|Home -> James H. Barry Press -> The Great Diamond Hoax - Chapter III|
Story of Southern Plan to Make California Secede from the Union is Told for First Time.
Narrator Describes His Invitation Into Band of 30, Which Planned to Organize Republic of Pacific.
I had barely reached San Francisco when the election of 1860 took place, resulting in the choice of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. All through the South this was accepted as the signal for a civil contest. The work of organization went ahead with feverish haste and long before the inauguration of the new President the authority of the Federal Government was paralyzed in most of the slave States.
The attitude of California was a matter of supreme moment, not understood, however, at the time. Had this isolated State on the Pacific joined the Confederate States, it would have complicated the problems of war profoundly. With the city of San Francisco and its then impregnable fortifications in Confederate hands the outward flow of gold, on which the Union cause depended in a large measure, would have ceased, as a stream of water is shut off by turning a faucet. It was the easiest thing in the world to open and maintain connection through savage Arizona into Texas, one of the strongholds of the South. It does not need a military expert to figure out what a vital advantage to the Confederacy the control of the Pacific would have proved.
History relates in a few brief words how the secession movement here was extinguished by a wild outburst of patriotism. I am now going to relate for the first time the inside story of the well-planned effort to carry California out of the Union and by what a narrow margin it finally failed of accomplishment when success was absolutely secured.
I was young, hot-headed, filled with the bitter sectional feeling that was more intense in the border States than in the States farther north or south. It would have been hard to find a more reckless secessionist than myself. I moved among my own people, got off all sorts of wild talk about spending the last dollar of my money, and my life, if need be, to resist the tyrant's yoke, and so forth, and was actually about to leave for my home in Kentucky to be ready for the impending struggle, when a quiet tip was given me that more important work was cut out where I was. My exaggerated wealth and the irresponsible stories of my Mexican exploits, made me an actor in a great, silent drama, despite my years and boyish look.
One afternoon I was told to be at the house of a well-known Southern sympathizer at 9 o'clock in the evening. It was well apart from other buildings, with entrances in several directions. The gentleman who owned it lived alone, with only Asiatic attendants, who, understood little English and cared less for what was going on. A soft-footed domestic opened the door, took my card, and presently I was ushered into a large room where a number of gentlemen, most of them young but well established, were seated at a long table. I recognized among them leading men of San Francisco of various walks of life.
The spokesman, a great man of affairs, told me that I was trusted, that I had been selected as one to lead in an affair of great peril, an enterprise on which the future of the South might depend, and asked me if I were ready to risk life and fortune on the turn. I answered with an eagerness that satisfied my hearers and took an oath, of which I have a copy, reading as follows:
"Do you, in the presence of Almighty God, swear that what I may this night say to or show you shall be kept secret and sacred, and that you will not by hint, action or word reveal the same to any living being, so help me God?"
The answer, of course, being an affirmative, I repeated after the spokesman the following objuration:
"Having been brought to this room for the purpose of having a secret confided to me and believing that to divulge such secret would imperil the lives of certain Southern men as well as injure the cause of the Southern States, I do solemnly swear in the name of the Southern States, within whose limits I was born and reared, that I will never, by word, sign or deed, hint at or divulge what I may hear to-night. Not to my dearest friend, not to the wife of my bosom will I communicate the nature of the secret. I hold myself pledged, by all I hold dear in heaven or on earth, by God and my country, by my honor as a Southern gentleman, to keep inviolate the trust reposed in me. I swear that no consideration of property or friendship shall influence my secrecy, and may I meet at the hands of those I betray, the vengeance due to a traitor, if I prove recreant to this my solemn obligation. So help me God, as I prove true."
This oath was committed to memory by every member. At subsequent meetings it was solemnly recited by all, standing and with right hand uplifted, before proceeding to further business. Several years afterwards, while it was still fresh in my recollection, I set it down in writing and preserved it to the present day. Thus I became one of a society of thirty members, pledged to carry California out of the Union.
I might say here, in parenthesis, that I have long been a reconstructed "rebel." The old flag floats over my home on every national holiday and also on Labor day, for I take an interest in the ideas it represents. I am mighty glad now that my efforts to disrupt the Union failed and still gladder because it has been my good fortune to see the awful heritage of hate that so long divided two brave and generous people die out and disappear.
The Southern mind has a wonderful capacity for secret organization and for conducting operations on a vast scale behind a screen of impenetrable mystery. This had a fine illustration in the workings of the Ku-Klux-Klan, in reconstruction days, which destroyed carpet-bag rule and negro supremacy in the South and restored the government of the white race. The operations of the committee of thirty of which I became a member demonstrated the same peculiar trait.
The organization was simplicity itself. We were under the absolute orders of a member whom we called "General." He called all the meetings, by word of mouth, passed by one of the members. Anything in the way of writing was burned before the meeting broke up. The General received the large contributions in private, never drew a check, settled all accounts in gold coin and accounted to himself for the expenditure.
Each member was responsible for the organization of a fighting force of say a hundred men. This was not difficult. California at that period abounded with reckless human material - ex-veterans of the Mexican war, ex-filibusters, ex-Indian fighters, all eager to engage in any undertaking that promised adventure and profit. Each member selected a trusty agent, or captain devoted to the cause of the South, simply told him to gather a body of picked men for whose equipment and pay he would be responsible, said nothing of the service intended, possibly left the impression that a filibuster expedition was in the wind. These various bands were scattered in out-of-the-way places around the bay, ostensibly engaged in some peaceful occupation, such as chopping wood, fishing or the like, but in reality waiting for the word to act. Each member of the committee kept his own counsel. Only the General knew the location of the various detachments.
Our plans were to paralyze all organized resistance by a simultaneous attack. The Federal army was little more than a shadow. About two hundred soldiers were at Fort Point, less than a hundred at Alcatraz and a handful at Mare Island and at the arsenal at Benicia, where 30,000 stand of arms were stored. We proposed to carry these strongholds by a night attack and also seize the arsenals of the militia at San Francisco. With this abounding military equipment, we proposed to organize an army of Southern sympathizers, sufficient in number to beat down any unarmed resistance.
All of which may seem chimerical at this late day, but then, take my word, it was an opportunity absolutely within our grasp. At least 30 per cent, of the population of California was from the South. The large foreign element was either neutral or had Southern leanings. We had already, under practical discipline, a body of the finest fighting men in the world, far more than enough to take the initial step with a certainty of success.
And those who might have offered an effective resistance were lulled in fancied security or indifferent. It is easy to talk now, half a century after the event, but in 1860 the ties that bound the Pacific to the Government at Washington were nowhere very strong. The relation meant an enormous loss to California. For all the immense tribute paid, the meager returns consisted of a few public buildings and public works. Besides thousands were tired of being ruled from a distance of thousands of miles. The "Republic of the Pacific," that we intended to organize as a preliminary, would have been well received by many who later were most clamorous in the support of the Federal Government.
Everything was in readiness by the middle of January, 1861. It only remained to strike the blow.