Unexpected Challenges of California Officers Going East by Sea in 1861

ECW welcomes back guest author Neil Chatelain

E.P. Alexander, W.S. Hancock, and E.V. Sumner stood guard with improvised teams against Confederate raiders while being transported east on the Atlantic and Pacific Mail Steamer Champion.
533211, Herbert Eugene Valentine’s Sketches of Civil War Scenes, RG 165, US National Archives.

In mid-1861, the United States hurriedly recruited volunteer regiments to meet the threat of Civil War. Hundreds of thousands answered the call, but needed an experienced cadre of officers to take charge. Many regular army officers, both those resigning to join the Confederacy and those remaining loyal, often received swift promotions by accepting volunteer commissions, quickly commanding regiments or becoming generals. Large numbers of regular officers, however, were on the country’s frontier and California coastline, and when recalled east in 1861 to command these fledgling volunteer forces, they realized even getting east from California was a trying and dangerous process.

Most known are the movement by officers on the western frontier who returned east by land. Among others, Albert Sidney Johnston, James Longstreet, Henry H. Sibley, and Richard Ewell resigned their commissions and journeyed via the overland mail routes to Texas, and thence Richmond. Most officers coming from California did not move overland however, but by sea from San Francisco to the Panama isthmus to New York. Through the summer and fall of 1861, numerous famous officers, many lesser-known ones, and a large percentage of the U.S. military in California shifted east via this water route, through perceived Confederate threats.

Among the first making the sea-journey was soon to be Confederate Edward Porter Alexander. Resigning from the U.S. Army on May 1, 1861, Alexander and his wife boarded the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s Golden Age that very day.[1] Having a “smooth & uneventful” passage to Panama, the Alexanders crossed the isthmus, transferring to the Atlantic and Pacific Mail Company’s Champion. The journey to New York was more eventful. “There was a great deal of apprehension among the officers of the vessel” worrying about Confederate privateers and cruisers. Without any protection, Champion was ripe for the taking and though Alexander had tendered his resignation, until he learned of its acceptance, he remained a commissioned army officer. Approached by Champion’s master, Alexander organized “a force to resist a capture.”[2] No Confederate attack came, and Champion reached New York on May 24, 1861, with Alexander then journeying south, participating in the July 1861 Battle of Bull Run.

The worry over capture was there for any ship crossing the Confederate coastline, but Champion had extra cause for alarm. As part of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Atlantic and Pacific Mail Company, it was one of the ships authorized to transport gold east, and as the young Alexander organized his makeshift resistance, $354,115 in gold sat in Champion’s hold.[3]

The threat of Confederate naval attacks targeting these gold steamers was quite real. Reports existed of privateer activity ranging from Delaware to the Yucatán, and CSS Sumter was believed to be steaming to intercept their track. Businessmen begged Washington for protection, but there was little the Navy Department could do at this stage of the war. With a blockade just getting established, only the sailing sloop USS Bainbridge went to Colón, the Caribbean port on Panama’s isthmus, where gold was loaded for its final journey to New York. Surplus rifles and cannon were also offered to arm the civilian ships.[4]

The Vanderbilt steamers were left on their own in 1861, and as officers shifted east from California as passengers, they were increasingly called on to provide makeshift protection for these ships. Future U.S. general Joseph Hooker, then a California militia colonel, journeyed east three weeks after Alexander; the Vanderbilt steamer Ariel delivered both Hooker and $1,007,196 in gold to New York on June 24, 1861.[5]

The Confederate threat remained real – Ariel would itself be captured by CSS Alabama eighteen months after dropping off Hooker – and in July 1861 future U.S. general August Kautz proceeded east on St. Louis. After departing San Francisco, rumor spread about secessionist passengers looking to seize the vessel’s $1,098,297 in gold. Approached by the master, Kautz organized civilian volunteers “into watches” to oversee the bullion until the ship safely arrived at its destination.[6]

Army officers took passenger on two of the three gold steamers in August 1861. Future U.S. general James B. McPherson vigilantly guarded $1,176,434.59 in gold on North Star.[7] Departing California three weeks later, Winfield S. Hancock, with his wife, boarded Champion in Panama. This was at the height of terror caused by the Confederate raider Sumter, and Washington dispatched USS Keystone State to partially convoy Champion until it left the Caribbean Sea. Passengers were “secure under the protection” of the warship, but once reaching Cuban waters, Keystone State detached to independently hunt Sumter. An unidentified steamer approached Champion off North Carolina. “The scene in the cabin was one of terror,” a passenger recalled, “ladies fainting, wringing their hands and crying aloud.”[8] Winfield S. Hancock organized passengers into a makeshift defense until the presumed Confederate raider departed, allowing Champion to safely reach New York in mid-October.

Future General Philip Sheridan established a makeshift guard on the Atlantic and Pacific Mail Steamer North Star in October 1861.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-13591.

