 1850, the state Constitution went into effect on Dec. 20, 1849. Only on Feb. 18, 1850 did the new state legislature create the first counties.

San Luis Obispo was one of those 27 original counties, with boundaries that are only slightly different from the present lines that enclose 3,250 square miles.

Achieving statehood was vital to crime-infested parts of California, most especially the Central Coast where the first mass murder in the territory had taken place on Dec. 5, 1848 at Mission San Miguel.

Among the 11 victims were the son in law and daughter of General Mariano Vallejo, a “jefe politico” of Mexican California. The clamor for law and order recognized the inadequacy of California’s status since American forces entered the territory during the War with Mexico.

From July 7, 1846 to Dec. 20, 1849, the U.S. War Department formally governed California. The small, inadequately funded military government couldn’t have dealt with a territory the size of California under the best of circumstances. After the discovery of gold on the American River in January 1848, “the world rushed in” in the words of historian John S. Holliday.

Mitigating against statehood was the issue of slavery. The republic of Mexico had banned “the peculiar institution” in 1829. Most Californians wanted a “free” state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and admission of Iowa in 1846 and Wisconsin in 1848 kept numerical equality between free and slave states. California’s admission as a “free state” would upset that balance.

The dying Senator from South Carolina, the rabidly pro-slavery John C. Calhoun, regarded losing the richest of the former Mexican territories to the abolitionists as an intolerable defeat for the South.

After a nine-month debate, Senators Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas worked out the Compromise of 1850. Like many compromises, it left many less than happy. Its consequences included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The act forbade the admission of testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence in a court of law. Courts throughout the U.S. were compelled to authorize the arrest of any person of color on the affidavit of a slave owner.

On March 6, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision denying the petition for freedom of Dred Scott, a former slave. The Fugitive Slave Act polarized Americans and led to the rebellion of the South.

The Civil War followed.

Following the surrender of Fort Sumter in 1861, a number of Californians left to serve the Confederate cause. There were secessionist plots in San Francisco, Los Angeles and the Mother Lode.

Even as Washington, D.C. was under threat of a Confederate siege, the War Department had to dispatch troops to protect overland trails and the seaport for the pueblo of Los Angeles at Wilmington.

Our statehood came at a great price.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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