How California Nearly Joined the Confederacy

California, with all of its Gold Rush riches, came very close to joining the South.

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Each month, three or four steamships set sail from San Francisco loaded with millions of dollars' worth of gold, wealth that fueled the Union's eco nomic engine during the Civil War. Even Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was grateful for California's contribution to the war effort. "I do not know what we would do in this great national emergency were it not for the gold sent from California," Grant once wrote. But all that cash could just as easily have gone to the other side. Though most history books glide over the role the West Coast played in the War Between the States, California came very close to being part of the South, a defection that could easily have altered the outcome of the conflict.

Before 1848, California was just the sleepy northern frontier of Mexico. The population consisted of at least 300,000 native Indians and only 700 foreigners, most of whom were American. The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill on Jan. 24, 1848, quickly changed that. As word of the discovery trickled out-news could take months to reach the East Coast by way of a 14,000-mile sail around South Ameri ca or stagecoach-prospectors and merchants from around the world flocked to the gold fields by boat and covered wagon. In the decade before the Civil War began, more gold came out of those California mines than the amount the whole world had produced in the previous 150 years.

Competition. To Southern slaveholders, the gold mines sounded like the perfect place to bring their system of forced labor. No less an eminence than Jefferson Davis-who would become president of the Confederacy a decade later-argued to make California a slaveholding territory. "The European races now engaged in working the mines of California sink under the burning heat...to which the African race is altogether better adapted," Davis argued in 1850. "The production of rice, sugar, and cotton is no better adapted to slave labor than the digging, washing, and quarrying of the gold mines."

But the miners had other ideas. "They don't want to compete with slave labor, peon labor, or corporate labor," says Leonard Richards, author of the recently released book The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War and a historian at the University of Massachusetts. "They just want to be left alone." So at a constitutional convention in 1849, California politicians declared that the soon-to-be state would not accept slavery. Keeping slavery out of Cali fornia was about the economics of labor competition, not idealism, Richards says. At that very same convention, a proposal to ban even free blacks from entering the state was just narrowly defeated.

For the next decade, politicians in both Washington, D.C., and California schemed to make the Golden State part of the South. Many Californians had been born in slave states and were sympathetic to the Southern cause. Only 32 percent voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

When war broke out in 1861, there was a move to establish the "Pacific Republic" with Oregon and join the Confederacy. The situation was tense: Albert Johnston, the general responsible for protecting California-just recently acquired from Mexico and vulnerable to raids from Indian tribes-was a Texan with a deep hatred for Lincoln.

But in a move that may have changed history, Johnston surprised the Pacific Republic conspirators. Upholding his officer's oath of loyalty, he refused to join their plan. Instead, he handed over his command and headed to Texas, where he joined the Confederate Army. Johnston was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Thousands of Californians followed his example, moved east, picked their side, and fought in dozens of battles. But many more stayed home-and kept a close eye on those gold fields.