The Golden Conspiracy
With its riches, California came close to joining the South
By Andrew Curry Posted 6/24/07
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 economic 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 America 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.
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.