10 Facts: California during the Civil War

California's role in the Civil War.
This image depicts veterans of the California Regiment returning to the location of Pickett's Charge.

While no battles took place on Californian soil, the state has a rich Civil War history. Learn more about the state of California during the Civil War with these ten facts.

Fact #1: The Union and the Confederacy both wanted California’s support, but for different reasons.

California was viewed as a valuable asset to the Union due to its rich gold deposits. The gold was a very valuable resource for the Union. Grant once said on the topic of California’s support to the war effort, “I do not know what we would do in this great national emergency if it were not for the gold sent from California.”
While the Confederacy was equally interested in the gold resources, California had another resource that the Confederacy desperately needed. The coast of Southern California would have provided the Confederacy with a much-needed open harbor, unaffected by the Union Blockade.

This map depicts the areas blockaded by Scott's "Great Snake" plan.
The Union Blockade, nicknamed Scott's Great Snake, made the open harbors of California desirable to the Confederacy. Wikimedia Commons

Fact #2: There was a vocal secessionist faction in Southern California.

During the secession crisis, Northern California was securely in the Union’s hands. Southern California, however, had a vocal minority of Southerners who had moved during the Gold Rush that wished to have Southern California secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. This vocal movement led to the rise of a number of pro-Confederate groups in Southern California including the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles and chapters of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a group that had previously been dedicated to annexing 25 states in Mexico, to be added to the United States as slave states.

Fact #3: A number of high-profile officers of the Civil War were stationed in California before the Civil War, including William Sherman and Joseph Hooker.

Some of the Civil War’s most famous figures spent time in California before the war. William Sherman performed various administrative duties in California when it became a U.S. territory, including accompanying military governor Col. Richard Mason during the inspection to confirm the presence of gold in California. Sherman was in good company in California before the Civil War, among his fellow residents were Ulysses S. Grant, who spent time in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, Joseph Hooker, who led a state militia from 1859-1861, and Mark Twain, who moved to California during the Civil War at the age of 29, following a stint in a Confederate State Militia.

This image depicts William Sherman and Joseph Hooker.
Before serving as Generals in the Union Army, both Joseph Hooker and William Sherman resided in California. Library of Congress

Fact #4: Though they fought against each other during the Battle of Gettysburg, Winfield Scott Hancock and Lewis Armistead were good friends when they served as quartermasters in Southern California.

In the years before the Civil War, Winfield Scott Hancock served as assistant quartermaster under Albert Johnston. While in California, Hancock became good friends with soon-to-be Confederate General Lewis Armistead. Their friendship grew throughout their time in California. When Armistead made the decision to resign from the United States Army and join the Confederacy he left Hancock’s wife his prayer books with the words “Trust in God and Fear Nothing” inscribed in the book and he left Hancock a new major’s uniform.

The two would not see each other again until the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 3, 1863 during the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Armistead was mortally wounded. As he lie wounded, Armistead asked a soldier about Hancock, and after learning that Hancock had been wounded Armistead exclaimed “Not both of us on the same day!” He then instructed Union Captain Henry Bingham to “tell General Hancock, from me, that I have done him and you all a grave injustice.”

Fact #5: California had a significant presence in the eastern theater of the Civil War, despite being over 2,500 miles away.

At the start of the Civil War, Californians wished to support the country they had joined the decade before. Californians were eventually able to support the war both monetarily and with manpower. In September of 1861, Oregon Senator, Edward Baker, was sent to Philadelphia to fund and command a brigade in the name of California.The California Brigade, as it became known, was comprised of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th California Infantries.

California did manage to get some of their residents to physically represent their state in the Civil War. In the summer of 1862, Eastern-born residents of California wished to fight in the eastern theater of the Civil War. The group reached out to Massachusetts Governor, John Andrew, and offered to raise a company of Californians for Massachusetts. Governor Andrew accepted the offer on the condition that the Californians provide their own uniforms, equipment, and travel funds.

The men agreed and the California 100, the nickname given to the 100 Californian cavalrymen, traveled to Massachusetts to join the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. The California 100 was later joined by 3 more companies of Californians and formed what would be known as the California Battalion. The California Battalion spent the first year of their service in continual conflict with John Mosby’s guerilla battalion. In 1864, the California Battalion joined Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah and was active throughout the Shenandoah Valley campaign; taking part in the largest cavalry charge of the Civil War at the Third Battle of Winchester and taking part of the Union counter attack at the Battle of Cedar Creek.

