Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sierra's secret Civil War battle

In response to a story in the Chronicle's Travel section last month about Civil War sites in California, Terry Grillo, a resident of the Sierra town of Volcano (Amador County) sent a letter pointing out the story had "missed the most important site of all."

The story Terry told about a little-known standoff in the tiny Gold Country town is so full of historical drama (and humor), I decided to run it as is, without editing. Here it is:

In 1860, Volcano was a large city by Mother Lode reckoning, with a population of more than 5,000 people. It was posting remarkable civil and cultural advancements for a mining town that began with a few lean-to huts less than ten years before. Volcano enjoyed California's first theater group, first private law school, first astronomical observatory, first debating society, first circulating library.

Volcano was a growing Sierra foothill city, sitting atop millions (now billions) in gold. Armory Hall is at the far left, center. The three-story hotel is the St. George, still in operation.

The city attracted orator Rev. Thomas Starr King, who spoke for the Union at a Volcano rally. Rev. King's speeches were recognized as critical to retaining California. When the local Methodist church burned, he donated a bell to the town in remembrance of support and donations to the National cause.

As the war began, California's new population was closely divided between Federal and Confederate fervor; many recalled fondly the joys and close-held views of their homes far away. The new state - and it's fantastic wealth of gold - could have gone either way.

Volcano was no exception. And despite it's growing society, it was the gold that made it important, and suddenly very important to the warring division in the East. More than $98 million was taken from the little mountain valley - and that was valued at $26 an ounce. At current prices, the gold taken from Volcano would satisfy a good portion of our national debt.

The Knights of the Golden Circle were a large Confederate militia and it became known that they intended to capture a shipment, or several shipments, of gold and take it South for the cause. A small troop of Union militia, the Volcano Blues, were meeting and drilling out of their Armory Hall (today its replacement is the village town hall) and knew they were outmanned. They applied to the Presidio for help. Army bureaucracy hasn't changed much it seems, for they were told troops were not available, but there was an old Mexican War brass cannon - just the tube - out on the docks and they could have it. Probably thought it was a good way to get rid of surplus ordinance.

The 6-pound, smooth-bore cannon was cast by a Boston firm in 1837. The Blues shipped it to Sacramento and then hauled it up to Volcano in a casket, in a hearse, on a dark and quiet night. They built a carriage and caisson in a blacksmith shop that bordered on what is today called Union Square. They knew nothing about artillery, but they were miners and were used to explosives and had plenty of it.

Oral history from my family says that one day soon after the cannon, now named "Old Abe," was mounted, the Knights massed and marched down the city's broad central street, known then and now as Consolation. When they saw the Blues lined up in formation before them, the Rebels cried out to give it up as they were outnumbered. Just then the Union line parted and the Confederates were greeted by the grinning face of a blue-capped miner holding a lighted fuse over the business end of Old Abe. And that was the end of the engagement. The Rebels faded away and the gold was saved for the National cause. Old Abe, and the promise if it's lethal blast, was on regular display throughout the war.

After the engagement, the Blues realized they didn't know how to unload a cannon. They sent to the Presidio for an officer to come up and advise. A young lieutenant was sent - all polish and brass and attitude - and when he looked down the barrel, his face came away ghostly white. "If you had set this off, you damn fools would have killed everyone in the square," he was reported to have remarked. These were rough miners after all and in their trade, the concept of "if one's good, two must be better and why hell, three's the trick," was common.

Thereafter they learned to fire Old Abe without causing a great mess, and when a Union victory was reported, young boys would be sent round to homes of patriots with a message to "put up your windows." The Blues would put a double blank change in the cannon and light if off down Consolation Street. The concussion would blow the glass out of Confederate homes. Window glass was hard to get and was expensive. A pretty nasty trick all around.

The cannon was fired on holidays and community celebrations until the end of World War II. This stopped when the carriage became flimsy and the condition of the brass was suspect. We have an annual Fourth of July parade and car show and this year we're celebrating our Union victory. The carriage and caisson were rebuilt several years ago by a local master craftsman, and Old Abe resides in a shed just off of Union Square. Armory Hall is being renovated under direction of a San Francisco architect. The Starr King Bell hangs in a tower just a few paces east of Old Abe. We gather to ring it on New Year's Eve.

My great-grandmother was 12 years old at the time and the story was passed down to me through her daughter - especially the part about the spit-and-polish lieutenant - and is supported by several reports, including ones at the Bancroft Library and the California Historical Society.

-- Terry Grillo, Volcano
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