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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

California in the civil war                             Austen Greene

 

Elijah R. Kennedy was born in the Eastern United States, and moved to California as a young adult to practice law.  He lived in California during the lead up to the Civil War, and witnessed first-hand the “secessionist conspiracy” in California.  He eventually moved back to the East to live in New York.  In New York, he abandoned his profession as a lawyer in favor of writing historical non-fiction.

 

 

In The Contest for California: How Colonel E.D. Baker Saved the Pacific States to the Union, Elijah R. Kennedy tells the story of the Pacific States leading up to the Civil War.  According to Kennedy, there was a sizeable group of Democrats that wished to have California join the Confederacy.  He contends that this could have changed the course of the war, and it was only through the efforts of Colonel Baker that California stayed in the Union. However, when a young college professor asked, “who was Baker?  What did he do to get in here?”1 upon seeing a statue dedicated to Baker, Kennedy began to fear that Baker’s accomplishments were becoming forgotten.  Thus he laid forth his plan, to dedicate a book to describing the conditions in California—and how Baker manipulated them for the Union’s benefit—so that Baker would be remembered in history as the war hero he was.

Starting out his volume slowly, Kennedy describes the unique conditions in California during the mid 19th century.  He depicts the excessive population of young adventurous men brought on by the lure of gold, and the essential lawlessness that resulted.  Then, focusing on California’s isolation from the eastern states, Kennedy states how “[California] was out of the reach of railroads or unbroken steam navigation.”2 He emphasizes that California was essentially free from Northern control, and thus could have made it’s own decision in the Civil War without fear of being stopped by Union soldiers.  In his mind, the Union would have had no troops to spare against the West while being preoccupied with the South.  They would have simply ignored California’s rebellion until the war was over.  Kennedy, however, theorized that the Union would never have had a chance to stop California, as without it in the Union the war’s outcome would have differed significantly from the actuality.

Moving into the theoretical, Kennedy gives his opinion of what could have been the fate of the country if California had seceded, while simultaneously setting up the character of Baker.  He claims that if California had seceded, “it is impossible to see where forces to suppress a rebellion on the Pacific Slope could have been found.”3 Without the necessary troops, the North would have no way to enforce Union membership on California, and thus be forced in accepting the state’s decision.  Even an independent California could have changed the war’s course, stripping the Union of extra troops and supplies; a California that joined the Confederacy would have proved devastating, almost certainly leading to a southern victory.  Afterwards, he tells of Baker’s experiences in the East, and his journey to become a senator in the West. Baker was denied a cabinet position in President Pierce’s administration because of political bias, even though he was highly qualified for the position.  Disillusioned, he angrily declared that he would never return to the East unless he became a Senator in the West.  Baker’s success as a public speaker made feasible his seemingly exaggerated claim, as he quickly rose to western prominence.

In the third section of his work, Kennedy successfully illustrates Baker’s triumph in securing California, and thus the Pacific States, for the Union.  He tells of Baker’s speeches at the Senate, friendship with the future President Lincoln, and loyalty to the Union.  A lifelong friend of Lincoln, Baker quickly joined the Republican Party after it was formed.  Soon afterwards, Baker defeated his Democratic opponent and won a Senate seat in Oregon, forging a Republican beachhead in the western Democratic stronghold.  However, even though he was a senator in Oregon, Baker held great influence throughout the West—mainly because of his ability to understand his opponents.  Kennedy’s portrayal of Baker shows a brilliant orator and a mediator, who was able to “sympathize with the Democrats” and compromise with them on issues. 4 Yet despite his empathy for the South, he maintained an unwavering loyalty to the Union.  His control over the Pacific prevented the rival party of William M. Gwin from forming a Confederate stronghold in California.  Though Kennedy assures readers that most Californians were not southern sympathizers, many of them were politically apathetic and would have done nothing to stop Gwin from leading a rebellion.

Nearing the conclusion of his story, Kennedy wraps up the piece with Baker’s tragic death in battle, and the effects of his death.  Baker died in one of the earliest battles of the Civil War, the battle of Ball’s Bluff, shortly after being promoted to General in recognition of his services.  Baker was still a serving senator at the time of his death, and the only senator to die in battle during the Civil War—confirmation of his bravery and patriotism, when compared to most of the other politicians of his time.  Baker’s death was widely mourned, according to Kennedy, who describes a grieving coast, with people all along the Pacific holding memorial services for Colonel Baker.  He reflects that the coast would sorely miss the “warrior and statesman, wise in counsel” who led them in the war of words, fighting the pro-slavery factions.5 He then describes the pledge made at Baker’s memorial, that his successes should never be forgotten.