This painting shows the California Battalion playing a pivotal role in the Union Counter Charge at Cedar Creek.
The California Battalion played a pivotal role in the Union Counter Charge at Cedar Creek Library of Congress

Fact #6: The California Brigade protected the "Angle" during Pickett’s Charge.

On July 3rd, the California Brigade was charged with defending the Angle during Pickett’s Charge. The Confederate effort against the Angle was greater than any other part of the line. Described as “an advance of an acre of men”, the charging Confederates proved to be too great a force for the 71st Pennsylvania, formerly the 1st California, as they retreated upon seeing the great Rebel approach. Despite the 71st Pennsylvania’s retreat, the 69th and 72nd Pennsylvania, formerly 2nd and 3rd California, held their position and proved to be instrumental in the defense of the Angle. As nearby batteries began to fall to Armistead’s brigade, the defense of the Angle was left in the hands of the infantry, and the 69th Pennsylvania was the only nearby regiment.

As the Confederates continued their approach, the 69th unleashed a heavy fire upon the grey ranks. Having stockpiled weapons, many of the soldiers of the 69th had six to eight loaded rifles leaning against the wall, ready to be fired. Eighty yards east of the Angle stood the 72nd Pennsylvania, which had just been moved forward from its reserve position. The 72nd Pennsylvania assisted the 69th with a heavy line of fire, and the two regiments of the California Brigade effectively blocked further advance from Armistead’s brigade.

This image depicts veterans of the California Regiment returning to the location of Pickett's Charge.
In 1913, veterans of the California Regiment returned to the angle where they fought off the approaching Confederates of Pickett's Charge. Library of Congress

Fact #7: While no battles were fought within the state of California, there are a number of Civil War sites in California including, forts, camps, and prisons.

Throughout California there were a number of Camps and Forts used for Pro-Union state militias and the Union Army. One of these many forts was the Drum Barracks, which served as the headquarters for the Union Army in Southern California and Arizona Territory. The Drum Barracks still stands today, and is one of the last remaining Civil War forts still standing in California. Perhaps the most well-known Civil War structure in California is the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Before being converted into a Federal Penitentiary, Alcatraz served as a prison for captured Confederates during the Civil War.

Fact #8: The “California Column” embarked on a 900 mile march through the deserts of California and Arizona to prevent rebel Texans from invading the Arizona Territory.

The California Column was a group of 5,000 Union volunteers from California. During the summer of 1862, the California Column marched 900 miles to El Paso, Texas in an effort to keep the Confederate Texans from entering the Arizona Territory and to remove them from New Mexico. During the march they engaged in two small skirmishes with Confederate troops, one at Stanwix Station and one at Picacho Peak where they had a small number of casualties. Despite the harsh conditions of the desert, no one died of non-battle causes during the 900 mile march.

This map demonstrates the route taken by the California Column through the Arizona territory to get into Texas.
In 1862 the California Column took this route through the Arizona territory into Texas. Wikimedia Commons

Fact #9: In 1864, Rufus Ingram lead a group of Partisan Rangers who rode through California robbing stage coaches of gold and silver to fund the Confederacy.

Rufus Ingram was commissioned as a Confederate Captain in 1864 and began recruiting men in Southern California to join his group of Partisan Rangers. For the remainder of 1864, Ingram’s men, who became known as Captain Ingram’s Partisan Rangers, committed multiple stage coach robberies to fund the Confederate cause. On June 30, 1864, Ingram and his Partisan Rangers committed what has become known as the Bullion Bend robbery. The men stopped a stage coach in Placerville, California and got away with 40,000 dollars. However, they were eventually caught by a Santa Clara County Sheriff.

Fact #10: In the first two years of the sesquecentential, 3,500 Californians supported the American Battlefield Trust in our quest to preserve Battlefield land. That’s more than the number of Californians who served in the 2nd Massachusetts and California Column combined!

Despite being separated from the majority of the hallowed ground of the Civil War by more than 2,000 miles, Californians continue to honor the dedication and valor practiced by their fellow statesmen nearly 150 years ago.

Learn More: The California Brigade