A VERY UN-CIVIL TIME IN CALIFORNIA’S SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY

A recent CalVet Connect Post commemorated the 158th anniversary of the day in 1862 when President Lincoln signed into law what became the U.S. military’s Medal of Honor. CalVet’s Medal of Honor Wall and its Medal of Honor Hall at headquarters in Sacramento include three recipients from California who fought in the Civil War.

The flag of Company Guidon, California 100 circa 1861.
Company Guidon, Company A flag, “California 100” circa 1861-65.

What few Californians know is that, while many patriots went east to fight in the Civil War, the Civil War came to California; and, as one San Joaquin Valley historian, Terry Ommen, described it, to “the middle of nowhere.”

The town of Visalia, founded in 1852, certainly embodied the middle of nowhere – roughly 200 miles south of Sacramento and 200 miles north of Los Angeles. California’s admission to the Union as a free state two years earlier riled many of the southerners who came west and settled in the Visalia area.

While southern sympathizers spanned the entire length of the state – by the time the war started in 1861, six state senators, a Congressman, and one in five southern Democrat state Assemblymen left California to join the Confederacy – Visalia became the state’s hotbed of secessionism.

By 1859, the town’s newspapers included the pro-secessionist Sun, and the pro-Union Delta, the latter of which continues to publish today. The editors tore at each other in opinion pieces. Their feud spilled into the streets, where in 1860, one died from a gunshot wound and the other quickly left town.

Federal marshals believed Visalia to be part of the South’s underground, and confirmed it when they arrested a courier in 1861, according to a militarymuseum.org piece published 104 years after the fact. Tensions grew to the point that, not unlike in areas in the East where the war raged, brothers and onetime friends found themselves enemies.

In the fall of 1862, the U.S. Army marched roughly 100 troopers 120 miles in four days from Camp Independence in Owens Valley to Visalia, where they established Camp Babbitt about a mile outside of town.

Lt. Col. George S. Evans wrote that his men “were compelled to walk about two-thirds of the way, and that, too, barefooted and naked, for many of them were as destitute of shoes as they were the day they were born, and had no pantaloons, except such as they had themselves made out of barley and flour sacks. … Still the men plodded on and stood guard at night, leaving the blood from their feet upon the rocks and snow.”

Camp Babbitt represented little more than a group of shacks in a grove of trees, but the soldiers made their presence felt.

A photo of Camp Babbitt, circa 1864.
Soldiers perform at Camp Babbitt.

According to Ommen, some of the southern sympathizers shouted a “hurrah to Jeff Davis (the Confederate president) to antagonize the soldiers” and found themselves taken into custody where they were held until they recited an oath of allegiance to the Union.

“They’d go through the motions,” Ommen said: say the oath sans conviction, be released, and shout out another hurrah to Davis as they left Camp Babbitt.

One who continued his disloyalty to the Union was Lovick Pierce Hall, the editor of the Equal Rights Expositor newspaper. His stories were so virulently anti-Lincoln that the government prohibited the publication from being transported by the U.S. Mail, in essence limiting its circulation to street hawkers. In March 1863, the soldiers ransacked the newspaper office, destroying the press, breaking the windows, and scattering the paper, type and ink out on the street.

(Hall then moved north to the Merced Banner, which a mob also destroyed, and then to the Amador Dispatch newspaper, where he was arrested and sent to Alcatraz for the remainder of the war.)

After that, according a militarymuseum.org story, the acts of public disloyalty stopped. A howitzer might have been the reason. Other accounts suggest that Indian raids in the area compelled the townsfolk to set aside their differences and protect their community.

The community’s reaction to Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 surprised historian Ommen, who would have expected it to be even more divisive.

“The town actually came together,” he said. It held a ceremonial procession, with a coffin and all else as a nation mourned. “It was the high point of a low time.”

And the end of the Civil War, as California’s San Joaquin Valley town of Visalia knew it.

To see Ommen’s 2019 interview on C-SPAN click on:
www.c-span.org/video/?457020-1/civil-war-visalia
and visit www.militarymuseum.org/ConfederateMinority.pdf and www.militarymuseum.org/CpBabbitt.html for more information.

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