When the Civil War Came to San Diego
Armed Union troops and Confederate wannabes faced off here in 1861.
Union troops were more than a little suspicious when they ran into a group of 16 men traveling east through San Diego’s backcountry in the early days of the Civil War. The men declared they were peaceful miners, but they each packed a rifle and a pair of revolvers instead of shovels and picks.
Most of them were Southerners, and their leader, a red-headed Confederate sympathizer named Dan Showalter, was famous. A few months earlier, this “fascinating and baffling character” had fired a bullet straight into a fellow state legislator’s mouth at 40 paces. Now, he was heading east to slaughter Yankees.
This confrontation — near the landmark Dudley’s Bakery in Santa Ysabel where modern-day drivers grab loaves of date nut raisin bread on the way home from Julian — wasn’t destined to be bloody. Showalter’s gory end was still to come, just not that day in 1861. But the story of his collusion with the enemy shines a light on how the Golden State was mightily divided over the Civil War, so much so that the Union sought to derail the “underground railroad” of Confederate sympathizers heading east to fight the North.
In fact, Showalter could barely have found a friendlier place to visit than dusty, remote “secession-tinged” San Diego County, where he was responsible for California’s only face-off between Union troops and Confederate wannabes.
‘A Hotbed of Pro-Southern Sentiment’
As the Civil War began, the Confederate States of America looked to the West as fertile territory for the expansion of the war and maybe even the extension of slavery too. “Northern California might be impossible to win over,” writes historian Glenna Matthews in her book “The Golden State in the Civil War,” “but Southern California is a hotbed of pro-Southern sentiment.”
Things were so dicey that the Union feared a pro-Confederacy uprising in these parts, especially in light of the fact that many people in SoCal had relocated from Texas and other slave states.
San Diego County was sparsely populated with just 4,324 residents in a huge area that encompassed modern-day Imperial County and a big chunk of Riverside County. Its sole city, San Diego, boasted only about 700 people. And what a collection of human souls we were.
As historian Henry Schwartz writes in “Tales of Old Town,” the San Diego of the 1860s was flea-bitten, a rogue gallery of hard-drinking, hard-cussing and hard-shooting men. Specifically, “coarse Southerners and Northern ‘copperheads”‘ — Confederate sympathizers.
“Of all the dilapidated, miserable-looking places I had ever seen,” grimly recalled a schoolteacher who’d arrived from New England, “this was the worst.”
S.D. Was Anything But Lincoln Country
As a whole, Southern Californians didn’t like President Abraham Lincoln, didn’t especially mind slavery and thought the liberals in Northern California were a pain in the neck. It all had to do with who we were (ranchers) and who we weren’t (miners).
When the Civil War began in 1861, the majority of California residents lived in Northern California, where gold mining was king. Even little El Dorado County had five times San Diego County’s population.
When the Civil War came, miners tended to support the North because they hated slavery. Not that they cared about black people. They just didn’t want the competition. In Southern California, ranchers were king, helping to explain why the idea of slavery was far from verboten in these parts. Cheap labor had its appeal, human rights be damned.
Los Angeles County alone is believed to have sent hundreds of men eastward to fight for the Confederacy. A correspondent for a San Francisco newspaper sent home this juicy description of life at an L.A. hotel known as a “secessionist rendezvous”: “most of the patrons get pot-gutted the moment an expression of sympathy is made for Uncle Sam. All my surroundings are ‘Dixie.’ Dogs bark it, asses and mules bray it, and bilious bipeds whistle it.”
As for San Diego County, in 1859, by a vote of 207-24, voters overwhelmingly supported the idea of splitting the state into two, with Southern California becoming the Territory of Colorado. There was talk that the new territory might cozy up to the slave states, but the war snipped the plan in the bud.
And in 1860 and 1864, San Diego County voters rejected Lincoln’s candidacy and overwhelmingly supported his opponents, who were more friendly to the South. Voters here even supported Confederate-friendly candidates for California governor during the war.
Two Missed Shots and One Straight to the Face
The city of San Diego was in the boonies of California in the 1860s, but it was possible to find even more isolated backwaters like the ranch of John S. Minter. A pioneer who’d traveled west with the doomed Donner Party but managed to avoid their fate of eating their kin to survive, he built his ranch in the backcountry region called Mesa Grande, still a remote part of the county southwest of Lake Henshaw.
