This seems to be a portentous week in history. The first man went into space 50 years ago as a special Google logo reminds us. Franklin Delano Roosevelt died April 12 in 1945. The Titanic rendezvoused with its fatal iceberg April 15, 1912.
But while “it was sad when that great ship went down…” as a once popular song put it, a sadder and greater thing occurred 150 years ago April 12. This was also an event flavored with a salty tang. Confederate cannon boomed out over Charleston Harbor, assaulting Fort Sumter, and the Civil War was on.
As far as I could tell, this anniversary went unrecalled in Berkeley. It’s not surprising. Our community history generally doesn’t go back that far. In 1861 a populated UC campus here was still a dozen years in the future, the town wouldn’t be incorporated for 17 years, and five years would pass before the name “Berkeley” was suggested.
Our geographical location had a few scattered farmsteads, the germ of an industrial settlement on the waterfront, a few roads running through, and a newly inaugurated campus site for an institution that would never move here, the private College of California.
Thus, there’s little in “Berkeley history” to relate to the Civil War, as least when it took place.
This was not quite true of the more settled parts of the Bay Area. San Francisco retains the name “Union Square” from that period, when loyalty to the Union became a paramount virtue and patriotic rallies were held there.
But it’s a little known history throughout California.
As historian Roger McGrath wrote in an account you can find on-line in its full form, “For most Americans, the words California and the Civil War have nothing to do with each other. Yet, California played a surprisingly important role in that epic conflict…almost no one knows that California had more volunteers per capita in the Union Army than any other state. Nor is it generally known that by war's end California volunteers in the West occupied more territory than did the Union Army in the east.”
“Nearly 17,000 Californians enlisted to fight. Most of these men were keep busy in the West, but several companies of California volunteers saw action in the East as the California One Hundred or later the California Cavalry Battalion. These volunteers served with the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry and fought in 31 engagements, many of them in the Shenandoah Valley. Other California volunteers served with distinction in New York and Pennsylvania regiments.”
But Californian loyalty to the Union was not firmly established at the beginning of the war. Although we were a “free” state, there was plenty of Southern identity and sympathy, particularly in the still germinating upper echelons of San Francisco society.
And the State as a whole was so sparsely settled and developed that an uprising or expeditionary force numerically small still might have hoped to win strategic control, at least for a while, over the gold fields of the State, the silver mines of Nevada, and the developing network of shipping, manufacturing, banking, and general commerce centered around San Francisco Bay.
On the eve of war this was quickly recognized. One of the few immediate effects of the War was the hasty completion of Fort Point at the entrance to the Golden Gate, visible across the Bay from the future Berkeley. The huge brick and stone fortification had been under construction for more than a decade when war began.
Troops were quickly moved into the structure and the fort secured against attack from land as well as from sea. The most immediate fear was not of a Confederate ship sailing in the Golden Gate, but of Southern sympathizers in San Francisco—of whom there were many—seizing the fort and its munitions in a surprise attack from the landward side.
Ironically the commander of the Army on the Pacific Coast at the time responsible for these preparations was Colonel Albert Sidney Johnson. He scrupulously issued his orders in February to garrison the Fort—which still hadn’t received its artillery—and put troops on alert at Alcatraz.
He saw the preparations completed then resigned his commission in April. Johnson, a highly regarded Mexican War veteran and West Point graduate, would return East, marching with a company of Southern California Confederate volunteers overland to New Orleans.
Just a year after securing the Bay Area against rebellion or invasion, he would be the second ranking general in the Confederacy, bleeding to death in a shot-torn peach orchard at the Battle of Shiloh.
A continent away, the peaceful orchards of Berkeley bloomed across from Golden Gate fortifications that would never see a hostile shot fired during the War.
That does not mean, however, that the Civil War meant nothing to Berkeley. After the War, many veterans came or returned west. Up through the 1930s the Civil War—the only truly “great” war in United States history at that point—was a living presence to local residents through those veterans and their families.
