Thursday, May 30, 2013

Robinson: "LOS ANGELES IN CIVIL WAR DAYS, 1860-1865"

[Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 by John W. Robinson (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013 - 1st ed. 1977). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index.  Pages main/total:165/185.  ISBN:978-0-8061-4312-5 $19.95]

In 1977, Dawson's Book Shop of Los Angeles published a small print run of John Robinson's Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865. To this day, it remains the only published book length history of the city and surrounding county during those tumultuous years. Copies remain scarce, making University of Oklahoma Press's paperback reprint a providential event for those wishing to own a copy. Though dated in some ways and with a limited bibliography by today's standards, Robinson's work nevertheless should still be regarded as a very capable military, social, political, and economic overview.

During the period 1861-65, the military presence in tiny Los Angeles and surrounding towns was significant, serving to maintain civil order, prevent secessionist plots from gaining ground, and keep an eye on the Indian population of southern California. Robinson traces the establishment of a number of posts, the most important of these being Drum Barracks.  During the early secession period, citizens sympathetic to both sides formed militia companies, but most pro-secession individuals willing to fight left the state.  The regular army also departed for points east, to be replaced by volunteers.  With the county a Democratic stronghold populated by many anti-war citizens, Union army recruiting was largely a failure, but troops raised in other parts of California flooded into the area, a small brigade becoming the famous California Column.  According to the author, the local Union commanders (especially General George Wright) were largely restrained in their handling of dissent, to the consternation of the radical elements of the populace and press.

As a top down social study, Los Angeles in Civil War Days is largely a product of its time. If written today, it would undoubtedly employ more manuscript research and a broader quest for source material in general in order to develop a richer picture of the war as experienced by the common citizens of Anglo, Californio, and Indian descent.  As it is, little is offered of what their thoughts and perspectives might have been.

As mentioned above, Los Angeles and the surrounding county was strongly Democratic in political allegiance, and, similar to Oregon's Willamette Valley far to the north, the press was a major outlet for anti-administration feeling.  Henry Hamilton's Los Angeles Star dueled with C.R. Conway and Alonzo White's pro-war Semi-Weekly Southern News, the former surviving its banning from the mail due to the close proximity of its subscriber base. Robinson effectively uses the columns of each paper to present the viewpoints of the more extreme political partisans of both sides. The author acknowledges the influence of secret societies like the Knights of the Golden Circle, but refutes many of the Confederate conspiracy claims perpetuated by local historians over the years, citing the lack of solid evidence. The study also traces the transformative effect of Union victory on the political makeup of Los Angeles. Not long after Confederate defeat, Republicans were winning city elections.

The economy is another major focus of the book. The second half of the war was marked by a devastating drought that effectively destroyed southern California's cattle industry. This in turn had an unfortunate cascading effect, depressing associated enterprises and forcing a steep plummet in land prices. To add to this misery, in the winter of 1862-63 a smallpox epidemic hit the Hispanic and native populations especially hard, the latter dying in large numbers. However, with post-war recovery came renewed port development and rail connections to nearby communities and the coast, improvements in infrastructure that set Los Angeles on its path to rapid growth and influence.

The OUP edition of Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865 is a welcome rebirth of a classic. As the new 'Further Reading' section demonstrates, scholars of Civil War-era California have not been completely idle over the past 30 years, but the brief rundown of book and articles published between 1977 and 2012 nevertheless highlights the existence of wide gaps in our understanding. John Robinson's pioneering work remains relevant on its own terms, but, hopefully, it's reissue will also inspire today's students, historians, and authors to contribute to a deeper exploration of Civil War California.

More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865

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