That’s where Union Army troops on the lookout for battlefield-bound traitors found what they were searching for in October 1861 — Showalter, the hot-headed, 30-something legislator who’d recently shot a fellow assemblyman to death, and his band of confederates.
His victim, a legislator from San Bernardino, was actually a political ally of sorts, but they quarreled over the appointment of a new U.S. senator and insults were hurled. The offended Southern Californian assemblyman challenged Showalter to a duel, and Showalter accepted.
They met in Northern California’s Marin County near San Francisco, had refreshments with their seconds and other hangers-on, and then walked 40 paces before firing. They each missed their first shot. By the rules of dueling, Showalter could have called a halt because he was the one who’d been challenged. Instead, he chose to continue, and they again loaded their weapons. He then shot his opponent in the mouth, killing him within three minutes. “So ended the last of the notable duels of California history,” writes historian Clarence Clendenen. (Another duel had recently led to the the death of a California U.S. senator at the hands of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.)
Showalter fled, ultimately heading toward the South with his contingent of armed men eager to fight. “Despite his Northern birth, Showalter was as fanatical a Confederate as any native Southerner could be,” Clendenen writes.
But first he had to get through San Diego County. “The plot was discovered, the Union troops in southern California were alerted, and all trails to the desert blockaded,” writes historian Aurora Hunt in her book “The Army of the Pacific.”
‘A Desperate Set of Men’
Showalter and company managed to make it to Temecula, however, and figured they were in good shape. There, they sent letters via messengers to their pals detailing the route they planned to take to avoid the troops. But, as Hunt writes, one of the letters got waylaid and ended up in Union hands. That’s why troops were on alert at the Camp Wright, in the Aguanga area north of Palomar Mountain, specifically created to prevent an “underground railroad” of Southern sympathizers from heading east.
A patrol found Showalter and his men camped out at Minter’s Ranch. The men said they were going to Sonora, Mexico. A Union major didn’t buy it and took them into custody. “They now regret that they did not resist,” he wrote to a superior about this “desperate set of men.” “If they had they would have given us a hard fight. There is no doubt but every one of them is a rank secessionist, and are on their way to lend aid and comfort to the enemy.”
Showalter and his group would end up cooling their heels at Fort Yuma for a few months, but they were ultimately freed. Showalter would indeed fight for the South but developed a reputation as a drunk, a soldier who’d shoot up towns while liquored up, then apologize and pay people off, reports historian Walter Earl Pittman in “Rebels in the Rockies.”
Showalter’s life ended in 1866 in Mazatlan, Mexico. He got drunk and smashed up his own bar, then slapped the barkeep in the face with a knife after being told to knock it off. The bartender pulled out a pistol, shot the former Confederate soldier in the arm and came close to finishing him off. Lockjaw caused by the gunshot wound did the trick. Showalter died at the age of 37.
In historian Clendenen’s words, Showalter is “a fascinating and baffling character who probably deserved a better fate than a sordid death in a barroom in Mexico.”
How the Civil War Lives on in S.D.
The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, thousands of miles from here. But we can still see its legacy throughout the city and county, and not just in the hundreds of graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at local cemeteries.
Grantville (which once boasted a soldiers home) Logan Heights and Sherman Heights are all named after Civil War military brass. The U.S. Grant Hotel was founded by President Ulysses Grant’s son, and we have other connections to the Grant family. The first half of the Union-Tribune’s name refers to the Union that won the Civil War. Until recently, San Diego Unified bizarrely had a Robert E. Lee Elementary School named after the Confederate general.
And remember the schoolteacher mentioned above who thought San Diego was the most miserable place she’d ever seen? The worst was yet to come for her. In 1866, she was walking in Old Town when she ran into a woman who’d helped her when she’d gotten seasick on her ocean voyage to San Diego. She invited the woman to lunch at a tavern.
But this wasn’t any woman. She was a quarter black, and lunching with her was a scandalous act. “You see, we are a high-toned people down here and don’t intend to tolerate anything of this kind,” reported a correspondent for a San Francisco paper in an early bit of San Diego media snark.
The schoolteacher had the last word. She resigned under pressure but married a supporter, one Ephraim Morse, who’d go on to co-found New San Diego with Alonzo Horton.
You can’t find General Robert E. Lee’s name on a San Diego elementary school anymore. But drop by Mira Mesa, and you’ll see her name on a school — Mary Chase Walker Elementary.
Walker 1, Lee 0: Call it another local Civil War face-off, this one won by a woman.