And if California was still divided at the beginning of the War, the local survivors saw that it—including Berkeley—became a bastion of patriotic Unionism afterwards.
I am not sure if there was an organized local group of Confederate veterans on the Berkeley scene. Possibly not and, if so, its numbers might have been relatively small.
There were, however, established Union groups, part of the GAR—the Grand Army of the Republic—including Berkeley’s Lookout Mountain Post, which enrolled as many as 1,000 Union veterans at its peak.
Even as they dwindled and thinned with time, the ranks of those veterans had pride of place in local patriotic celebrations. One of their leaders, William Hatch Wharff, a veteran of the Eleventh Maine Infantry, was a fixture at Berkeley’s Fourth of July celebrations.
Wharff died just 75 years ago, January 1, 1936—half the distance from our time to the Civil War.
The GAR was organized into regional “Departments” and local “Posts” following Union Army wartime protocol. Berkeley was proud to host, in 1933—and again, later in the decade—the annual “Encampment” of the Department of California and Nevada.
Hundreds came to town, not just the actual veterans but their spouses and members of what were known as auxiliary organizations, including the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
(Today, there’s an active group, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War that officially inherited the GAR mantle after the last actual veterans passed away.)
In 1933 the veterans headquartered at the Hotel Whitecotton (now the Shattuck), rallied in the Veterans Memorial Building and Harmon Gym on the UC campus, and marched through the streets of Berkeley while local schoolchildren strewed rose petals in their path and younger veterans of subsequent conflicts paraded in their wake.
Although we don’t have a statue of a soldier or a captured cannon on display, at least three memorials—Berkeley’s authentic Civil War monuments—were left from that Encampment. All were living trees, one planted in Live Oak Park, one downtown adjacent to “old” City Hall, and the third on the UC Campus.
The one planted Downtown involved a ceremony described as “a tableau with members of the Women’s Relief Corps taking the roles of the ‘Sun,’ ‘Earth,’ ‘Air’ and ‘Tree’. “Each spoke of the particular functions they would take in assuring a long life to the tree,” said the Berkeley Daily Gazette.
While that tree, and the one in Live Oak Park, may survive, sans markers, only the exact identity of the third currently known. The monument incorporates a small metal plaque on a stone base and a now-large redwood tree planted near Strawberry Creek, southwest of the Valley Life Sciences Building.
The inscription reads, “Presented to the University of California in memory of the Grand Army of the Republic by Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War Department of California and Nevada, May 17, 1933.”
When those monuments were installed in 1933, our hometown newspaper, the Berkeley Daily Gazette said:
“The ideals, patriotism, devotion and loyalty of the body, represented in the veterans dressed in their faded uniforms, who will be the honored guests of Berkeley during the coming week, will live forever in the memory of a grateful country.”
Last month on a chill day I walked around places where the Civil War is well remembered; the battlefield at Antietam in Western Maryland, and the nearby United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown staged his famous and ill-fated Raid in 1859, helping to trigger war two years later.
Confederates and Union soldiers clashed violently at both locations during the War, and they are replete with monuments, plaques, and memorials.
Statues representing regiments, elaborate stone pavilions dedicated to the troops from different states, and upright cannon barrels marking the place where a general died line the lanes and populate the gently rolling fields at Antietam, which saw the “Bloodiest Day” in Civil War history—a total of 23,000 soldiers from both sides killed, wounded, or missing on September 17, 1862 at the Cornfield, the Dunker Church, “Sunken Lane”, and the Burnside Bridge.
Interpretative plaques and a visitor center explain both the battle and context and there's a steady stream of visitors.
While the events of the War 150 years past will be remembered—and, sometimes, celebrated—for the next four years at places like those, it seems unlikely at this point that the Gazette prediction from 1933 will be true in Berkeley.
Most likely we locals will continue to look at the Civil War as something remarkably distant and curiously far away.
For more information, see “California and the Civil War”