Published in the Argus-Courier by Skip Sommer on August 15th, 2016

In this electoral year of political divisiveness, it’s interesting to travel back to the 1860s and view that great first Republican president in his radical times of civil war.

Petaluma and Santa Rosa were on opposite sides of the issues then, and indeed some verbal vitriol was of the farmyard variety, but most was more reserved than today.

President Abraham Lincoln, who was avidly anti-slavery, had proposed taking a moderate position with the soon-to-be-defeated southern states following the end of the Civil War. He hoped to bring the South back into the Union as soon as possible. This approach was not overly popular due to the highly emotional attitudes of the times, and differing opinions were on everyone’s lips.

The anti-slavery Republicans wanted the country to reconstruct itself into one grand union, while the post-war Southern Democrats still remained rebellious and their attitude was not just contained to the South.

Petaluma had largely supported Lincoln and the Union, while Santa Rosa, which had been mostly settled by southerners, was anti-Lincoln and pro-slavery. The Santa Rosa newspaper, The Democrat, had boldly stated: “The South will continue to fight to the last. They will show us they are unconquerable.”

Even in Petaluma, a Democrat functionary had stated: “We deem it impossible that the Republican Party can reunite and restore the Union of Southern States, and the attempt of the Sonoma County Central Committee to propose Union Democracy is a bad political trick!”

The situation was volatile. April of 1865 brought these issues sharply into focus.

On April 9, secessionist General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his southern army to Ulysses S. Grant and, just days later, President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated by southerner John Wilkes Booth. The Petaluma Journal & Argus, a Republican paper, said: “We know the men who would do murder here. They are all Democrats!”

Perhaps “murderers” was a shade worse that today’s political slur, “losers.”

Lincoln’s death was much mourned in Petaluma. Shops were closed, black crepe was hung everywhere, flags were at half-mast. A funeral parade was scheduled for the next day with an empty hearse, a riderless horse, pall bearers and a military band. The sermon was given by professor E.S. Lippett in Walnut Park.

The Journal & Argus proclaimed: “Petaluma In Mourning.” Church bells tolled. Every half-hour, from sunrise to sunset, a cannon was sounded. “Never before have we witnessed so widespread and unutterable sorrow,” the Argus editor wrote.

Yet there were those who held another view. In Santa Rosa, as in San Francisco, several arrests were made of “men rejoicing over the assassination.” In response, all five of San Francisco’s rebel-owned “secession newspapers” were totally trashed by uncontrolled mobs. It was an idea that caught fire in Petaluma.

Petaluma had indeed gone to war. A late war-time letter from California Gov. John Downey to Petaluman Francis Lippitt advised: “With the recent requisitions of the war department upon the State of California for five additional regiments, you are appointed Colonel,” that is, after Lippitt had organized those regiments.

Military pay per month with rations and clothing was $15 for privates, $16 for musicians and $17 for corporals. Well, the musicians kept up the morale, you see.

The 1865 “Southern Plan” offered second-class citizenship for freed slaves, and the Northern states were outraged over it. But Lincoln was wary that the border states, being pressed too hard, may change their minds and bolt from the Union that he had proposed. He urged caution.

The South had been devastated. Farms were torn apart, animal stock had been killed and rails and bridges were gone. The entire economy had to be rebuilt, most of the young men were dead and, of course, the southern states’ dependence upon slave labor was no more. It was turmoil.

Seeing the difficult reconstruction road ahead, Lincoln advised to tread very carefully on the slavery issue. When his overly ambitious General John Fremont arbitrarily confiscated southern property and emancipated some slaves, Lincoln thought those sudden moves dangerous and ordered Fremont to stop. When the general refused, Lincoln fired him on the spot.

These issues engulfed the entire country. In Sonoma County, the towns of Santa Rosa and Petaluma nearly went to battle against each other. After the Santa Rosa Democrat intimated that Lincoln’s assassination may have been a “good event,” Petaluma’s armed troops had even gathered to invade Santa Rosa to burn down the newspaper office there. They rode their horses as far north as the Washoe House Stage Stop on Stony Point Road.

But, the ride had been dusty and rough and the militia paused for beer at the Washoe. The hot blood was cooled for the moment and, although this event has forever been labeled “The Battle of Washoe House,” the boys never did make it as far as Santa Rosa.

It would be decades, however, before the Civil War animosity faded away in the country and in Sonoma County, and reconstruction was to be almost as tough as the war itself. All of this turmoil did happen here, even though we were so far from the actual fighting in the South. Hopefully, that kind of national unrest is behind us.