Thursday, August 17, 2017


[California and the Civil War by Richard Hurley (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2017). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:144/176. ISBN:978-1-62585-824-5. $21.99]

Many books and articles have examined important aspects of California's Civil War, but the literature has yet to produce a full-length and truly comprehensive study of the state's role in the conflict. There's little doubt that today's Californians as a whole are largely unaware of just how deeply and directly the 1861-65 war affected the Golden State, and Richard Hurley's California and the Civil War gamely attempts to inform the modern public about a significant moment in their history. A sweeping overview intended for a popular audience, the book is a more than solid introduction to the topic.

In the beginning, Hurley provides readers with a brief synopsis of California politics and society during the years leading up to the war. Throughout the antebellum decade of statehood, Southern Democrats (the "Chivalry") enjoyed an outsized influence in elected state positions and congressional representation, though the infamous Broderick-Terry duel and other events eroded their support. Abraham Lincoln won California with only 32% of the vote in 1860, but, as was the case in many other closely divided states, the outbreak of Civil War dramatically realigned political power in California. The combination of a fusion of War Democrats with surging Republicans, meant that Southern Democrat influence declined steadily in 1862 and accelerated drastically during the 1863-64 war years. By the end of the 1864 national election, political realignment was convincingly solidified. Lincoln easily captured the state with over 58% of the vote, and the Union Party had an overwhelmingly secure hold on the California legislature.

The activities of several prominent individuals are profiled by Hurley. For example, the book traces the career of Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King and shows how King became perhaps the greatest evangelist for the Union cause in the state, his tireless efforts even credited for causing his early death. Apocryphal or not, an admiring Lincoln is said to have deemed King "the man who saved California for the Union." On the other side, Hurley praises Albert Sidney Johnston (soon to be the Confederacy's second-ranking general) for not actively working toward creating another bloody front of the war inside California's borders. While others have noted Johnston's unwillingness to promote the secessionist cause while still in the uniform of the United States, it does seem to be a considerable exaggeration to personally credit Johnston with the lack of robust guerrilla action in the state. Civil War guerrilla conflicts were not typically associated with West Point trained officers, who generally denounced the practice and its tendency to sow domestic chaos and detract from the conventional war effort. It's much more likely the case that Johnston never even considered the guerrilla option before leaving California, let alone rejected it upon sober reflection.

California and the Civil War perceptively notes the greatly disproportionate financial influence of California and Californians. A steady stream of wartime bullion shipments to the east fed a voracious federal treasury and helped stabilize U.S. paper currency. Partly through the fundraising efforts of the aforementioned Starr King, individual Californians donated vast sums to the U.S. Sanitary Commission, eventually reaching one quarter of the total raised during the war. As an example of California's patriotic generosity, the book highlights the story of the repeated auctioning of 'Gridley's flour sack' (an event made famous in Mark Twain's Roughing It, enhanced as it probably was in the telling).

When the Regular Army abandoned forts and posts throughout the vast West in the opening moments of the war, it was left to California volunteers to fill the void. Hurley clearly appreciates the magnitude of this important military contribution, and his book includes numerous accounts of California's new role as protector of the western trails and settlements as well as a potent fighting force in its own right. Chapters cover the march of the famed California Column across the Desert Southwest to New Mexico and the critical role of California regiments in the conduct of punitive campaigns against the Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Kiowa and Shoshone. The Union officers that led these operations (ex. James Carleton, Patrick Connor, Christopher "Kit" Carson, and others) are profiled in the book. Hurley also spotlights the noteworthy eastern theater involvement of Californians, which started with the famous "California Hundred" and was eventually expanded into a full battalion.

As mentioned above, the book is interested in exploring the question of why California, with its Border State demographics, was able to avoid the ugly brand of all-out inner civil war that devastated Missouri and Kentucky. There is no clear answer to this in the book, but the author persuasively suggests that the state's extreme isolation, with its inherent lack of cross-border safe harbors and nearby supporting conventional forces, effectively dampened the prospects of pro-Confederate bushwhacking. Other factors undoubtedly contributed, as well. Repressive wartime measures (e.g. newspaper suppression and arbitrary incarceration of civilians) were applied to California by military authorities, but they lacked the broad extremity of those practiced in the Border States far off to the east. Also, many men went to California in the first place to escape the nation's domestic troubles and were not keen on introducing then anew into their adopted homes. That said, the book does cover some isolated pro-Confederate irregular actions that did occur in the state. The most well known of these is the failed plot to seize the schooner J.M. Chapman in San Francisco and convert it into a Confederate privateer. Some tiny partisan groups did form in California (with the Santa Cruz Mountains being a popular refuge), but, in common with guerrilla colleagues elsewhere, it's unclear if their self-proclaimed Confederate ties were simply an excuse to perpetrate criminal acts. One of these bands, Captain Ingram's Partisan Rangers, perpetrated a lucrative stagecoach heist in June 1864, but the robbers were quickly tracked down by local law enforcement and dispersed.

Typical with books of this type, the research approach employed by the author is one of synthesis, and those sources used in the book are indeed primarily informed selections from the published literature. The text is annotated, and Hurley's bibliography also usefully provides brief critical commentary on every source listed there.

California and the Civil War is definitely worthy of recommendation as a highly accessible introduction to the topic. One hopes that the book will achieve some measure of success in raising awareness of the state's many important contributions to Union victory.

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