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By CHARLES B. TURRILL, San Francisco Historian

Charles Beebe Turrill (1854-1927) was author of
California Notes, published in 1876.

The young men who settled San Francisco at the time of the gold rush to California were enthusiastic advocates of ideas, but not so old that their ideas had become inflexible crystallized. They had come from all parts of the world and the long journeys had thrown them into close touch with others with varying ideas and ideals. During these months of intercourse, of mutual dangers and privations, a broad spirit of humanity and tolerance had been born.

San Francisco has been a most cosmopolitan community since its name was given to the little settlement of Yerba Buena. At the outbreak of the Civil War nationals and those from different states of the American republic had not assembled in groups and sections of the city. Contact was closer.

Like the young men assembled in training camps during the late World War, when state affiliations became subservient to national demands, so here in the early days, local needs and advantage outweighed, in the minds of a majority, the ideas and ideals of these states whence they came.

There was here a large representation of the North and South at the time. Had it not been for another element things might not have gone so smoothly for the north, however. A large portion of the community was neither from north nor south.


These foreigners were active in local affairs and were the constant associates of those who had come from the states beyond the mountains. Their interests were local rather than national. Perhaps they held the balance, certainly their influence was for good.

While the French consul advised natives of France to join neither army but to be neutral, and while other nationals may have been similarly instructed, the foreign element was a tower of strength for the Northern sympathizers.
Those citizens of San Francisco at the outbreak of the Civil War were far more patriotic American citizens than were those who some years before, at Sonoma, had declared for a California republic and hoisted a bear flag instead of that of the country from which they had emigrated into a foreign country. The same amount of cloth would have made for those a flag in the similitude of the Stars and Stripes. They did not make one.

The men of San Francisco and California in 1860 did not want any flag but that of the American Republic. They honored that flag too much to substitute for it anything else. Some of them had made the long, good fight to have the new land of their endeavor represented by a new star on that flag.

They were proud of the youthful city, and more of the flag of the country of their nativity or adoption. And a glance over any Great Register [of voters] of the period will show the large proportion of voters who were “naturalized citizens.”

Her isolation and distance from the center of disturbance gave San Franciscans a broader perspective of the national struggle with their old “home folks.” Another small portion sought to aid their home associates of the South and promote the cause of secession here.

A broader spirit of patriotism prevailed, and this small minority of active, though secret, workers found themselves prisoners on Alcatraz, where they remained unless they took the oath of allegiance and promised to “be good.” Several newspapers were denied the mails and express delivery through the state by military edict.


Photograph of Thomas Starr King Those Californians had grounds for expecting the approaching war. They had weighed the advantages of one American Union. Many had decided their course of action, and the eloquence of Thomas Starr King, Col. E.D. Baker and others had strengthened their decisions. They were living in a state that had voluntarily proclaimed itself a “free state.” On that platform it had been admitted into the Union but 10 years before.

They had cast the die, and would abide the result, and more than that, they would give their energies, their money and their lives for its sustaining. They had struggled too hard for admission into the Union to wish its dismemberment. There were probably more “copperheads” through several of the Northern states than in California.

At this day it is hard to realize the isolation of California in 1860. How eagerly each steamer’s arrival with letters was awaited. Stage coaches across the country had cut down the time considerably since those earlier days of a decade before. The desire for “later news” had brought the pony express into being. A month’s wait had been cut down to 10 days. And yet each steamer brought thousands of letters from “home.”

When the news came that one state after another had seceded; that the Flag had been fired upon, those San Franciscans rose to the occasion. They met the inevitable as they had faced every problem. They might fall in the struggle, but they would die fighting and would receive their wounds from the front. Public meetings assembled.

Recruiting offices opened. Californians did not have to be drafted. They had come here to toil and to build a state. They loved their Flag well enough to fight for it. Their quotas were often united under the names of other states, and California did not get the full credit for her citizens who went to the front. But that did not matter. There was work to be done. San Franciscans and Californians took steamers and sought that work.

Those who did not go to the battlefields worked at home to convert the schemes of Southern sympathizers and to supply the sinews of war. On each steamer sailing out of the Golden Gate two and three times a month, an average of over $1,000,000 in gold, during the entire four years of the war, went East. Several times the specie shipments ran over $2,000,000 per steamer, and on one occasion the report shows over $3,000,000 sent to help win the war.

But not only were men and money forwarded for those at the front, but those who had been sent to the rear sick or wounded were in constant remembrance. Public meetings were held and thousands of dollars went forward for this special need. Women met in churches and prepared lint to be sent to the hospitals. The battlefields were far away, but it was our war, and all took part.

