The Pacific Coast Theater
The Pacific Coast Theater of operations included activity on the Pacific Ocean and the states west of the Continental Divide: California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington Territory, Idaho Territory and Utah Territory.
Union and Confederate troops did not meet directly in the area. Military activity was confined to fighting various Indian tribes. Volunteers in commands like the California Column traveled to Arizona Territory to battle Confederate regulars. There were several instances where Union regulars battled Confederate irregulars in Southern California.
The Pacific Coast Theater had a secession crisis similar to the one on the East Coast. Following Lincoln’s election, a group of Southern sympathizers in California planned to secede from the Union with Oregon and create a “Pacific Republic”. There had been an earlier movements in the Oregon Territory to create an independent republic that dated from the time when the area was settled. And of course, California had once been an independent republic. This movement still continues today under the name of Cascadia.
The independence/secession movement in the Pacific Coast Theater rested largely with Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston who who commanded all the Federal troops of the Department of the Pacific with headquarters at Benicia in Northern California.
Johnston met with the Southern sympathizers but before they could propose a plan, he told them that he would defend the arsenal in Benicia and the San Francisco forts. He pointed out that he had the men to do carry out his plans.
Union men, not realizing Johnston’s attitude toward secession, notified Washington that they were suspicious of his intentions. The War Department dispatched Brig. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner by ship via Panama who replaced Johnston in March 1861. Johnston resigned his commission on April 9th and moved with his family to Los Angeles.
Southern California seemed ripe for secession, especially after Arizona seceded from the New Mexico Territory on March 28th. There had been a desire to divide California for some time. In 1859, Andrés Pico, a Californio hero of San Pasqual and then-state Senator and prosperous ranchero who owned thousands of acres of land in the south of the state, proposed a resolution to divide the state.
His reasons were that the state was too large to properly manage, and southern California were overtaxed and under-represented. The Pico Act proposed to divide the state at the 36th parallel north, creating the ‘Territory of Colorado.’ On 25 March 1860 the Assembly passed the bill, it was approved by California Senate on 14 April, and then-governor John B. Weller signed it on 19 April. Then, as per the Assembly committee’s recommendation, to make the bill even more democratic it was put to a referendum, to which Californians approved by some 75%.
In addition to the on-going desire to separate, the Southern sympathizers were recruiting and training militia units. With a military commander of Johnston’s caliber on hand, Union authorities became quite concerned.
Once word of the firing on Fort Sumter reached California, there were public demonstrations for secession. At the time, there was only a small Union garrison in San Diego but three companies of Federal cavalry were moved from Fort Mojave and Fort Tejon to Los Angeles in May and June 1861. With a strong showing of military strength, secession quickly became impossible.
Albert Sidney Johnston quickly became a fugitive when military authorities attempted to arrest him. He joined the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles as a private and journeyed with them to Texas. He moved on to Richmond, Virginia in September where he was appointed a full general in the Confederate Army by his old friend, Jefferson Davis. On April 6, 1862, he was wounded at Shiloh and bled to death.
Several other attempts to raise and use pro-Southern militia companies in Southern California were foiled by the civilian and military authorities. This activity continued throughout the rest of 1861. Union authorities countered pro-Southern activity by raising local pro-Union militia companies in key areas of the state.
Naval operations on the Pacific Ocean were carried out by the Pacific Squadron. Due to the increasing need for ships to be used in the blockade of the Southern coastline, the squadron remained small. One vessel was always stationed at Panama City to protect the movement of gold from California, across the isthmus of Panama. The rest of the squadron patrolled the sea lanes from British Columbia to Panama. Mare Island Naval Shipyard on San Francisco Bay was the permanent base of the squadron.
To protect the coastline from from possible attacks by Confederate commerce raiders or the fleets of the British Empire or French Empire, forts were built or improved. San Francisco, the main shipping point for gold and silver, was protected with a number of forts and fortifications.
A number of other forts were built on the Oregon and Washington coastlines. The main goal of all of the fortifications on the West Coast was to protect the harbors and river mouths from invasion or attack. In Oregon, the forts at the mouth of the Columbia River were there to protect the access to the Idaho goldfields.
In 1863, a group of pro-Southern sympathizers from the Knights of the Golden Circle in San Francisco obtained a letter of marque from the Confederate government in Richmond. They outfitted the schooner J.M. Chapman with the goal of seizing outbound gold and silver. Their plot was detected. They were arrested on March 15th and the vessel was seized.
Union authorities up and down the West Coast investigated all suspicious activity and uncovered a number of incipient plots, including one to seize the USS Shubrick. There were other plots to purchase ships in British Columbia and outfit them as Confederate privateers.
In the spring of 1864, Union authorities learned of a planned attempt to seize the Panama Railroad steamer Salvador by a force of Confederate raiders under Captain Thomas Egenton Hogg. Their goal was to seize the steamer, arm it and use it to attack Pacific Mail steamers and whalers in the North Pacific.
A force from the USS Lancaster arrested them on board the Salvador. They were taken to San Francisco where a court tried them and after their conviction, sentenced them to hang. Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, the Department of the Pacific commander, commuted their sentences. He ordered that in the future all passengers surrender their weapons when boarding a vessel, submit to a search and have their baggage searched.
The commerce raider CSS Alabama operated in the southwest Pacific for several weeks, capturing three ships. The CSS Shenandoah was the second and last Confederate raider to enter the Pacific Ocean. However, its activity was simply too little and too late in the war to make a difference. In fact most of its activity came either at the end of the war or afterward.
It took some time for Commander James Waddell, captain of the Shenandoah to discover that the war was over. He disarmed his vessel and took it to Great Britain to avoid being tried to piracy. Waddell returned to the United States in 1875.
Union military carried out a number of campaigns against hostile Indian tribes across the Pacific Coast Theater. In Northern California there was the ongoing Bald Hills War (1858–1864) against the Chilula, Lassik, Hupa, Mattole, Nongatl, Sinkyone, Tsnungwe, Wailaki and Whilkut.
Between 1862 and 1864, California Cavalry units from the Southern California District fought the Owens Valley Indian War against the Owens Valley Paiutes or Numa and against their friends among theKawaiisu in the Sierra Mountains to the west.
Throughout the Civil War, Oregon and California Volunteer patrols had several clashes with the Ute, Goshute, Paiute, Bannock, and Shoshone bands in Oregon and the Territories of Washington (later Idaho), Utah, and Nevada. However the invasion of the territory of the Snake Indians by gold miners in 1863 brought on the Snake War. The Volunteers of California, Oregon and Washington fought the Snakes until relieved by Federal troops in late 1865, the war continued until 1868.