Governor seeks arms to fight vigilantes

General William T. Sherman issued orders for the 2nd Division of the California militia on June 4th, and called for all volunteer and independent companies of San Francisco to report for duty and all citizens subject to military service to organize into companies and prepare in case they should be needed. But only a handful of men, certainly less than a hundred, accepted his call as most of the volunteer companies had already disbanded and joined the vigilantes. Those who did enlist were part of the law and order crowd of rowdies, ballot box stuffers and shoulder strikers.

Members of San Francisco's Militia 1856

San Francisco militia members

On that same day Governor Johnson wrote to General John E. Wool, commander of the Pacific division of the US Army at Benicia, asking for arms and ammunition to supply the troops he supposed Sherman would soon have. The next day Wool replied that only the President of the United States had the authority to order the issuance of arms and in a recent situation in Kansas he had refused a similar request. On June 6th Sherman also wrote to Wool and made a specific demand for three thousand muskets, two mortars, two field guns of as large a caliber as possible and ammunition for each.

Benicia Barracks in 1850

Benicia Barracks, 1850

Wool stood his ground, insisting that only the president held the authority to issue such arms. On June 7th he ordered Lieutenant H. J. Gibson, commander of U.S. forces at the San Francisco Presidio to remain neutral in the situation developing in the city but to protect public property entrusted to his care and not issue arms or ammunition to anyone without direct orders. But Gibson had, on the same day James King was shot, at the request of Mayor Van Ness and without General Wool’s knowledge, given ammunition for muskets and six-pound cannon to the city, an action that later nearly got him ousted from the army. Wool’s new orders, however, put an end to any hope of more arms from the Presidio.


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