Great Honor Ends in Sadness
While one would not ordinarily associate California, far removed from the major military theaters of The War, with anything Confederate when The 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 joining the Confederacy.
The War was lost in 1865, 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 South’s loss. California refused to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, 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 Southerners migrated west in the decades after The War. There, they continued to honor the memory of their ancestors. Through hereditary organizations, reunions, and eventually the landscape itself, some hoped that the Old South would rise again in California.
Some of the most active memorial associations could be found in Los Angeles County. In 1925, the UDC erected the first major 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 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 chieftain, stretching from Virginia to the Pacific coast. The Daughters erected the first of the tributes in San Diego in 1926. They even placed a 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.
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 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 rekindle the Confederate fire among a new generation of Americans.
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 War was still a living memory. But California chapters of the UDC and Sons of Confederate Veterans remain active today. A recent 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 Southern 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: “to honor the sacred memory of the pioneers who built Orange County after their valiant effort to defend the Cause of Southern Independence.”
Earlier this month, that monument, the last one standing in California, was taken down.