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California’s Forgotten Confederate History

Why was the Golden State once chock-full of memorials to the Southern rebels?
Wikimedia Commons

Dead Confederates are hard to find in California. Yet the Golden State once contained far more rebel tributes than any other state outside the South itself.

Beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, Confederate memorial associations in California established more than a dozen monuments and place-names to the rebellion. They dedicated highways to Jefferson Davis, named schools for Robert E. Lee, and erected large memorials to the common Confederate soldier.

Why was a free state, far removed from the major military theaters of the Civil War, once such fertile soil for Confederate memorialization?

California’s proslavery roots run much deeper than one might suspect. When gold was first discovered near Sacramento in 1848, Southern-born argonauts—some of them with slaves in tow—were among the thousands to join the rush. Over the next several years, they transported somewhere between 500 and 1,500 African American bondspeople to California.

Slaveholders and their allies also occupied a disproportionate share of the state’s high offices through the 1850s. Thanks to their efforts, antebellum California, more often than not, followed the lead of the slave South on the major political issues of the day. According to one contemporary observer, California was “as intensely Southern as Mississippi or any other of the fire-eating States.”

When the Civil War erupted between North and South in 1861, a wave of secessionist scares swept across the West. Los Angeles County was the epicenter of California disunionism. Hundreds of Southern-sympathizing Angelenos fled east to join Confederate armies, while an even larger number remained to menace federal control over the region. They openly bullied and brawled with Union soldiers, joined secessionist secret societies, hurrahed Jefferson Davis and his generals, and voted into office the avowed enemies of the Lincoln administration. The threat became so dire that Union authorities constructed a large military garrison outside Los Angeles, and arrested a number of local secessionists, to prevent the region from slipping into rebel hands.

The rebellion collapsed by 1865, and with it the institution of chattel slavery. But California’s leaders continued to nurture a nostalgia for the Old South. The editor of the leading Democratic newspaper in the state unapologetically lamented the demise of slavery—the “negro birthright”—and concluded that African Americans “are not only totally incapable of self-government, but wholly unfit to be free.” His party stormed back to power in 1867 on a pledge to preserve white rule within California.