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California’s Forgotten Confederate History

Why was the Golden State once chock-full of memorials to the Southern rebels?

Ringo Chiu/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the last major Confederate monument in California came down. It was a curious one: a nine-foot granite pillar in an Orange County cemetery, bearing the names of several Southern leaders, including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, who never even set foot on the Pacific coast.

Dead Confederates are hard to find in California. Yet the Golden State once contained far more rebel tributes than any other state outside the South itself.

Beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, Confederate memorial associations in California established more than a dozen monuments and place-names to the rebellion. They dedicated highways to Jefferson Davis, named schools for Robert E. Lee, and erected large memorials to the common Confederate soldier.

Why was a free state, far removed from the major military theaters of the Civil War, once such fertile soil for Confederate memorialization?

California’s proslavery roots run much deeper than one might suspect. When gold was first discovered near Sacramento in 1848, Southern-born argonauts—some of them with slaves in tow—were among the thousands to join the rush. Over the next several years, they transported somewhere between 500 and 1,500 African American bondspeople to California.

Slaveholders and their allies also occupied a disproportionate share of the state’s high offices through the 1850s. Thanks to their efforts, antebellum California, more often than not, followed the lead of the slave South on the major political issues of the day. According to one contemporary observer, California was “as intensely Southern as Mississippi or any other of the fire-eating States.”

When the Civil War erupted between North and South in 1861, a wave of secessionist scares swept across the West. Los Angeles County was the epicenter of California disunionism. Hundreds of Southern-sympathizing Angelenos fled east to join Confederate armies, while an even larger number remained to menace federal control over the region. They openly bullied and brawled with Union soldiers, joined secessionist secret societies, hurrahed Jefferson Davis and his generals, and voted into office the avowed enemies of the Lincoln administration. The threat became so dire that Union authorities constructed a large military garrison outside Los Angeles, and arrested a number of local secessionists, to prevent the region from slipping into rebel hands.

The rebellion collapsed by 1865, and with it the institution of chattel slavery. But California’s leaders continued to nurture a nostalgia for the Old South. The editor of the leading Democratic newspaper in the state unapologetically lamented the demise of slavery—the “negro birthright”—and concluded that African Americans “are not only totally incapable of self-government, but wholly unfit to be free.” His party stormed back to power in 1867 on a pledge to preserve white rule within California.

True to their word, they refused to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the measures that extended citizenship rights to all natural-born Americans and granted suffrage to black men. California was the only free state to reject both amendments during the Reconstruction era. In a belated, token gesture, the state ratified them in 1959 and 1962, respectively.

Attracted by California’s climate and its reactionary political orientation, thousands of white Southerners migrated west in the decades after the Civil War. There, they continued to honor the memory of their ancestors’ rebellion, whitewashing history wherever necessary. Through hereditary organizations, reunions, and eventually the landscape itself, the Old South rose again in California.

Women were the primary drivers of these memorialization efforts. Founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) soon spread to the Pacific coast. By the turn of the century, the first California offshoots of the UDC—the Jefferson Davis Chapter, the Emma Sansom Chapter, and the Stonewall Jackson Chapter—were busily perpetuating their peculiar interpretation of the war. Their work was complemented by the Pacific Division of the United Confederate Veterans, founded shortly thereafter.

Some of the most active memorial associations could be found in Los Angeles County, which remained a haven for Confederate sympathizers in the decades after the war. In 1925, the UDC erected the first major rebel monument in the West, a six-foot stone tribute in what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The monument saluted the wartime service of some 30 Confederate veterans, who migrated to Southern California after the war and took their final rest in the surrounding cemetery plot.

Many of those veterans had passed their last days in Dixie Manor, a Confederate rest home in San Gabriel, just outside L.A. Five hundred people gathered for the dedication of the home in April 1929. Until 1936, when the last of the residents died, the caretakers of Dixie Manor housed and fed these veterans, hosted rebel reunions, and bestowed new medals for old service. It was the only such facility beyond the former Confederacy itself.

The UDC followed its Hollywood memorial with several smaller monuments to Jefferson Davis scattered across the state. Those tributes marked portions of the Jefferson Davis Highway, a transcontinental road system named for the former rebel chieftain, stretching from Virginia to the Pacific coast. The Daughters erected the first of the tributes in San Diego in 1926. Defiantly, they placed the large obelisk to Davis directly opposite the Ulysses S. Grant Hotel. Although opposition from Union army veterans resulted in the removal of the monument that same year, a plaque to Davis was restored to the San Diego plaza in 1956. The reinstated salute to the Confederate president doubled as a protest to the recent Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision on school segregation.

Several place-names literally put the Confederacy on the map in California. The town of Confederate Corners (née Springtown) was christened by a group of Southerners who settled in the area after the Civil War. In San Diego and Long Beach, the name of Robert E. Lee graced two schools, while a school in East Los Angeles was named for filmmaker D.W. Griffith. Although not a Confederate veteran himself, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation did more than any other production to romanticize the rebel cause and the Ku Klux Klan that emerged from it.

No building materials were necessary for the largest Confederate monuments in California. Rebel veterans and the UDC simply used the state’s majestic natural landscape to honor their old leaders. Several giant sequoias were named for Robert E. Lee, including the fifth-largest tree in the world, located in Kings Canyon National Park. Jefferson Davis and Confederate general George E. Pickett each had a peak named in their honor in Alpine County.

Most of these memorialization efforts took place when the Civil War was still a living memory. But California chapters of the UDC and Sons of Confederate Veterans remain active today. A 1999 register of the UDC listed 18 chapters in California—more than five times as many as could be found in any other free state, and even more than some former slave states, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans were erecting major memorials in California as recently as 2004. That’s when the newly-removed Orange County pillar went up, amid much fanfare from its patrons and supporters, proudly clad in Confederate attire for the occasion. Inscribed on the pedestal was a particularly romantic gloss on the slaveholding rebellion of the Confederacy: “to honor the sacred memory of the pioneers who built Orange County after their valiant effort to defend the Cause of Southern Independence.”

California’s Confederate landscape generated little notice until recently. Only with bloodshed—the 2015 mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church and, two years later, the violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville—did attention settle on these monuments and the history they represent.

Since then, most of the major Confederate tributes in California have been removed or renamed, spurred on by activists’ petitions. No more schools to Robert E. Lee, no more San Diego plaque to Jefferson Davis, no more town of Confederate Corners, no more memorials to soldiers in Hollywood and Orange County. Even the once-grand Dixie Manor in San Gabriel, which housed dozens of veterans in their final days, has since burned to the ground.

It would be vain, however, to assume that California has firmly buried this past or sits somehow beyond the shadow of slavery. Beneath the state’s progressive veneer lies a dark and surprisingly contemporary history. The Confederacy may not rise again. But Californians would be wise to remember where it once stood.