Most accounts of California’s role in the Civil War focus on the northern part of the state, San Francisco in particular. In Los Angeles in Civil War Days, John W. Robinson looks to the southern half and offers an enlightening sketch of Los Angeles and its people, politics, and economic trends from 1860 to 1865. Drawing on contemporary reports in the Los Angeles Star, Southern News, and other sources, Robinson shows how the war came to Los Angeles and narrates the struggle between the pro-Southern faction and the Unionists.
Los Angeles in the early 1860s was a developing town, lacking many of the refinements of civilization that San Francisco then enjoyed, and was much smaller than the bustling metropolis we know today. The book focuses on the effects of the war on Los Angeles, but Robinson also considers social and economic problems to provide a broader view of the community and its place in the nation. The Conscription Act and devalued greenbacks encited public unrest, and the cattle-killing drought of 1862–64, a smallpox epidemic, and recurrent vigilantism challenged Angelenos as well.
California historians and those interested in the city’s historical record will find this book a fascinating addition to the body of California’s Civil War history.
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Los Angeles In Civil War Days 1860â"1865
By John W. Robinson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
LOS ANGELES IN 1860
Viewed from the perspective of today's sprawling metropolis, it is difficult to visualize Los Angeles as it appeared more than a century ago. But let us try. As a start, we must clear away all but an insignificant dozen or so of the present structures, all the paved highways, and most of the vegetation, and place in their stead a few rows of low adobes and several two-story brick buildings, facing an irregular pattern of dusty streets. The heart of the town is the Plaza, a small rectangular clearing dating from Spanish days. Around the Plaza cluster the Catholic church and several adobe structures. Southward, along Main and Los Angeles streets, the town's major thoroughfares, is the business district. Here, a score of newly-constructed brick buildings loom conspicuously above the flat-roofed adobe skyline. Northwest from the Plaza is "Sonora-town," the main residential section. A short block southeast is the infamous Calle de los Negros—"Nigger Alley"—a real-life den of iniquity made up of cheap saloons, gambling dens and bawdy houses. The town's adobe "suburbs" extend southward to the vicinity of Sixth Street. All of this occupies but a few square miles, wedged tightly between Elysian Hill and the low bluffs above the Los Angeles riverbed.
East of town, on both sides of the river, are a number of small vineyards bordered by willow thickets. William Wolfskill's orange orchard, on the southeast edge of the community, is an island of green amid drab surroundings. Westward, extending all the way to Ballona Creek and the Pacific, and south to New San Pedro, are "The Plains," a monotony of flat grassland broken here and there with low hills. Looming starkly on the northern horizon are the olive-green San Gabriel Mountains.
The people of Los Angeles—4,399 of them according to the 1860 census—are predominantly Spanish speaking. A few belong to the land-rich, cultured California families, but most of the Spanish language element are ex-miners, laborers, ranch hands or drifters, low on the socio-economic scale.
A good part of the town's social practices reflect the Spanish and Mexican background. Christmas and Easter celebrations feature music, dancing, drama, and processions. Weddings are festive occasions.
In the tradition associated with its Hispanic heritage, life, in many respects, is casual in Los Angeles. The afternoon siesta is still popular. The post office consists of a soap box, subdivided like a pigeon house, from which citizens help themselves to their own mail. Buildings and houses are unnumbered, designated simply as "across from the Bella Union," or "near the Express Office." There are no banks; financial transactions are usually simple and personal.
Although the Spanish-speaking culture is still numerically dominant, it is fast retreating before the onslaught of Anglo-American industry and aggressiveness. "Gringos" newly arrived from Texas and states east of the Mississippi, or down from the gold fields of the Mother Lode, along with a handful of Americans of longer residence, are the culture-bearers of the new civilization. They bring with them new social practices, new laws, a new basis for land ownership, and business acumen.
