Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On this day in 1865, just five days after the Confederate surrender at Appommatox, Virginia ended the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
While much of nation plunged into mourning, there were many who celebrated the president’s death, including in Los Angeles. The city and county had a large community of residents from the South and a strong bent towards pro-Confederate sympathy and feeling.
In Los Angeles in the 1860 presidential election, Lincoln finished third in a field of four candidates, tallying nearly half the votes of Democrat John Breckinridge and about 30% fewer than another Democrat, Stephen Douglas.
Four years later, with demographics shifting and Union support stronger, Lincoln received just 42 fewer votes in the city of Los Angeles than Democrat George McClellan, a former Union general. In the Southern stronghold of El Monte, however, the tally was 126-18 in favor of McClellan. One of the few Republicans in that area was F.P.F. Temple. His father-in-law, William Workman, was a Democrat and vice-president at a McClellan rally in Los Angeles just prior to the election, and McClellan received 100 more votes than the incumbent in the eastern San Gabriel Valley.
The big difference, however, was in the town of Wilmington, founded by Northerner Phineas Banning and at the nearby Union army outpost at Camp Drum. Between the two, at one point in the tallying of votes, McClellan only received 2 votes, while Lincoln polled nearly 500. In California, Lincoln took the state with 59% of the vote.
When the president’s murder was announced in Los Angeles, there were several vocal expressions of joy in the streets. As reported in the 25 April 1865 edition of the Union-aligned newspaper, the Los Angeles News, three men were arrested the prior weekend and taken to the Drum Barracks.
Arrests for disloyalty had occurred before, most notably of Assembly member E.J.C. Kewen who was sent to Alcatraz Island (once owned by William Workman and F.P.F. Temple) for two weeks before he posted a bond and swore a loyalty oath. In 1864, Henry Hamilton, proprietor of the Los Angeles Star newspaper was sent to Alcatraz and his paper remained shuttered for four years.
The News reprinted an order from the camp’s commanding officer and namesake Richard C. Drum, which stated:
there have been found within the Department persons so utterly infamous as to exult over the assassination of the President. Such persons become virtual accessories after the fact, and will at once be arrested . . .
Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark in his memoirs, Sixty Years in Southern California, published almost a half-century later, wrote that
one hot day in August, patriotic Biggs vociferously proclaimed his ardent attachment to the cause of Secession; whereupon he was promptly arrested, placed in charge of half a dozen cavalrymen, and made to foot it, with an iron chain and ball attached to his ankle, all the way from Los Angeles to Drum Barracks at Wilmington.
Not only that, Newmark continued, “Pete threw his hat up into the air as he passed some acquaintances on the road, and gave three hearty cheers for Jeff Davis, thus adding to the assurance of his punishment.” Of course, either Newmark got his month wrong, or his account was of a separate incident.
Biggs was brought by his slave-owner Army captain to California during the Mexican-American War and then appears to have returned to Los Angeles a few years later, becoming the town’s first black American resident. He was also said to be the city’s first barber, providing his tonsorial services for many years. Identifying himself as “The Black Democrat,” Biggs catered to those from the South through his “New Orleans” barber shop.
Horace Bell, who came to Los Angeles when Newmark did, but wrote his memoirs, including Reminiscences of a Ranger with far greater color and license, spun a variety of tales about Biggs, saying nothing of his arrest (or arrests), perhaps because Bell was back east serving as a Union spy during the war. In 1869, Biggs was killed in a fight that Bell wrote took place in a restaurant and the killer was acquitted.
The other two men named in the News article were James Davis and Henry Schaffer. The 1860 census counted several James Davises, including a 20-year old native of Tennessee and a 41-year old who hailed from Kentucky, so it may have been one of those two who was picked up the Army.
Henry Schaeffer was a gunsmith from Wurttemberg in what soon became part of the unified Germany and lived in Los Angeles for many years. Newmark recalled the exact day of Schaeffer’s arrival in Los Angeles, it being 16 March 1855, and noted that he “opened the first gunsmith shop in a little adobe on the east side of Los Angeles Street near Commercial, which he soon surrounded with an attractive flower garden.”
Noting that Schaeffer was soon followed in the trade by August Stoermer (in fact, the two men lived in the same household and must have been business partners in 1860), Newmark went on to note that Schaeffer continued in gunsmithing and flower raising, but said “with more than regret . . . this warm-hearted friend of children, so deserving of the good will of everyone, committed suicide” in the early 1880s.
When discussing Schaeffer’s arrest, Newmark added that he “was taken to Wilmington Barracks but through influential friends was released after a few days.” This is corroborated by the piece in the News, which reported that he and Davis “have returned to town,” while Biggs remained in custody of the Army.
Within a short time after the president’s assassination the arrests ceased and in subsequent years Camp Drum disbanded and the heat and passion of the “War Between the States” subsided. Arrests of Los Angeles residents under suspicion of disloyalty and treason came to the fore again during World War I, as discussed in a recent post here about the museum’s new exhibit on “The Great War.”
As for Biggs, he is the subject of an article “‘Master of Ceremonies’: The World of Peter Biggs in Civil War-Era Los Angeles,” written by Kendra Field and Daniel Lynch and published in the Western Historical Quarterly last September.
You can read the article here.