Snakes in the Grass: Copperheads in Contra Costa?

By William Mero

The only poisonous snakes found today in Contra Costa are rattlesnakes. A Copperhead is a well camouflaged, deadly reptile that strikes without warning. During the Civil War, anti-war Democrats were labeled by the Republican press as "Copperheads." Many supported the Confederate States of America. Within the archives of the Contra Costa History Center there is evidence that a number of Copperheads were alive and active in Contra Costa County.

In California the Presidential campaign of 1860 split the politically dominant Democratic Party into two factions, Southern Democrats who supported Breckenridge and secession and those who supported Douglas and the Union. Breckenridge Democrats attacked Lincoln for his support of a unified nation and equal legal rights for free blacks. In 1861 southern supporters hoped to capture the California legislature and win the governor's race. Instead they lost control of the legislature and saw the election of the first Republican governor of California, Leland Stanford. Losing political power and patronage, many of the Democrat politicians who had governed California throughout the 1850's began to drift away to either the mines of the Nevada Comstock or to join the southern rebel armies. Six state senators, one congressman, and 20% of the southern Democrat state assemblymen left California to join the Confederacy.

In Southern California the Mexican population, particularly members of the old upper class, were actively wooed by Confederate agents. Hatred of the usurping Anglo-Americans and loss of their lands and political power made them susceptible to the lure of at least an independent California. Rumors circulated that Southern supporters were arming themselves in order to seize California for the Confederacy. A secessionist cavalry unit, the Los Angeles Grays, was formed in southern California but was quickly suppressed by federal troops. Hundreds of volunteers were openly recruited and sent to fight for Jeff Davis by secret routes through Mexico to Texas.

However most northern Californians supported the Union. Nevertheless San Jose and Visalia were hot beds of southern sympathizers. Visalia was eventually occupied by U.S. Army troops in order to discourage growing rebel agitation. Even San Francisco had large groups who were pro-slave and anti-Lincoln. Former southerners and working class Irish immigrants formed the core of pro-Confederate and anti-black support in the Bay Area.

Hoping to bring California into the Confederacy, Confederate sympathizers organized to overcome the pro-Union forces now dominating California. They formed into secret underground movements like the Knights of the Golden Circle and the Knights of the Columbian Star. Plans were reportedly made to seize the Presidio, the Mint, Custom House and the Arsenal at Benicia. Captain Ingram's Rangers, Confederate guerrillas, robbed a stagecoach carrying silver ingots and killed Joseph Staples, a deputy sheriff. Union supporters were aroused to action when an armed Confederate privateer was discovered outfitting in San Francisco Bay. Soon the Confederate raider, Shenandoah, cruised the Pacific attacking Union shipping.

In response, pro-Union citizens organized the secret Union League. With the support of the state government and its military commander of the Pacific Department, General Wright, the League recruited thousands of members and kept a close watch on suspected traitors. Volunteers were recruited from the League to staff loyal militia units in order to intimidate Southern supporters with military force. Locally the Oakland Guard was the first military unit formed in Alameda County. However its most aggressive military action was firing a small canon to celebrate occasional Union victories. Irritated by this Union posturing, the canon was stolen by the leader of the Alameda Copperheads, Jack Cohane. In return members of the Oakland Guard kidnapped Mr. Cohane and threw him into the San Francisco Bay. To prevent the Guard from drowning him, Jack Cohane revealed that the canon was sunk in the bay and where the submerged gun could be recovered.

Captain Charles Weber, founder of Stockton and friend of John Marsh, was a well known Union supporter. He flew a huge American flag after each Union victory. His Copperhead neighbors would promptly tear it down. Finally Captain Weber could stand it no more. He bought a large, fierce dog to guard the flag pole. To the dismay of the Captain, he found his flag torn down again and his new dog stone cold dead and riddled with buckshot. However this time the Stockton Copperheads had gone too far. Public opinion swung behind the Captain and his patriotic flag waving. Most felt that desecrating the flag was simple political expression but shooting a dog was just plain mean spirited! For the rest of the war, Captain Weber's flag waved undisturbed.

Contra Costa was not left out of the excitement. The Contra Costa Guard formed in September 1861 in order to defend the county against local secessionists. The unit was a cavalry company and officially part of the First Cavalry Regiment, Second Brigade of the California Militia. However state records indicate that it wasn't until 1863 that the final organization was complete and an application for arms was made to the state. Many of the most prominent county citizens joined. G. W. Nagle was elected captain of the volunteer company. Assemblyman,T. J. Wright, kept a book of volunteer records. Undersheriff, Henry Classen, enrolled as a second lieutenant. Sixty three men signed up. Company Headquarters were located in San Pablo. To equip the new fighting unit, a $3000 bond was filed for the delivery of weapons from the state armory. By September 6, 1864 the equipment arrived. A partial list include 50 Colt Army pistols, 50 holsters, 50 waist belts, 50 screw drivers, 50 cavalry swords, 52 uniforms, 25 bullet molds, and one arms chest for the pistols.

Votes for the southern Democratic candidates during the war years indicate that less than 30% of Contra Costa voters supported the southern cause. Although a distinct minority in Contra Costa, there were parts of the county where the Copperheads were dominant. The San Ramon Valley was the center of southern Democrat and Confederate sympathizer activity. Daniel Inman, founder of Danville, and his brother, Andrew, led the anti-Lincoln men. Nathaniel Jones of Lafayette, one of our first sheriffs, and Jack Tice, of Tice Valley fame, were all a prominent leaders of the anti-Union, white supremacist Democrats. It comes as no surprise that most Confederate sympathizers in Contra Costa were originally born in the South or border states.



