Letters written during the time of the great Vigilance Committee of 1856 at San Francisco, and containing some account of its work as viewed by an interested resident of the place, are rare in the literature of the subject, and are sure to be valuable. How much more must this be true of letters written under such circumstances by General W. T. Sherman. The case for the Vigilance Committee is authoritatively stated in the November number of this magazine, by the former president of the committee, Mr. William T. Coleman. Sherman's relation to the committee has been described by himself in his "Memoirs," and that account has led to considerable controversy. As major-general of the State militia, he was, until his resignation in June, the official opponent of the committee. His " Memoirs" criticize its doings with severity; and the defenders of the committee have replied with vigor. The "Memoirs," written long afterward, it is claimed contain, as regards this portion of their text, some obvious historical errors of detail; and on this ground argument has been made against Sherman's whole case. It is therefore especially fitting that his later statements should be either corrected or borne out by means of his contemporary record of his impressions. Such a record the following correspondence furnishes.
Of General Sherman's own position during this period, it remains here to point out how hard a one it was. As a banker he was as much interested as were others of his class in the purging of the community. As a business man, moreover, he was also naturally disposed to act so as not to alienate his fellows, who were nearly all in sympathy with the movement. In fact, as the following letters clearly show, he was himself not at all devoid, at the outset, of an appreciation of their motives. But not only was he opposed to the committee from the strongest conviction of the general impolicy and the special danger of the movement, as his "Memoirs" show, but having accepted the Governor's appointment as major-general of the State militia, he felt the loyal instincts of the soldier setting him actively against the extra-legal position of the committee. It was his duty to act with the Governor. But the Governor began by an effort to treat privately with the committee. The effort led to a controversy in which a question of veracity was soon involved, and Sherman still sided with the Governor. A little later, be had to undertake the trying task of raising a force of militia in a community where only a small minority sympathized with his cause. Arms were lacking. Appeal was made to Major General John E. Wool for the use of the arms at the United States Arsenal at Benicia. The appeal led to another controversy, which soon involved another question of veracity. Meanwhile Sherman had not forgotten his right and his duty to seek such terms of compromise with the leaders of the committee as could be honorably obtained, through the aid of certain conciliatory persons who were anxious to act privately and unofficially as intermediaries. These efforts at mediation were thwarted by Judge Terry and other violent counselors who had the Governor's ear. Thus all Sherman's plans were defeated; he resigned his commission to the Governor, and returned to his private business. Henceforth he remembered the committee with increasing disapproval.
The story of these matters fills up most of the letters here printed. In following the incidents of the time, the reader may be aided by a table of chief events and dates, mostly chosen from the early history of the committee.
Wednesday, May 14, 1856: King publishes an article concerning Casey, the "Bulletin" appearing about 3 p.m. Between 4 and 5 p.m., King is shot by Casey, who is imprisoned. By 6.30 there is an excited crowd about the jail, which the mayor tries to disperse. Excitement continues all the evening, with public speeches, resolves, etc. Later Mr. Coleman and his friends prepare the "call of the committee of thirteen" for the morning papers, and agree on a plan of organization for a vigilance committee.
Thursday, May 15, 1856. Vigilance Committee begins the general organization, and the Executive Committee begins secret meetings.
Friday, May 16, 1856. Drilling of members of Vigilance Committee begun on a large scale. Sheriff Scannell calls for the posse to defend the prison. Governor Johnson arrives in the evening from Sacramento, and interviews privately the vigilance leaders.
Saturday, May 17, 1856. Vigilance Committee removes to its permanent quarters on Sacramento Street. The vigilance guard of ten admitted to the city prison. Orders privately given for the movements of next day.
Sunday, May 18, 1856. Vigilance guard early withdrawn from the prison Seizure of Casey, and an hour later of Cora, accomplished shortly after midday by the whole assembled force of the committee.
Tuesday, May 20, 1856. King dies of his wound about 1:30 p.m., Casey tried by the Executive Committee for murder that evening.
Thursday, May 22, 1856. King's funeral. Execution of Casey and Cora.
May 23-31, 1856. The committee continues its activity by arresting persons, investigating cases of election frauds and of similar offenses, and by preparing to banish offenders.
May 31, 1856. "Yankee Sullivan", a prisoner of the committee, commits suicide at its quarters. At Benicia, in an interview between General J. E. Wool and Governor Johnson, Sherman being present, Wool makes what both Johnson and Sherman interpret as a promise of arms from the United States arsenal for the suppression of the committee.
June 3, 1856. Governor Johnson issues proclamation declaring San Francisco to be "in a state of insurrection."
June 4, 1856. Governor Johnson, by the hand of his aide, Colonel Rowe, forwards request to General Wool for the needed arms from the arsenal at Benicia. At San Francisco, members of a "conciliation committee" carry communications between Sherman and the Vigilance Committee, hoping to bring to pass some peaceable settlement.
June 5, 1856. General Wool replies that he has no authority to grant the Governor's demand
June 7, 1856. Governor Johnson repeats his demand upon General Wool for arms, making a formal and urgent requisition at Benicia. On the same day, the Governor meets Sherman and the "conciliation" delegates from San Francisco. The peace negotiations fail. Sherman resigns his commission as major-general of militia.
June 9, 1856. General Wool finally refuses to aid the Governor against the committee.