Already, brick is replacing adobe as the standard building material. On city streets, the spike-wheeled wagon is now more often seen than the ox-drawn, cumbersome carreta. Perhaps most indicative of all, the year 1860 witnesses the last bull fight in Los Angeles. The sport is outlawed after a child is trampled in the ring. Almost simultaneously, the town's first baseball team is organized.
Foreigners make up a small but significant part of the population. Largest is the French community numbering more than 400, many engaged in wine-making. There is a small but active German element, and a handful of Chinese.
At rock bottom of the social and economic scale are the Indians, more than a thousand of them groveling for a miserable living in and around Los Angeles. They work in the vineyards and on the nearby ranchos during the week. Saturday afternoon, having secured pay, many of them drift to Calle de los Negros to indulge in drink and carouse. Afterwards, the drunken Indians are arrested, put on chain gangs, auctioned off to the highest bidder, and forced to work off their sentence on various projects about town. In 1860 their numbers are greatly decreased from ten years previous—victims of debauchery, the slave-labor market, the white man's diseases, and the destruction of their native culture. In another decade they will be almost totally liquidated as a people.
Although the extreme lawlessness of the mid-1850s has somewhat receded, Los Angeles in 1860 is still burdened with a high rate of crime and violence. Drunken brawls, robberies, and murders are so commonplace that, unless the victim is someone of importance, the crimes receive only fleeting mention in the press. Justice is often administered in the form of a necktie party, hosted by self-styled vigilantes.
The building boom of the late 1850s has tapered off, but construction goes on. Los Angeles is well underway at losing her cow-town image with such commercial centers as Abel Stearns' Arcadia Block, on the southwest corner of Los Angeles and Arcadia streets; John Temple's Temple Block, in the wedge between Main and Spring streets; and Mellus Row, on Los Angeles Street between Aliso and First. The largest building in town is the new Court House, surmounted by a unique—some say grotesque—clock tower, just south of Temple Block.
The city boasts three hotels, all on Main Street. First and foremost is Dr. James B. Winston's Bella Union, recently remodeled and now two stories high. The Bella Union's dining room is advertised as "one of the finest in all California." Dinnertime is signaled by the blowing of a shrill steam whistle on the hotel roof, at which time prospective diners scurry from all over town to occupy tables. Across the street is the Lafayette Hotel, and a block south the United States Hotel, both of them two stories.
Angelenos seeking entertainment, good food and spirits—assuming they do not wish to stoop to the debauchery of Nigger Alley—can choose between several elegant establishments. Already mentioned is the Bella Union's dining room. The Mongomery Saloon, a block north on Main Street, offers fine liquors (25 cents a drink) and a billiard parlor, where matches are often arranged for a stake of several hundred dollars. Charles Kaiser's Tivoli Garden on Wolfskill Road, one of the most popular pleasure resorts, provides German beer, music, and dancing on Sunday afternoons. Ramon Alexander, a former French seaman, hosts the Round House at Third and Main, a high-class saloon with a garden in the rear. Emile Bordenave offers excellent French dinners at his Louisiana Coffee Saloon. Roast duck and oysters are the house specialties, the charge fifty cents a meal. Bordenave also serves a "one bit plate" (twelve and one-half cents). Victor Beaudry and Damien Marchessault run the only ice cream saloon in town, offering "iced wine, cobblers and ice cream to your full satisfaction." The ice is packed down from the mountains on muleback, then shipped by wagon to Los Angeles.
1860 sees the birth of the theater in Los Angeles. John Temple presents "The Great Star Company of Stark and Ryer," a visiting troupe of actors, in his large hall over the City Market.