Ten days after Hancock left California, Philip Sheridan did so as well. “Great distrust existed in all quarters,” the future U.S. general recalled as he boarded the steamer North Star, packed with $1,026,332 in gold, “and the loyal passengers on the steamer, not knowing what might occur during our voyage, prepared to meet emergencies by thoroughly organizing to frustrate any attempt that might possibly be made to carry us.”[9] This makeshift defense proved unnecessary, as North Star reached New York unscathed. Henry Halleck, a major general in California’s militia, made the journey east to take command of U.S. forces in the Western Theater soon after, receiving salutes in San Francisco Harbor upon his departure.[10]

As summer shifted to fall, it was not just officers making the journey east; entire battalions boarded steamers to trek from California to reinforce the growing Army of the Potomac. On November 15, Champion reached New York with $875,730, as well as Brigadier General Edwin Sumner and 700 men from the Third U.S. Infantry and Sixth U.S. Artillery. Three California Confederate sympathizers, including future Confederate general Joseph L. Brent were arrested while passengers on that journey, and reached New York in Sumner’s custody. Ten days later, North Star reached New York with $829,807 in gold, as well as Colonel Robert Buchannan and elements of the Fourth and Ninth U.S. Infantry, and First U.S. Cavalry.[11] These detachments remained vigilant, ready to meet any Confederate raiders, privateers, or internal threats.

Caribbean tensions cooled in early 1862, as Sumter moved to European waters and privateering activity began waning, thanks to both an expanding blockade and the challenges faced in getting prizes to ports for adjudication. Confederate naval forces renewed their threat against these gold-laden steamers later in the war, after more commerce raiders made it to sea, resulting in the eventual establishment of Caribbean convoys to guard them. That was years away however, and in 1861 army officers and small regular contingents organized improvised ship defenses, highlighting both how difficult it was for some officers to even get to the scene of action at the war’s commencements and how an industrializing United States still had a long way to go before it was fully prepared for war.

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Neil P. Chatelain is an Adjunct Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris and a Social Studies Teacher at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Texas. A former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, researches U.S. Naval History. Learn more at www.neilpchatelain.com

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[1] E.P. Alexander to J. McPherson, May 1, 1861, Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General, Main Series, 1861-1870, M619, Records Group 94, National Archives, Washington D.C.

[2] Gary W. Gallagher, ed., Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 30-31.

[3] “Arrival of the Champion”, New York Herald, May 25, 1861.

[4] The city was built by tycoon William H. Aspinwall and U.S. government and business leaders referred to the city as Aspinwall until the 1890’s, but locals adamantly refused to do so, instead calling it Colón, the name it bears today. Vanderbilt to Welles, April 16 1861, Petition to Salmon P. Chase, April 17, 1861, and Petition to Gideon Welles, April 20, 1861, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series 1, Volume 1, 8, 10-11.

[5] “Monetary Affairs”, New York Times, June 25, 1861.

[6] “The ‘Chivs’ on Board the St. Louis,” Petaluma Argus, August 27, 1861.

[7] “From the Pacific Coast”, New York Times, August 24, 1861.; “Passengers by the Panama,” Sacramento Daily Union, August 2, 1861.

[8] Mrs. W.S. Hancock, Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock, (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1887), 74-75.

[9] P.H. Sheridan, Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan, (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1888), Volume 1, 124. “Passengers by the Uncle Sam,” Sacramento Daily Union, October 3, 1861.; “Arrival of the North Star”, New York Tribune, October 24, 1861.

[10] “Call to Organize,” Sacramento Daily Union, May 11, 1861.; “From San Francisco,” Marysville Daily National Democrat, October 12, 1861.

[11] Edwin V. Sumner to Lawrence Kip, November 4, 1861, Joseph Lancaster Brent Papers, 1850-1939, mssBT 1-300, Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.; “Arrival of the Champion,” New York Sun, November 16, 1861.; “Passengers,” Sacramento Bee, October 22, 1861.; “From the Pacific Coast”, New York Times, November 16, 1861.; “From the Pacific Coast,” New York Times, November 26, 1861.

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4 Responses to Unexpected Challenges of California Officers Going East by Sea in 1861

  1. grandadpookers says:

    Thank you for this wonderful story on a topic I knew nothing about. Frankly, I had given very little attention to the early period covered by this post.

    • Meg Groeling says:

      One thing you can do is start adding up the money sent east by California. I was too ill to offer a post on the northern part of my state just prior to the war, but–as a Californian–I hate it when someone suggests that CA had little or no part in the war. Without the Golden State, Chase would have been hard-pressed to pay for things!

      • Neil P. Chatelain says:

        Hey Meg, I have spent a good part of my spare time in 2021 compiling every single shipment of gold from California to Panama to New York, including dates of transport, ships, escorts, amount of gold shipped, and other important information. It is pretty incredible looking at it at that scale and has really helped me better understand all of my ongoing research onto the subject.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    Thanks for introducing this under-appreciated topic. There remain significant aspects of the New York to San Francisco steam transport service, before and during the Civil War, requiring investigation: the decision by Albert Sidney Johnston not to make use of the service; the contemplation of interruption of this service by the Confederacy; the lack of significant protection furnished by the U.S. Navy in “getting the mail through,” as well as the millions of dollars worth of gold from California…
    The more one digs, the deeper the descent into the rabbit hole.

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