One of the most famous California Copperhead was a well-known pioneer and former resident of Contra Costa, Lansford Hastings. He discovered quicksilver ore on Mount Diablo in 1859. Hastings was notorious as the promoter of the infamous "Hastings cutoff" which set the stage for the Donner party disaster. Lansford had himself commissioned as a Confederate major and was authorized to raise a force to seize Arizona for the South. After awhile, the Confederate leadership became concerned over Lansford Hastings' competency and leadership abilities. The scheme was quietly abandoned.

Nilda Rego in a "Days Gone By" column drew upon the recollections of 80 year old James Smith who wrote down his early experiences for the old Contra Costa Gazette in 1925. Smith recalled that the July 4th celebration at the Pacheco fairground near the beginning of Lincoln's administration demonstrated the pent up anger that Contra Costa's southern supporters felt toward the new President. On that day a parade began from the southern Democrat stronghold of Danville headed for Pacheco. Jack Tice secured a large circus wagon pulled by four gray horses. On the circus wagon were eight musicians tooting away. Loaded on a following wagon was a huge log with the word "Constitution" painted on each side. Wedges with the names of Lincoln's cabinet were on the log and a large maul was suspended above the wedges. The maul was named "Abe" signifying that the Republicans were splitting or destroying the Constitution of the United States.

Smith remembered another amusing episode that occurred during the 1864 July 4th celebration. At today's San Ramon Valley High School grounds the July 4th celebration turned into a near riot during the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The large Crow family, strong Republicans but poor historians, misinterpreted the Declaration of Independence as a secessionist broadside. They rushed the platform intent on doing bodily harm to the reader of this presumed subversive document. In the ensuing turmoil both pro and anti-Union families fled for home abruptly ending this unusual July 4th celebration.

Lafayette also had a sizable contingent of Southern supporters. A letter in the archives of the Contra Costa History Center written in 1863 describes a congregation evenly divided in its political sympathies between North and South. Both northern and southern ministers took turns preaching in the same church. However following the Emancipation Proclamation and increasing Union victories, the noose began tightening around the supporters of the Confederacy both in Contra Costa and in the state.

John Swett, owner of Hill Girt Farm in Martinez, was overwhelmingly elected State Superintendent of Schools in 1863 on the pro-Union platform. John Swett, father of California's public school system, immediately enforced the law that made loyalty oaths mandatory for all school teachers in the state. Swett was determined that no Copperhead would infect the minds of our young, impressionable scholars. He vowed to "fight ignorance and its twin sister secession.." However his greatest crime in the eyes of the Copperheads was that he favored educating Negro children.

The new Republican dominated state legislature made loyalty oaths a requirement for lawyers, jurists and those seeking state marsh lands in our local Delta. Displaying the Confederate flag now became a crime. Open recruiting of soldiers for the Southern cause was illegal and the Lincoln administration suspended the constitutional protections of Habeas Corpus. A few outspoken newspapers sympathetic to the South had their mailing privileges revoked early in the war. Mobs, many probably organized by the Union League, destroyed pro-southern presses and worried advertisers withdrew their support.

As a result, the military prison at Alcatraz became the temporary home for a few of the more outspoken southern sympathizers. Charles Weller, Chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee, publicly urged Democrats to "arm themselves" and form secret societies " resist the high arm of the military tyranny in California." For federal officials this was the final straw. They knew that he was secretly the Vice Governor-General of the subversive Knights of the Columbian Star. Weller was immediately arrested and sent to the military prison on Alcatraz Island.

Suppression of overt southern support enraged our local pro-southern Democrats in Contra Costa. At their county convention in Pacheco on April 30, 1864, the leading Democratic leaders adopted a fiery resolution stating that the abolition of slavery by the Lincoln administration would require "..the subjugation of the southern States to the condition of colonial dependencies, which would be alike incompatible with free Government and revolting to the national will, and whereas, the rebellion of 1861 having merged into a war of frightful proportions is rapidly undermining the fair fabric of our institutions and exerting a baleful influence on human civilization .." in the upcoming Presidential contest, the Democratic Party's "..watchword should be Liberty first and then the Union." This resolution was introduced by Nathaniel Jones representing Alamo. Apparently local public opinion was not swayed much by these concerns. Abraham Lincoln carried both Contra Costa and California by a huge landslide.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 set off a wave of celebration by Copperheads throughout California. In response pro-Union mobs took to the streets in San Francisco and elsewhere, burning those newspaper offices that had openly supported the South. In northern California 39 Democrats were arrested by the military for cheering Lincoln's death. Contra Costa contributed one or more candidates for residence in Fort Alcatraz. As a final humiliation, the prisoners were publicly marched to prison in irons. For the next three weeks they were taught respect for Lincoln's memory by working up to l2 hours a day at hard labor. Newspaper reports suggest that six feet of chain and a 24 pound iron ball attached to each man added to the challenge of shoveling rocks into the bay. For those who initially refused to work on the hated federal fort, there was the "sweat box" where the uncooperative, hard core Copperheads enjoyed a diet of bread and water. As a special treat, they were occasionally allowed to drink coffee made from used coffee grounds.

In 1860 Lincoln carried California by only 711 votes out of over 110,000 cast. Yet the firing of the Confederates on Fort Sumter solidified public opinion for the Union and turned Contra Costa and California into a solid Republican bastion for nearly a 100 years. It took the Great Depression and the huge influx of post World War Two immigration to return the Democratic Party to the overwhelming dominance it last enjoyed in the 1850's. Nathaniel Jones, smarting under accusations of treason, spent the rest of his life defending his reputation against charges of disloyalty.


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