June 19, 1856. The Governor writes to the President, asking for national aid in suppressing the committee.
June 21, 1856. Judge Terry at San Francisco resists and stabs a vigilance policeman, and is arrested.
July 19, 1856. The President writes from Washington, declining on grounds of constitutional law, to interfere to suppress the Vigilance Committee.
July 29. 1856. Hetherington and Brace hanged by the committee.
August 7, 1856. Judge Terry released by the committee.
August 18, 1856. Final parade of the Vigilance Committee.
November 3. 1856. Governor Johnson revokes his proclamation.
The fullest account of the Vigilance Committee yet printed is that in the second volume of H. H. Bancroft's "Popular Tribunals.", The official correspondence of Johnson, Wool, President Pierce, and others, relating to the affair, is printed in the "Senate Executive Documents," 1st and 2d Session, 34th Congress, Vol. XV., Document 101; and 3d Sessions, 34th Congress, Vol. VIII., Document 43.
The following is an extract from a letter, no date, from General Sherman to Major Turner of St. Louis, contained in a letter from Mrs. Sherman, dated May 18, 1856, to her father, Mr. Thomas Ewing. The letter to Major Turner, as appears from its contents, was also completed on Sunday, May 18, but was begun on Saturday.
The above letter was written to his father-in-law, the Hon. Thomas Ewing, Lancaster, Ohio.-EDITOR.
The controversy with Wool about the broken promise of aid continued for a good while. The Executive Documents above cited contain much correspondence bearing on the matter. Wool's position is sufficiently indicated by his letters referred to in a foregoing note.
To explain the warmth of feeling which the subsequent letters of this correspondence will show, it is well to point out, as an added motive from this time on, that the Vigilance newspapers, in the first week in June, contain very violent assaults upon Sherman. His proclamation calling for volunteers was burlesqued in the "Alta." " Bulletin " correspondents called him a " traitor " and his volunteers " mercenary hirelings," and much more of the sort appeared. Side by side with such attacks there are beseeching appeals to him as a man and a friend to come out from amongst such evil associates, and the "Bulletin" congratulates him warmly when heresigns; whilst he cheerily says, in the foregoing letter, that he believes that no man thinks the worse of him after all, yet these things wore on Sherman's patience, and the sense of failure was henceforth present. -EDITOR.]
The "San Francisco Evening Bulletin" of June 9, 1856, contains in its news columns what appears to be the most of this card, which it apparently does not publish entire. What is given reads:
" I think I have already said and done enough to convince all that I am not an advocate of the Vigilance Committee; and whilst I would have contributed my assistance to expel from our midst all rowdies, ballot-box stuffers, and shoulder-strikers, it would only be by the application of some legal mode, which I believe does exist, and not by resorting to the organization of a committee, which in the enforcement of its decrees has been compelled to resist the sworn officers of the law.
" When, however, the Vigilance Committee had become installed in power, and I had received the orders of the Governor to organize the militia to aid the sheriff in the execution of his duty, I did my best to influence and command all good citizens to enroll themselves into companies, promising when a sufficient number were enlisted, provided the necessity still continued, to arm , equip, and muster them into the service of the State. I based my promise of arming the enrolled militia on a verbal assurance, given to Governor Johnson by General Wool, in my presence, to issue from the United States Arsenal, on a proper requisition, such arms and munitions of war as the emergency might call for. It is now no longer a secret that when the written requisition was made, General Wool had changed his mind, and had discovered that be had not the legal power to grant the request.
" I have at all times endeavored to calm the public excitement; I have counseled moderation and forbearance, but I was forced to conclude that these moderate counsels did not coincide with the views of Governor Johnson, and, in justice to him, I felt bound to afford him the opportunity to select some representative here whose ideas were more consonant with his own."
[We may close the correspondence with an extract from one later letter, written a short time after Terry's discharge and the final parade. EDITOR.]
(1) The San Francisco "Herald's" list of those enrolled at this meeting contains 54 names.-EDITOR
(2) This statement of Scannell's was in part inaccurate. The next demand, after taking Casey, was for Cora, and they gave, the sheriff another hour to comply. The demand for "possession of the jail "was made as a formality, in writing, and before Casey was taken. -EDITOR.
(3) Rumors of such "division of purpose" were very soon abroad, and are mentioned by the San Francisco "Herald" of the next day. -EDITOR.
(4) Rumor at this time also asserted that Governor Johnson had approved and consented to the seizing of Casey and Cora. The "Herald" (anti-vigilance), while not believing this rumor, speaks with great severity of Johnson's conference with the committee. -EDITOR.
(5) In a letter of June 9, addressed to Johnson, Wool admits having said in these interviews, when "strongly Pressed," that a case might arise when I might deem it proper to assume the responsibility of issuing arms on your requisition. "The same admission is made in a letter to Sherman which formed Inclosure No. 3, sent by Sherman with the present letter, but not printed here. -EDITOR.
(6) These documents inclosed with the present letter are not printed in the present publication, as they contain nothing previously unknown. -EDITOR.
(7) As to the negotiations for peace compare the above with the article in the "Overland Monthly" for November, 1874, and with Sherman's "Memoirs." -EDITOR.
(8) See a copy of the most of this letter in the supplement to the present one (p. 306). -EDITOR.
(9) 1 That is, to the terms carried by the 11 conciliation committee to the Governor. -EDITOR.