The news eagerly awaited of each Northern victory was an excuse for public assemblages, parades and torch-light processions. When news of a defeat came, gloom settled on each face and each heart bowed, perhaps in personal sorrow, beat valiantly and expectantly for brighter news in a few days. When one of our loved and honored fell, commemorative gatherings listened to eloquent words in praise of the departed. When the soldier returned vanquished from the bloody fields, his remains were placed in the tomb by a sorrowing city.

And during all the time the wheels were revolving here at home. Ships were being built. Streets were being improved. New and better homes were being built. Larger and more sumptuous hotels were being erected. In the period the Russ House, the Occidental, Lick and Cosmopolitan hotels were erected. Fires removed structures and better ones took their places. Incendiary fires became too frequent, and steps were taken to prevent them.


Possible danger of attack and the danger from privateers added a zest to life and commercial activity and prudence laid a telegraph cable across the Golden Gate from Fort Point to Lime Point, the 3000 soldiers at the Presidio were reviewed, and Angel Island was fortified. Provost guard was increased to 150 men.

Plans for a trans-continental railroad were discussed and public demonstrations held when word came that congress had passed the Pacific railroad bill. A railroad was built to San Jose and school children, without permission of the superintendent of schools, rode on it for a picnic excursion into San Mateo county. Street railroads were laid out and opened with “exercises.”

Steam cars running on Market street as far as Mission Dolores brought that settlement nearer Montgomery street and incidentally killed a man occasionally. The city liked California gold and all bills bore the words “payable in United States gold coin.” The mint was busy coining some of the millions that were not sent away. During 1864 our mint coined in gold and silver $16,323,186.

One steamer carried away 14,000 letters. That was the Golden Gate which sailed July 21, 1862. She also carried $1,400,747.24 in treasure. Six days later she burned near Mazatlan, Mexico, and 200 passengers were lost. On August 6 the steamship St. Louis brought the news of the disaster and 23 rescued passengers and the crew.

San Francisco was plunged into grief and its generous heart, through benefits and subscriptions, supplied money and help for the families of the bereaved. Later part of the treasure was recovered. It was one of the many tragedies of the coast that scarred the heart of the community.

Photograph of Elisha O. CrosbyOn December 16, 1862, the Moses Taylor—old “Rolling Moses”—returned to port with a broken shaft. Peter Donohue made a new one at his iron works and school boys had a holiday to see the wonderful feat of manufacturing the first big piece of machinery. Many years later the same plant built the [U.S.S.] Oregon.

The following letter written by William J. Shaw, a San Francisco attorney, who lived at Folsom and Thirteenth streets, to the Honorable E.O. Crosby, American minister at Guatemala, may be of interest. Mr. Crosby had been a resident of our city and was also a lawyer. In 1859 he dwelt on the northeast corner of Kearny and Vallejo streets. The letter has just come into the writer’s possession.

    “San Francisco, Jan 6, 1864.
    “Hon. E.O.Crosby,
    “&c, &c.
    “My dear sir:

    “Your favor of 26 Nov. last, at Guatemala is received. I will answer your queries as well as I can, but you know it is impossible to be positive regarding the general affairs, or business of a country even in ordinary times. And now, in the midst of the great revolution in the United States the future cannot be fathomed even for a month in advance.

    “My own opinion is that California is the best state in the American Republic for business at all times and under all circumstances. But you, who have lived here, can require only this additional information. If in time of peace California possessed advantages superior to all other American states, now, in time of the insane war, it possesses no rival. It must be the most desirable of all states in every particular, for a residence, during the war. It never was more prosperous than it is today.

    “San Francisco has grown to be a city of 108,000 inhabitants and its growth is still rapid. Montgomery street is blocks of buildings, and little old Second street all the way down to Howard street is retail shops and stores & so is Third street, and on Fourth street property is worth 200 to 300 dollars a front foot and Sixth street is planked from Market street to Brannan street, and three railroads are now running to Center street, Mission Dolores: and another railroad is being finished to Lone Mountain Cemetery and Bush street is blocks of houses away out to Larkin street.

    “We are a great people. I cannot (safely) be more explicit. But I am truly your friend.

    “WM. J. SHAW.”

The name of Center street has been changed to Sixteenth, and Lone Mountain Cemetery to Laurel Hill. Colonel Baker, who spoke and fought for the Union, rests there.
The Bulletin
Diamond Jubilee Edition
September 1925

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