San Francisco Mint and the Civil WarSan Francisco Mint and the Civil War

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848 led to the famous California Gold Rush (1849-1855) and turned San Francisco from a sleepy town of 459 people to a town of over 20,000 in a couple of months.  To absorb the massive amount of raw gold coming out of the gold fields and to convert that gold into official U.S. coinage, the U.S. Congress established the San Francisco Mint.  The presence of a mint on the west coast eliminated the cost of shipping raw gold to the Philadelphia Mint and provided much needed hard currency in the west.  The mint began the production of gold coins on April 3, 1854.  Massive silver strikes in the west, including the Comstock Lode strike in 1860, eventually led the mint to expand its production to silver coins and bullion as well.

During the Civil War, the U.S. government shipped coins east to help finance the war effort.  These gold shipments usually left a major port like San Francisco and traveled down the California coast to Central America where the gold was then loaded onto railroad cars and hauled across the Isthmus of Panama.  Once on the Caribbean coast, “treasure steamers” picked up the gold and carried it to New York or some other Union port.

During the entire passage from San Francisco to New York, the gold shipments faced continual threat from Confederate privateers and from commerce raiders like the C.S.S. Alabama (September 1862 to April 1864) and the C.S.S. Shenandoah (October 1864 to August 1865).  The Alabama often cruised the Caribbean sea lanes in search of “California steamers” loaded with gold.  Although that much sought after prize eluded Captain Raphael Semmes, the Alabama captured a total of 68 prizes including a steamer from New York carrying around $10,000 in silver dollars and U.S. Treasury notes.  While the Shenandoah usually operated in the north Pacific, on her final cruise of the war, the Shenandoah moved to attack shipping off the Pacific coast and possibly to launch an attack on San Francisco itself.  The plan came to an end in August 1865 when Captain James Waddell learned that the Confederate government had surrendered several months earlier.

The gold and silver mines of Colorado and California proved a tempting prospect to Confederate land forces as well.  A small Confederate army composed mostly of Texans pushed up the Rio Grande into New Mexico in 1861.  The ultimate objective was to take Santa Fe, gain control of the Santa Fe Trail, and then push into Colorado and California to link up with Southerners living in those regions.  Confederate rangers and local militias already operated in many of these areas.  On February 21, 1862, the Confederate forces defeated a Union militia at the Battle of Valverde and then occupied Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  On March 26, 1862, as the Confederate forces moved against Fort Union, it encountered Union regiments composed largely of Colorado miners who had volunteered to blunt the Confederate advance.  The miners had assembled in Colorado and then marched across the Rocky Mountains in the height of winter.  In a three day engagement, March 26-28, 1862, the two sides battled to a draw.  The draw however became a Union victory when a unit of Colorado miners swung wide of the battlefield and destroyed the Confederate supply train in the rear.  The loss of the supply train forced the Confederate forces to retreat back to Texas.