The California Gold Rush And The Coming Of The Civil War, by Leonard L. Richards, read by Jeff Riggenbach
The role of the West Coast in the course of the Civil War and its outbreak has often been forgotten, but there are at least a few historians, including the author, willing to raise a lighter and cheer on the forgotten exploits of the West in this momentous period . On those grounds alone, the book is worthy of investigation, not least because it explains a part of the story of the late antebellum America that I have never understood all that well. What tangled story connected the lawless atmosphere of California with its eventual role as Unionist bastion whose gold was important to the Union war effort? This book answers questions about the history of the antebellum west coast that I had not thought to answer, and raises questions it does not answer, such as: “How is it that Lincoln’s friend Senator Baker came to be a Republican leader in California and then one of the first Senators of Oregon? Haven’t Oregonians always resented that kind of carpetbagging?” That is not to say that this is a great book, because it is immensely confusing and difficult to keep in track, but it certainly is a fascinating story all the same.
I listened to this book as an audiobook, so the precise chapter breaks are not as obvious as they would be otherwise, but this book was 8 cds which is a decent size for a book, not overly short but not extremely long either. The material begins in media res, or rather near the end, with a discussion of the duel between Senator Broderick and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Terry which ended up in the death of Broderick, an Irish-born, Tammany-reared free soil Democrat of remarkably populist political philosophy. The book then looks at the rush of young men into California, the fight over statehood, and the attempts of Southerners to dominate Californian politics even though the state was a free state. The story is a fascinating one, full of political corruption and a lot of ups and downs as the 1850s were a particularly tumultuous time in American politics. The book jumps back and forth in time and loses its threads, requiring a cliff notes or at least a detailed list of dramatis personae to keep track of the various politicos fighting over dominance in state politics. The short version of the story is that during the 1850s the Southern-led Chivs were able to control patronage and the congressional seats in the state, but the death of Broderick coincided with the collapse of the position of the pro-Southern wing of the Democrats, leaving them neutralized and leading many of their members to leave the state to fight on behalf of the Confederacy without having secured either the state, its people, or its gold for the cause of rebellion.
Someone with a fondness for the a history that combines the corruption and political drama of the 1850s with its nativism and its proliferation of new parties, the dueling and oversensitive honor of the antebellum South , and the hustle and bustle of the wild west will find a lot to enjoy about this book, which combines all of these threads. To be sure, the historian could do a better job of getting his chronology under control, but the story is a complex one and the tale is gripping even where it is a bit muddled. This book is not as awesome as it could have been in the hand of a more skilled historian who was less confused, but it is still a worthwhile tale about an area of Civil War history that is unjustly neglected. If this book shines a light on that period and encourages others to examine it and write about it, and explain how a minority of corrupt pro-Southerner legislatures could dominate politics in a free state hostile to slavery interests for so long, then this book will have done quite well for itself and for its readers.
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