The cattle industry, although past its Golden Age in southern California and beset with a number of problems, is still the premier economic enterprise in Los Angeles. An 1860 census reveals 78,000 head of cattle in the county, distributed on a number of large ranchos in the Los Angeles Basin and San Gabriel Valley. The leading ranchero and richest man in Los Angeles is Abel Stearns, a long-time resident who married into the Bandini family. Stearns, whose Los Angeles home is known as El Palacio, owns several important tracts in town as well as vast holdings to the southeast, made up primarily of Ranchos Los Alamitos, Las Bolsas, and Los Coyotes. Second in land holdings to Stearns is "Juan Largo" Temple, proprietor of Rancho Los Cerritos and other tracts. Benjamin Wilson and Dr. John S. Griffin of Rancho San Pasqual, William Workman of Rancho La Puente, Francis Temple of Rancho de Merced, and the Lugo family (Antonio Maria Lugo died in early 1860) of Rancho San Antonio are other major land owners. But the era of the "Cattle on a Thousand Hills" is fast drawing to a close. The industry is already feeling the pinch of declining cattle prices, questionable land titles, ruinous interest rates, and drought.
Next to cattle, the production of grapes and wine is the most lucrative industry in Los Angeles. There are some 2,000 acres of vineyards in the county. 66,000 cases of wine are shipped out of Los Angeles to San Francisco and the eastern market in 1860. Frenchmen dominate the local viticulture industry: Jean Louis Vignes, Jean-Louis and Pierre Sainsevain, and Emile and Theophile Vache are the leading wine producers.
Oranges are another profitable industry. Out of an estimated 2,500 orange trees in California in 1860, three-fourths of them are in Los Angeles County, and most of these are tended by William Wolfskill.
Industrial development in Los Angeles is in its infancy. All of the town's industrial establishments are minor enterprises employing at most a dozen men. John Goller, here since 1849, is Los Angeles' leading blacksmith and wagon maker. He charges $16 to shoe a horse. His trim wagons, manufactured in his large shop on Los Angeles Street, sell throughout the state. Los Angeles also boasts the Eagle Flour Mill, a furniture and cabinet shop, a tannery, and even a brewery to compete with the French wines.
Water is a major concern. The zanjas (irrigation ditches), relics of Spanish days, still crisscross town, but they are insufficient for the growing city's needs and pose a sanitation problem. Presently, the water comes from the Los Angeles River and springs north of town. A large water wheel hoists the water into a master zanja, which carries it to a brick reservoir in the Plaza. From here, iron pipes recently installed take the water down Main and Los Angeles streets into the business district. The system, built by William Dryden, is an improvement over the old method but remains inadequate.
The town is governed by an elected mayor and common council. Henry Mellus, a transplanted New Englander who came to California with Richard Henry Dana on the brig Pilgrim, is mayor most of the year—until his untimely death the day after Christmas. Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors is Abel Stearns. Maryland-born Benjamin Hayes is Judge of the Southern District of California, which encompasses Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Judge Hayes, a highly respected figure about town, spends much of his time traveling his judicial circuit.
Two newspapers serve the community. Henry Hamilton pilots the highly partisan Los Angeles Star, published weekly since 1851. C. R. Conway and Alonzo Waite publish the new Semi-Weekly Southern News. Readers are treated to several columns of national and world news (usually a week or two late), goings on about town, advertisements of local and San Francisco business enterprises, occasional lines of poetry, and—in the Star—outspoken and frequently vitriolic political opinions.
Communication with the outside world, even with other southern California communities, is difficult and painfully slow. Abominable dirt roads, becoming impassable quagmires after rain, connect Los Angeles with El Monte and San Bernardino to the east, the German colony of Anaheim to the southeast, and Phineas Banning's New San Pedro to the south. The leading stage and freight man is Banning, patriarch of the southern county, whose cumbersome wagons carry everything from passengers to lumber over most of southern California.
Wells, Fargo & Company maintains an express office in town, frequently the gathering place of those seeking the latest news from the outside world. The company hauls freight, mail, and gold from the nearby San Gabriel Canyon mines to San Francisco. Los Angeles is a stage stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage Line's St. Louis-to-San Francisco route. A passenger St. Louis-bound can get there in twenty bone-jarring days of bumpy riding; San Francisco takes three days. Butterfield's old "mud wagons" have recently been replaced with brightly-painted, better-upholstered Concord coaches. The steamer Senator and several smaller schooners ply the waters between San Francisco and New San Pedro, carrying passengers, freight, and mail.
