Op-Ed

The struggle over slavery was not confined to the South, L.A. has a Confederate memorial problem too

Dwarfed by the tombs of celebrities and socialites, a cluster of graves in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery bears silent witness to a largely forgotten chapter in California’s history. There lie buried some 30 Confederate veterans from nearly every rebel state, along with a seven-foot granite monument commemorating their military service.

Recent high-profile fights over Confederate monuments have largely taken place in Dixie, in cities such as New Orleans and Richmond, Va. But Hollywood’s Confederate memorial reminds us that the struggle over slavery was not confined to the American South. Here in Los Angeles, the Confederate rebellion found a welcome reception and a long afterlife.

Civil War-era California was a state divided against itself. The more populous northern counties sent thousands of troops into the Union army and ensured California’s loyalty during the war. But migrants from the slave states constituted a majority of Los Angeles County’s white population. And many of them sided with their native South.

In the early months of the war, hurrahs for the Confederate President Jefferson Davis rang out through L.A.’s streets, as did popular tunes like “We’ll Drive the Bloody Tyrant from Our Dear Native Soil.” The city’s main hotel, the Bella Union, displayed a large portrait of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard in its saloon, while secessionists conducted military drills in El Monte and San Bernardino.

Some secessionists stayed put, but more than 250 Southern Californians left the state to enlist in the Confederate army (versus just two Union volunteers from Los Angeles who went east). In May 1861, a secessionist company known as the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles made its way to Texas. It would become the only militia from a free state to fight under a Confederate banner. Local leaders such as Joseph Lancaster Brent, perhaps the most influential politician in Los Angeles, followed shortly thereafter. During the war, Brent rose to the rank of brigadier general.

California’s Union commanders waged an aggressive campaign against secessionist agitation. To both contain the rebels in their midst and guard against Confederate forces in Arizona, they established a military garrison south of Los Angeles known as Drum Barracks. It housed thousands of Union soldiers through the war, who occasionally clashed with nearby Confederate supporters. Several prominent Confederate sympathizers were arrested for treason and jailed on Alcatraz Island, including the editor of the city’s leading newspaper, the Los Angeles Star, as well as the former state attorney general, E.J.C. Kewen. A street in Pasadena still bears Kewen’s name.

Despite the best efforts of some of these western rebels, California remained a Union state. But even after the Confederacy’s collapse in spring 1865, the spirit of rebellion lived on in Southern California. Later that year, Andrew King, former undersheriff of Los Angeles, defiantly proclaimed, “We have been and are yet secessionist.”

Elsewhere in the state, self-identified members of the Ku Klux Klan unleashed a small-scale reign of terror. Whereas Klansmen in the South terrorized newly emancipated African Americans, California’s KKK targeted a different nonwhite population they deemed a greater threat: Chinese immigrants. They assaulted these immigrant workers, threatened their white employers and burned down churches that served the Chinese community.

Black Californians didn’t escape post-war persecution either. During Reconstruction, California was the only free state to reject both the 14th and 15th amendments — those that, respectively, guaranteed crucial civil rights and granted the franchise to black men. Even after black male suffrage became national law in 1870, a number of California clerks refused to register African American voters, while L.A. County courts upheld these clear violations of civil law. Thus California officials anticipated some of the exclusionary measures of the Jim Crow South.

That a number of Confederate veterans moved to Southern California in the decades after the war should come as no surprise, given the region’s history and political sensibilities. In San Gabriel, they established the only Confederate veterans’ rest home outside Dixie. These are the veterans that now lie buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Today, miniature American flags grace the graves of Hollywood’s Confederate dead, which could perhaps be read as a gesture of reconciliation. Or it might be a profoundly ironic statement: The banner of the nation that these men rebelled against now stands guard over their final resting place.

Throughout the South, cries grow louder to remove monuments to a failed slaveholders’ rebellion. This western memorial, however, will likely endure — as well it should. It serves as a needed corrective to a self-congratulatory strain in the stories Californians tell about themselves. Angelenos might be tempted to view the current controversy over Confederate symbols, and the ugly racial politics they represent, as a distinctly Southern problem. But a visit to Hollywood’s cemetery plot and some historical perspective teach us otherwise. Los Angeles was the westernmost outpost in a rebellion that spanned the continent.

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He’s writing a book on slavery and the Civil War in the American West.

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