Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety

Copperheads, Secesh Men, and Confederate Guerillas: Pro-Confederate Activities in Santa Cruz County during the Civil War
by Phil Reader


The secessionist movement and the civil war that followed divided not only the United states, but every county, township, city, and village within it's boundaries. Santa Cruz county was no different. By far, the bulk of the citizenry remained loyal to the Union and Abraham Lincoln enjoyed local voter approval in both the elections of 1860 and 1864. But there were pockets of Confederate sympathizers located throughout the county and they were vocal in their support of the south. Anti-Union feelings were strongest in the Corralitos, Live Oak, Butano, and Pescadero districts.

These men were called "Secesh" men (secessionist) and "Copperheads" or simply "Cops" because during the early part of the war, many of those who supported the Confederacy took a copper penny, clipped the words "United States of America" off of the edge of the coin, leaving only the head etched in the metal and wore them on their lapels as symbol of their beliefs. (Secret organizations, such as the Knights of the Golden Circle and Knights of the Columbian Star, were formed to promote the southern cause.

On May 8, 1861, shortly after Lincoln's ascension to the presidency and the bombardment of Fort Sumter, a large town meeting was held at the Exchange Hall in Santa Cruz. The purpose of this gathering was to assess the community's reaction to the Civil War and take whatever. concerted action that was deemed necessary. What emerged from this meeting was the founding of the patriotic Union Club and a general call to arms. But even at this early point in the crisis there was dissension. A minority report, authored by former County Judge Henry Rice and William D. Farrand - both southerners and leaders of the local Democratic Party was issued condoning secession and attacking Lincoln's policies.

The division in the community merely reflected the nativity of the early pioneers. Those from the southern states, naturally enough, supported the Confederacy while those from the north backed the Union. During the four long years of the Civil War, emotions on both sides ran high.

While the state of California was not directly involved in the fight it did, however, send a large number of citizens into the ranks on each side of the conflict. More than two hundred local men joined the Union forces. Host of these enrolled in Company K, Fifth California Infantry which was mustered at Santa Cruz. This group and subsequently formed groups were sent to Fort Yuma, in the Arizona Territory, to block a possible Confederate attack on California. While a contingent of local native Californios joined Captain Ramon Pico's Spanish Company.

Recruiting soldiers for the Confederate Army took place at a number of southern strongholds in the state, particularly in San Bernardino, Visalia, and San Jose. Hen shipped out on steamers leaving San Francisco and landed at Mazatlan, where they then proceeded across Mexico to join the rebel army. The route from southern California was by way of the Mojave Desert to Yuma and then on into Texas and the Confederacy.

Pro-southern activities were of a more clandestine nature and quite limited. The Democratic party was hopelessly splintered and it's leadership muted by a hostile local press. However there were several incidents of note involving southern sympathizers which occurred during the war.


On the night of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a little-known actor who had sympathized with the South. This event sent out shock waves which reached into every corner of the United States. Everyone, regardless of their beliefs, reacted in some way to the news of the killing. It was the type of event that no one forgets. Newspapers announcing the president's death were edged in black, citizens wept openly in the streets, churches were unusually crowded, and flags lowered to half mast.

But there were those who rejoiced at the news of the assassination. Supporters of the defeated Confederacy felt a certain amount of vindication upon the death of their archenemy. A number of them refused to suppress this delight.

George W. Nutter, a native of New York who had arrived at California aboard a whaler during the Spanish days, rode into Branciforte, whooping it up, and firing his pistol into the air. A few days later, Ambrose Calderwood, the county Sheriff and a member of a local militia group called the Butler Guards, went out to Nutter's farm at Blackburn Gulch and placed him under arrest. His crime was "exulting in the assassination of President Lincoln." Accompanied by a staff member from the Provost Marshal's Office, he was placed aboard a steamer and taken up to Alcatraz Island where he was imprisoned for disloyalty. Nutter was put to work packing sand-bags to reinforce the bulwark at the Presidio at San Francisco.

Young John McCoy, the son of a Soquel farmer, was arrested April 20th on the same charge at his father's home on the San Jose Road. He quickly joined George Nutter packing sand at Alcatraz. Lovick Pierce Hall, an Arkansas native, dubbed "Long Primer" Hall by his fellow journalists, had worked as a printer for John McElroy at the Santa Cruz Sentinel for a number of years. He was well known in the area as an advocate of slavery. During the war he moved to Butte county, Merced county, and then Tulare county where he worked for secessionist newspapers. Shortly after the death of Lincoln he was arrested for "exulting" and joined the local sand packers at the prison. His former employers at the Sentinel decried him as "socially and politically a jackass."

There were in all forty-one Californians confined for exulting over the assassination of the president. On June 15, 1865 they were tried in the U.S. District Court at San Francisco before Judge Ogden Hoffman on the legal technicality of using disloyal language towards the General Government. At the hearing they were found guilty, forced to take an oath of allegiance to the United States, and then released.

Of the three sand packers from Santa Cruz, only George Nutter returned home. He continued to live on his farm near Happy Valley until the late 1870s when he moved out of the area. His sojourn to Alcatraz did not dampen his enthusiasm for politics because he continued to be active in the Democratic party until his death, never betraying his enthusiasm for all things southern.

Copperheads, Part 2.

Condensed from: It Is Not My Intention to Be Captured. Copyright 1991 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of Phil Reader.

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Civil War, secessionists


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