Even though Kennedy wrote in 1912, he was not a progressive historiographer.  The Contest for California is closest in ideas to progressivism, due to its emphasis on the sectional divisions between the North and South, East and West.  However, it lacks too many elements of progressivism to be classified as such, since there is no mention of any kind of class struggle or socio-economic strife.  Kennedy makes no distinction between the rich and poor in California, or the different races; neither does he imply a different opinion being held by those from different classes or cultures.  Additionally, Kennedy spent most of his adult life in the pre-progressive era.  Already at an old age when his book was published in 1912, the progressive movement swept over and left him behind.

Elijah R Kennedy was living in California during the time leading up to the war, and thus had a clear view of the situation at the time.  He grew up in the East, but moved to California and worked as a lawyer, participating in several of the events he describes.  He remained a staunch Union supporter and great admirer of Baker.  Being a Union loyalist, Kennedy’s perspective is slightly biased, since his suspicion of Southern treachery could be merely because of his anger at the southerners’ secession.  However, given the age of the book and the closeness to the event in question, Kennedy’s facts and details are almost certainly very accurate, and not reliant upon other sources or questionable witnesses.  He witnessed first hand the status of pre-civil war California, and can describe the conditions with conviction.  His status as a primary source gives his words more authenticity, since he is using his own knowledge instead of merely summarizing the work of other authors.

Kennedy’s thesis revolves around his belief that were it not for Baker’s efforts, Gwin would have succeeded in gaining California, and thus the West, for the Confederacy.  Through citations of facts and the statements of politicians, he shows that such an occurrence was possible, and would have disastrously changed the course of history for the Union.  However, in making his thesis, Kennedy assumes that the Democratic secessionist minority would have been successful, had they not been interfered with.  Much of his evidence comes from letters written by Confederate leaders who were certain that “California…would be on their side.”6 These letters can be attributed to the South’s overconfidence in their public support, which they had in eastern states as well.  Though it is entirely possible, it is not a definite truth; the California public might have seen the attempt and, feeling a surge of patriotic loyalty stopped Gwin from completing his goal.

A large portion of Kennedy’s work is dedicated to those who paved the path for Baker, such as Senator David C. Broderick.  Despite being a Democrat, Broderick was a staunch supporter of “free soil” in California, and his leadership helped sway many Californians away from the larger pro-slavery faction of the Party.  However, after defeating his rival Gwin to gain the California Senate position, Broderick became engaged in a violent conflict.  One of his former friends, Judge David Terry, lost an election due to his support of slavery, and blamed Broderick for his loss; Broderick was killed in the ensuing duel.  Kennedy, however, maintains that Broderick’s former friend was roused to anger by Gwin’s manipulations, eliminating his chief rival.  Also, Kennedy describes the supposed rigging of the duel, as the pistols used were of a rare type chosen by Terry.  Terry spent time practicing with the pistols beforehand, and discovered that one was faulty; the faulty one was given to Broderick, effectively ensuring his death.  Kennedy’s view of Gwin as an accomplice to murder complements his portrayal as a southern secessionist conspirator, eager to overthrow the majority.

Gwin is a key character in the developments Kennedy describes, serving mainly as an antagonist of sorts.  Gwin led his minority secessionist group against Broderick—the leader of the anti-slavery democratic faction—and Colonel Baker, the leading Republican in the Pacific states.  His plots to have California join the Confederacy or at least declare independence were foiled by his two major opponents.  He gained revenge against Broderick by having him killed, but Broderick was only replaced by the stronger politician and—in Kennedy’s mind—more righteous individual, Baker.  When the members of Broderick’s democratic faction supported Baker, Gwin finally lost his hold on California; he was unable to persuade the state legislature to secede, and failed to stop Lincoln from winning the Pacific in the presidential election of 1860.  California was then free to fully support the Union, providing the essential support needed for the northern victory in the Civil War.

