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Chapter 27 - Secession Begins. Jessie Frémont, Bret Harte, Thomas Starr King
January 1861 — Black Point; San Francisco, California
Secession came to pass, more quickly than even Jessie Frémont had predicted. South Carolina, on December 20, 1860. Mississippi, on January 9, 1861. Florida: January 10, 1861. Alabama: January 11, 1861. Georgia: January 19, 1861. Louisiana: January 26, 1861. Texas: February 1, 1861.
Throughout the summer and fall, Frank Harte and the Reverend Starr King were frequent guests at Black Point, at Sunday luncheons with literary discussion throughout and after. Now their purpose was far more pressing.
They’d read through all the states’ Articles of Secession, each clear in their grim intent: a nation forever committed to slavery in all its regions.
Jessie paced the room, unable to sit still in her chair. “Half the country supports this abomination, and so countless lives will be lost in stamping it out. Perhaps war is the only thing that will purify the country from its founding sin. We must hope so, for in any case, it is coming.”
Harte felt a cold wind move in his soul at the thought.
Mrs. Frémont went on, relentlessly. “We must look at the facts. As it stands, in California:
“One: A majority of our present state officials are avowed secessionists, and the balance being bitterly hostile to the administration are advocates of a peace policy at any price.
“Two: About three-fifths of our citizens are natives of slave-holding states and are almost a unit in this crisis.
“Three: Through misrepresentation, the powerful native Mexican population has been won over to the secession side.
“Four: There exists a secret military organization of secessionists, The Knights of the Golden Circle, that is more numerous and powerful than our city officials believe. Our advices, obtained with great prudence and care, show us that there are about 16,000 Knights of the Golden Circle in the state, and they are still organizing even in our most loyal districts. It would take far fewer men than that to seize the lightly guarded arsenal at Benicia, which holds thirty thousand guns.”
Starr King jumped to ask, “Who leads these Knights?”
Mrs. Frémont’s lovely face was tense. “I suspect Senator Gwin, of course, but he will be sly, remaining in the shadows and pulling strings from there, as is his wont. Judge David Terry leads a number of them in Virginia City. And I hear much disturbing talk about another Cavalier, Asbury Harpending. He is a newcomer to our city, young and reckless and determined to bring the conflict to California. He must be watched.”
The only words Harte could focus on were the last: Bring the conflict to California. He asked numbly, “Is there to be a draft here?”
The Reverend answered immediately. “The President will not call a draft in California. The cost of transportation alone, and the danger of the journey— it would make no practical sense. Californians are worth more as miners than soldiers.”
Harte felt blessed relief, with guilt in equal measure—that he would avoid a deadlier duty. He confessed, “There have been moments when a quiet, timid, inoffensive young man like myself is led to feel acute regret that he has not at some period of his existence dipped his hands in human gore.”
Mrs. Frémont burst out indignantly, “Must every man we have go off to kill and be killed? Or if he lives, to be mutilated beyond recognition? There must be an alternative to war. There must be life that is not constant bloodshed. People must live, and show others how to live.”
She took Harte’s hand, clasped it. “You are meant for a different battle. War will never change minds. We will fight this battle with words.”
Starr King laughed. “And me, I do not measure enough inches around the chest to go for a soldier. But though I weigh only one hundred twenty pounds, when I am mad, I weigh a ton!”
Then his voice grew solemn. “I see the way to make this fight.”
Mrs. Frémont looked to both of them. “I must leave you to it. Mr. Frémont will be summoned presently.”
Harte could feel that she was already far away from them. Her own battle would be at her husband’s side.
But as she walked Harte to the door, she told him, “Joe Lawrence is pleased with you. But a man cannot live on praise as a hummingbird lives on honey-dew. You must go Friday to the U.S. Surveyor-General’s office. There is an opening for a clerk-manager there, at one hundred dollars a month.”
Steady work at such a comfortable salary! Harte felt the lightness of elation.
And then he was struck by a sudden determination.
If it was patriotic poems Starr King wanted, he would get them.
From there, it happened so fast.
On February 4, the seceded states formed the “Confederate States of America.” On February 9, Jefferson Davis was made the CSA’s provisional president.
Starr King was as always as good as his word. On George Washington's birthday he took the stage at Tucker’s Music Hall, covered his pulpit with an American flag, and spoke for two hours to over a thousand people about how they should remember Washington by preserving the Union. He pitched into secession, concession and Calhoun right and left, and the crowd cheered. He pledged California to a Northern Republic and to a flag that should have no treacherous threads of cotton in its warp, and the audience came down in thunder. At the close it was announced that he would repeat it the next night, and they gave him three rounds of cheers.
He ended his sermon with "God bless the President of the United States and all who serve with him the cause of a common country."
In a saloon nearby, Asbury Harpending stood at the long bar, drinking, swaying, vilifying the Reverend and recklessly declaring against the Union to all in his vicinity:
“I will spend the last dollar of my money, and my life if need be, to resist the tyrant’s yoke.”
Through the buzzing in his head he became aware of a man standing beside him, tall, with thick white hair and aristocratic bearing. A gentleman. Harpending had not seen him approach.
The man spoke quietly, calmly. “Do you intend to enlist, then?”
“I leave for Kentucky next week,” Harpending boasted.
The older man nodded thoughtfully. “What if I were to tell you there is more important work cut out for you—here?”
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