Chapter X. The Signal Gun and the Steel Trail
Boom! Boom! Boom! Never in history did the firing of a gun have such a powerful effect as that which sent the first shot at the flag of the Union, as it floated over Fort Sumter on that memorable Friday, April 12, 1861.
Fired at a time when most people were hoping for a peaceful outcome of the sectional troubles, it astonished the world and stirred the whole country to its depths.
Across the dry plains and rugged mountains of the West its echoes seemed to roll. The startled people of the Pacific coast looked at each other with anxious, uncertain eyes. No one felt quite sure of his neighbor, and they were so far from the scene of action that the government could not help them. They must settle the great question for themselves. Who was for the Union? Who was against it?
In Washington the President and his advisers waited with keen anxiety to learn what wealthy California would do. Senator Gwin had often spoken in Congress and elsewhere as though it would certainly be one of the states to secede. He and others had talked too, in a confident way, of the "Grand Republic of the Pacific" that might be then formed out of the lands of the Western coast. To lose this rich territory would be a terrible blow to the Union.
From the time of California's admission there had been a constant endeavor on the part of Southern sympathizers to introduce slavery into its territory. A large number of politicians, especially those holding prominent positions, were Southerners, some of whom, like Dr. Gwin, had come to the Pacific coast for the express purpose of winning either the new state or some portion of it for the South and slavery.
They had succeeded in giving it a fugitive slave law that was particularly evil. Under it a colored man or woman could be seized, brought before a magistrate, claimed as a slave, and taken back South without being allowed to testify in his or her own behalf. Neither could a colored person give testimony in a criminal case against one who was white.
Opposed to this strong Southern party one man stood almost alone as the friend of free labor and free soil. This man was David C. Broderick. For years he fought the slavery interests inch by inch in San Francisco, in the state legislature, and finally in the United States Senate.
When he went to Washington he found the same state of affairs as in California - President Buchanan yielding to the Southern demands, Southern members ruling and often terrifying Congress. Broderick at once joined Stephen A. Douglas in the struggle he was then making for free soil in Kansas and the territories, and his speeches were clear and often fierce.
In reply to a speech from a Carolina senator in regard to the disgrace of belonging to the working class, Mr. Broderick said (Congressional Globe, 1857-58), "I represent a state where labor is honorable, where the judge has left his bench, the doctor and lawyer their offices, the clergyman his pulpit, for the purpose of delving in the earth, where no station is so high, no position so great, that its occupant is not proud to boast that he has labored with his own hands. There is no state in the Union, no place on earth, where labor is so honored, so well rewarded, as in California." Mr. Broderick died in the midst of his bright career, murdered in a duel by one of the leading members of the slavery party.
When he died, those of his fellow-citizens who believed much as he did, yet had let him fight secession and slavery lone-handed, recognized what he had done for them - their "brave young senator," as Seward called him, who had kept the evil of slavery from their soil. His work, stopped by the bullet of his enemy, was taken up by the people, and his name became a rallying cry for the lovers of the Union, of honest labor, and of free soil.
News that the war had really begun brought forth the strongest Union sentiments from many of those who had before been careless or indifferent. A mass meeting of the people of San Francisco was held - business was suspended, flags were flying everywhere, while eager-faced people listened to earnest Union speeches. A few days later the legislature, by an almost unanimous vote, declared in the strongest terms for the Union, offering to give any aid the government might require. No one could longer have any doubt of the loyalty of the state of California.
There were certainly many people from the South who were deeply in sympathy with secession; but these, if honorable men who were able to fight, hurried east to join the Confederate army, or if they chose to remain under the protection of the flag, were generally wise enough to keep their feelings to themselves.
Some there were, however, who, while they enjoyed the law and order of the peaceful state, still spoke, plotted, and schemed for secession. To keep such as these in order it was found necessary to retain most of the California troops in the state for home defense. Those who did reach Eastern battlefields fought well and nobly.
One of San Francisco's ministers was unwise enough frequently to express disloyal views in the pulpit, until one Sunday morning he found the banner he would dishonor floating over his church, and hanging to a post in front of the door a figure intended to represent himself, with his name and the word "traitor" pinned to it. The next day he left for Europe, where he stayed until the close of the war.
Another minister, Thomas Starr King, was one of the most earnest supporters of the government. He organized the California division of the Sanitary Commission for the assistance of sick and wounded soldiers. Chiefly through his influence California gave over a million and a half to that cause, which was one third of the whole expenditure of the Commission.