Kennedy demonstrates his points through various anecdotes of events during the time that together form a picture of Civil War era California.  These are often seemingly unrelated stories, yet upon examination the connection between them becomes visible.  When Kennedy wishes to demonstrate the chaotic atmosphere, the perfect way he does so is telling the story of two men who managed to get the governor to pardon their friend for murder, by stealing a completely unrelated petition signed by an entire town, and transferring the names onto a petition for a pardon7.  Though humorous and entertaining, this story reveals a confusion and lack of communication in the government that prevents any adequate form of control of miscreants.  Each anecdote reveals another section of California society, as Kennedy slowly reveals the conditions that he believes were ripe for secession.  As the sketches pile up, secession begins to seem more and more likely, until the reader is confounded as to why California didn’t join the Confederacy.  After raising this question, Kennedy finally answers it with another story—this one a much longer tale of Colonel Baker.

Contemporary criticism of Kennedy’s work applauded him for his conviction and portrayal of Baker, yet questioned whether he exaggerated.  As writer and future ambassador William E. Dodd stated, “no Confederate flag was ever actually unfurled in California.”8 Though he doesn’t question that some did desire to separate California from the Union, he validly points out that secession was never officially suggested, since Gwin’s plan never advanced fully enough.  Despite his belief that Kennedy utilized hyperbole, Dodd commended the writing for its portrayal of a “noble leader.” Dodd also admired how certain Kennedy was in his belief in Baker’s heroics, since Kennedy’s writing shows no qualms his complete praise—without ever highlighting any negative aspects of Baker’s character.  He also shared Kennedy’s belief that many easterners knew too little about Colonel Baker, and agreed that the importance of Baker’s successes should be better taught in eastern schools.

Though Kennedy at some points exaggerates the direness of the situation in California, he does successfully demonstrate the importance of Baker’s work.  While it seems inaccurate that many Californians were southern sympathizers, it simultaneously seems entirely possible that a powerful minority could gain control of the state and start a rebellion.  This condition would be especially possible in a place like California, where most of the population was “young gold-seekers”, who probably were more concerned about their next meal than taking time to vote.9   In addition, the wealthy merchants were the most politically influential, and they would be the ones with the most to gain by being freed of government taxes, restrictions, and regulations.  Therefore, the point that Baker’s skills were important remains intact, though seeming slightly less essential.  Despite the flaws, Kennedy successfully portrays Baker’s loyalty to the Union and talent as a speaker as vital to the success of the North maintaining control of California.

According to Kennedy, the conditions in California developed completely independently of the rest of the United States.  He claims that the population diversity created by the Gold Rush existed nowhere else in the country and the style of government only showed up in a few frontier states.  However, many of the occurrences in the book were completely initiated by the Eastern United States.  Most of the civil war debates were unimportant to Californians; issues like states right didn’t affect California, which had only recently become a state.  Furthermore, slavery was widely opposed by Californians, who feared that slaves would arrive in masses to mine all the gold for wealthy southern planters.  Though the issues were unimportant to them, Californians did care about a possible war—nearly all had family in the East, and most still had some ties to either North or South.  The conflict in the East thus divided California politics into either pro Union or pro Confederate groups, with the only middle ground being those seeking complete independence. 10

The occurrences in California were distinctive from the rest of the country, due to the Gold Rush creating a unique demographic situation.  The diverse population contained original Mexican inhabitants, new American settlers from all of the Eastern United States, and immigrants from Asian nations across the pacific.  This variety of individuals produced conflicting ideals and a mixture of cultures previously unseen in the country. Furthermore, the overpopulation of young men—and scarcity of women—caused a distinctive sort of “organized lawlessness,” much like the captivating tales of the Wild West of easterners’ imaginations. 11 These adventurers contributed to a general sense of anarchy and disorder, with very little influence from the nation’s government.  However, despite it’s isolation from the East, Kennedy shows that if California had seceded, the rest of the West would have soon followed, and the North would have been overwhelmed and unable to defeat the Confederacy.

In general, Kennedy is successful in his mission to tell the seemingly forgotten story of Colonel Baker, and shows him as a hero of the civil war.  His book serves as a reminder of the way history could have changed, without the actions of a single man.  It not only extols a champion, it inspires readers to great acts, encouraging them of a person’s power to shape events.  Furthermore, Kennedy’s style of writing through various anecdotes keeps the reader interested and entertained. His dry sense of humor at the strange Californian events shows a bemusement at a peculiar way of life, without condemning those who lived through it.

 

1. Kennedy, Elijah R. The Contest for California in 1861.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912. ii

2. Kennedy 29

3. Kennedy 85

4. Kennedy 147

5. Kennedy 290

6. Kennedy 68

7. Kennedy 18

8. Dodd, William E. “California in the Civil War”.  The Dial. August 1, 1912

9. Kennedy 13

10. Kennedy 56

11. Kennedy 121