Via the overland stage, the steamer and, toward the end of the year, the telegraph, Los Angeles learns of the momentous events going on in the East. Although the town is not directly involved in the great national crisis of 1860–1861, her citizens show vital interest and express deep concern.CHAPTER 2
Street rallies, torchlight parades, band music, cannon salutes, picnics, barbecues, and long-winded oratory—this was politics, Los Angeles style, 1860. Partisanship ran at a fever pitch. The oratory was usually enlivened by violent diatribes against candidates of the rival party. The more unrestrained and vitriolic the language, the greater was the popularity of the speaker. The height of local political invective was reached during a Democratic mass meeting in 1859 when Colonel Edward J. C. Kewen verbally assaulted J. J. Warner with the following diatribe, in part: "This trifling fellow, Warner, is so notoriously corrupt and villainous, as to wholly exclude him from any consideration except that which prompts a man to kick a snarling cur that intercepts his path. The reptile's teeth have been extracted, there is now no vennom in his bite." Warner, of course, answered the attack in like manner: "A slanderer [Kewen] should be met by the lash at every street corner and chased into the wilderness to live among the howling wolves." The verbal battle lasted two months, with such epithets tossed back and forth as "truckling slave," "sordid Hessian," "dirty scribbler," and "skulking traitor."
One might reason that a small frontier town, far from the national population centers, both in distance and in notoriously slow communication, would neglect the game of politics. But such was far from the truth. Political interest in state and national issues was acute, as evidenced by the space given these matters in the Los Angeles press. As the sectional controversy developed in the East and the Gwin-Broderick rivalry grew in California, Los Angeles became more and more involved in national and state issues. Many a longstanding friendship was strained and even ruptured over political differences.
Los Angeles was an overwhelmingly Democratic town in the years preceding the Civil War. Until the great Democratic schism of 1860, the party was a runaway winner in every local contest with Whigs, Know-Nothings, and later Republicans. The break in Democratic ranks that developed in the mid-1850s saw the majority of Los Angeles Democrats side with the "Chivalry," as the Southern element in the state called itself. The drift of the Southern states toward secession was greeted with sympathy and understanding by a large part of the local citizenry.
These positive feelings toward the South were only natural. In the 1850s, emigrants from Texas and border slave states poured into southern California, settling in San Diego, San Bernardino, El Monte, as well as Los Angeles. Many leading Los Angeles citizens were natives of slave states: Benjamin Wilson, William Wolfskill, Benjamin Hayes, Dr. John S. Griffin, Colonel Edward J. C. Kewen, Dr. James B. Winston, and J. Lancaster Brent, to name the most influential. Southern California was linked directly with the South by Lieutenant Edward F. Beale's military wagon road, completed in 1858, and the Butterfield Overland Stage Line, opened the same year. Of no little importance in southern California's ties with the South was the Federal patronage: a succession of Democratic presidents had filled all Federal appointive positions with political partisans, usually chosen by the "Chivalry" wing of the party.
Of no small importance in perpetuating the Southern Democratic persuasion of Los Angeles in the years before the Civil War was Henry Hamilton, outspoken editor of the Los Angeles Star. The Star, Los Angeles' first newspaper, was founded in 1851 and run by a succession of mediocre editors until Hamilton took over the paper in January, 1856. In the ensuing two or three years, Henry Hamilton transformed the Star into a sound and thriving journal with an unusually high degree of literary acumen for a small town frontier newspaper.
Excerpted from Los Angeles In Civil War Days 1860â"1865 by John W. Robinson. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Los Angeles in 1860,
Rumblings of War,
Hotbed of Secessionism,
Summer of Unrest,
Conspiracy: Real or Imagined,
"More Vigorous Measures",
A Newspaper's Tirade,
The Grimness of War,
We Are Coming, Father Abraham,
Triumph and Tragedy,
For Further Reading,