Sunday, November 25, 2012

Matthews: "THE GOLDEN STATE IN THE CIVIL WAR: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California"

[The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California by Glenna Matthews (Cambridge University Press, 2012). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, index. Pages main/total:269/284. 978-0-521-19400-6 $95]

paperback cover art
Given the Golden State's contributions to the Union war effort, 17,000 men and a steady stream of gold bullion and other financial support, it is surprising that no scholar has attempted until now a survey of California's Civil War history. In terms of content, Glenna Matthews's The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California follows the elective affinities of the author but, overall, the book succeeds in providing a much needed broad introduction to the subject.

An important element of the book is Matthews's mini-biography of Unitarian minister and abolitionist Thomas Starr King. A Massachusetts native, Starr King migrated from St. Louis to San Francisco right before the outbreak of the Civil War, where he became a popular public intellectual and strong supporter of pro-Union and Republican party causes. The author does a fine job of outlining Starr King's activist presence, which also included fund raising for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Even so, the focus on a single man and his works might create an exaggerated image of his political and cultural importance in the mind of the reader.  However, Matthews's narrative, while it does comparatively relegate other leading California Republican figures like Leland Stanford to the background, does recognize that the crowning of Starr King as the savior of California for the Union (like some have done) overstates his role. Even so, his short-lived efforts (he died in 1864) on behalf of the Union cause were important and deserve to be remembered.

In the 1850s, the Democratic Party in California was a commanding political force, but its division allowed Lincoln to win the state's electoral votes in the 1860 presidential election by a razor thin margin [32.32% to Douglass's 31.71%, Breckinridge's 28.35%, and Bell's 7.6%]. In contrast, by 1864, the state was firmly Republican. Unfortunately, the book does a more thorough job of explaining how and why the state reverted back to a Democratic majority in the post-war years than it does discussing the reasons behind the brief Republican transformation during the war itself.

A minor focus, the study's military features center on the famed California Column and passing mention of campaigns by California volunteers to brutally suppress Indians within state borders and beyond. Those events were significant, but the study's narrow emphasis upon them greatly undervalues California's military contributions to the Union cause. California volunteers became the guardians of public safety in the vast expanses of the sparsely settled West. When the regulars left, and the state of Oregon and Washington Territory were unable or unwilling to raise enough troops for their own defense, it was California volunteers that stepped into the resulting void, protecting settlements and western emigrant trails all over wide swaths of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho, and Utah [the book contains a nice map of the extent of California troop dispersal].  This key history is underdeveloped in the book.  Use of the available literature exploring the central role played by California Column veterans in the economic development of the desert southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) might also have been fruitfully employed.

Among the book's best sections are those discussing California gold and its uses. National and state monetary policies are briefly explored. With so much gold and silver around, Californians decisively opposed soft money initiatives, passing their own hard currency laws in opposition to federal suspension of specie payments. Perhaps ironically, it was their own gold that helped maintain confidence in paper money in the east. According to Matthews, a ship containing 3 tons of gold left California for the eastern states every two weeks, supplying their banks with the gold reserves necessary to meet their paper obligations. Of course, given the enormous and constantly growing costs of the war, this influx of gold only delayed the inevitable, but it did keep banks afloat long enough for strategies of long term funding and currency viability to be developed and implemented by the Treasury Department. Readers will also learn (and this was a revelation to me) that California was also the state with the greatest contribution to the funding of the USSC mentioned above.

With so many Southern Democrats remaining within the state [spread all around but concentrated in southern California], a discussion of Copperhead activities was certainly in order and the "Coppery" California chapters discuss some of the opposition figures in the state, as well as the efforts of the authorities to suppress dissent. It is rather surprising so little violence occurred, with nearly all the comparatively small number of arrests made during the war for 'disturbing the peace'-type offenses. It is a marvel that the state experienced essentially no guerrilla violence, and it might make for a useful investigation why this was so.

Societal links between California and the rest of the country comprise another major theme of the book. Here, Starr King also comes into play as a prominent cultural bridge between the state (San Francisco in particular) and the U.S. northeast. California's minority groups (Indians, blacks, and Chinese) are also discussed, primarily in the narrow context of the violence, persecution, and exploitation directed against them.  One might quibble with the author's subject matter emphases and interpretations in places, but it can't be denied that in The Golden State in the Civil War we have the first truly worthwhile scholarly overview of the Civil War contributions and experiences of Californians.  It is fervently hoped that Matthews's work will inspire others, as much remains to be done.


[Note: For the budget minded, a very affordable paperback edition is available for $25.99]

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