Home -> James H. Barry Press -> The Great Diamond Hoax - Chapter IV

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Chapter IV.

Southern General, Albert Sidney Johnston, Played Important Part in Preventing Organized Revolt for Secession.

Discovery of Comstock Lode With Its Vast Hoard of Gold Another Factor in Keeping This State in the Union.

General Albert Sidney Johnston was in command of the military department of the Pacific. He had graduated from West Point in 1826 and saw seven years of active service on the frontier, especially in the famous Black Hawk war. He resigned from the service on account of his wife's failing health, and settled in Texas. On the uprising against Mexican rule, he had enlisted as a private soldier in the army of his new country, but through the compelling force of genius soon became commander-in-chief of the republic's forces. At the time of the annexation of Texas, he was its secretary of war. When the war with Mexico broke out, he offered his services to the United States, fought in many of the severe engagements, rose to the rank of general, was sent to Utah to suppress what was known as the "Mormon Rebellion," which he accomplished with firmness and tact. In January, 1861, he was placed in command of the Department of the Pacific.

Johnston was born in Kentucky but he always in later years spoke of and considered Texas his State. Thus he had a double bond of sympathy for the South. This was the man who had the fate of California absolutely in his hands. No one doubted the drift of his inclinations. No one who knew the man and his exacting sense of honor doubted his absolute loyalty to any trust.

In all of our deliberations, General Johnston only figured as a factor to be taken by surprise and subdued with force. We wished him well, hoped he might not suffer in the brief struggle, but nobody dreamed for an instant that his integrity as a commander-in-chief of the army could be tampered with.

One of the most brilliant members of the early San Francisco bar was Edmond Randolph. He was a man of rare talents and great personal charm. Born in Virginia, a member of the famous Randolph family, he was naturally an outspoken advocate of the South. He was one of our committee, and on terms of social and professional intimacy with every one of Southern leanings. He was on the closest terms with General Johnston and there is hardly a doubt that, purely on his own motion, he approached the General with some kind of a questionable proposition. What happened at that interview no man knows, but Johnston's answer made Randolph stark crazy. He indulged in all kinds of loose, unbridled talk, told several of our committee that he had seen Johnston, that the cause was lost and otherwise, in many ways, exhibited an incredible indiscretion that might easily have been fatal to our cause. No amount of warning was able to silence his unbalanced tongue.

This situation was discussed at several meetings and finally it was decided that a committee of three should visit General Johnston in a social way, not to commit further folly by any intimation or suggestion, but to gather, if possible, some serviceable hints for future use. I had become prominent in council through my zeal and discretion, and to my great joy I was named as one of the three.

I will never forget that meeting. We were ushered into the presence of General Albert Sidney Johnston. He was a blond giant of a man with a mass of heavy yellow hair, untouched by age, although he was nearing sixty. He had the nobility of bearing that marks a great leader of men and it seemed to my youthful imagination that I was looking at some superman of ancient history, like Hannibal or Caesar, come to life again.

He bade us courteously to be seated. "Before we go further," he said, in a matter-of-fact, offhand way, "There is something I want to mention. I have heard foolish talk about an attempt to seize the strongholds of the government under my charge. Knowing this, I have prepared for emergencies, and will defend the property of the United States with every resource at my command, and with the last drop of blood in my body. Tell that to all our Southern friends."

Whether it was a direct hint to us, I know not. We sat there like a lot of petrified stoten-bottles. Then in an easy way, he launched into a general conversation, in which we joined as best we might. After an hour, we departed. We had learned a lot, but not what we wished to know.

Of course the foreknowledge and inflexible stand of General Johnston was a body blow and facer combined. There was another very disturbing factor - the Comstock lode.

While we were deliberating, that marvelous mineral treasure house began to open up new stores of wealth. Speculation was enormous. The opportunity for making money seemed without limit. Many of the committee were deeply interested.

Now it had been determined absolutely from the outset that our ambitions were to be bounded by the easily defended Sierra. We knew enough about strategy to understand that it would be simple madness to cross the mountains. That meant, of course, the abandonment of Nevada.

This had been accepted with resignation when the great mines were considered played out. But when it became apparent that the surface had been barely scratched and that secession might mean the casting aside of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, then patriotism and self-interest surely had a lively tussle. If Nevada could have been carried out of the Union along with California, I am almost certain that the story of those times would have been widely different. We certainly had the organized forces to carry out our plans.

That's the only way I can size up what followed. The meetings began to lack snap and enthusiasm. Just when we should have been active and resolute, something always hung fire.

The last night we met, the face of our General was careworn. After the usual oath, he addressed the committee. It was plain, he said, that the members were no longer of one mind. The time had now come for definite action, one way or another. He proposed to take a secret ballot that would be conclusive.

The word "yes" was written on thirty slips of paper; likewise the word "no." The slips were jumbled up together and were placed alongside of a hat in a recess of the large room. Each member stepped forward and dropped a slip in the hat. "Yes" meant action; "no" disbandment. When all had voted, the General took the hat, opened the ballots and tallied them; then threw everything in the fire. "I have to announce," he said, "that a majority have voted 'no'. I therefore direct that all our forces be dispersed and declare this committee adjourned without day."

Not another word was spoken. One by one the members departed. All I can say is that they kept their secret well.

Two days later, all the various bands had been paid off and dispersed. The "great conspiracy," if you wish to call it so, had vanished into the vast, silent limbo of the past.

Only the General knew the extent of the disbursements. My own impression is that they far exceeded a million dollars. I contributed $100,000 myself, which, of course, was an incident of the financial recklessness of youth.

Many of the committee rose to great social and public prominence. The "General" died not so long ago, full of years and honors.

Besides myself, there is one survivor, whose name would surprise the nation.

(Since the above was first printed, this survivor has died.)

Albert Sidney Johnston
Albert Sidney Johnston
Commanding the Military District of the Pacific in 1861

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