Vigilante Justice


Governor Johnson was so angry with General Wool that he announced he would “never again recognize him as an officer or a gentleman.” The governor, Sherman went on, “is now powerless, for the militia … have deserted him en masse . … I might from sympathy have continued to aid him, but by so doing I would have driven off all our business, for so high has this feeling run that all business-men have yielded to it, and have regarded those who favored the cause of Law and Order as enemies of the people. … It is a lesson I will never forget—to mind my own business in all time to come.”

Sherman was right about the power and popular support of the Vigilantes. A great civic mass meeting voted by acclamation to “endorse the committee,” and even the churchmen recorded their approbation.

Sherman was also right that what the Vigilantes wanted was to finish the job as quickly as possible and return to their own affairs. Had they not been impeded by the governor’s crossfire, they could have disbanded sooner.

As for the military efficiency of the committee’s troops, it was probably even greater than was indicated by Sherman’s description to a friend. The Vigilantes were now so eager and disciplined that within fifteen minutes of the sounding of the firehouse bell seventenths of them, or some five thousand men, would be at headquarters ready for business. They had accumulated stores that could feed their whole army for several days, and upstairs in their “fort” were a well-appointed hospital and a completely equipped armorer’s shop. Their morale was high, and they would have fought hard against opposition from any source except one. They were loyal to the United States. If the President of the United States had opposed them, they would have been in a quandary and would probably have yielded. It is almost certain they would never have fired on federal troops. But the federal government never opposed them or declared them subversive. In fact, it supported them indirectly by inaction.

Their greatest strength with the people lay in the fact that they were demonstrably incorruptible. They could not be diverted from their self-appointed task, frightened, bribed, or tempted. They did not even give evidence of political ambitions, collectively or as individuals.

Sherman resigned as head of the state militia, and two days later General Wool flatly refused again to aid the governor against the Vigilantes. The governor’s case seemed lost. But then he tried for help from Washington. On June 19 he wrote to President Franklin Pierce, asking for federal aid against the insurrectionists. The President’s reply did not reach California until July 19, but when it came it stated the President’s refusal, on constitutional grounds. That letter arrived too late to have much bearing on events.

Long before the President’s reply was received, Judge David S. Terry, of the state supreme court, came to the aid of the governor. The judge unearthed a federal statute that could reasonably be interpreted as giving the commonwealth a right to a proportion of the federal arms stored on its soil if they were requested by the governor to deal with an emergency. Armed with that new persuader, the governor again applied to General Wool, who capitulated and agreed to allow the governor the use of some federal arms.

The governor promptly set about getting them into the hands of his own men. It is futile to speculate what would have happened had he been successful. At any rate, it was the Vigilantes who saved him from the worst fruits of his own ineptitude. They did so by seeing to it that no arms reached his weak and halfhearted militia. Their moves were so well timed and effective that it is hard to believe they were not getting covert information from sources close to the federal forces. Few sensible men, whether for or against the Vigilance Committee, wanted to see San Francisco turned into a battleground and their state a shocking example of internecine war. The leaders of the Vigilantes were successful businessmen, and businessmen, then as now, had their contacts.


On June 20, just as the steamer Bianca drew up to a wharf in San Francisco, it was boarded by a platoon of Vigilantes, who did not need to search hard to find twelve cases of rifles and six of ammunition. Resistance, if any, was minor, and the arms were soon safely stored in Fort Gunnybags.

By some coincidence, another score or so of Vigilante troops happened to go to Corte Madera and happened there to come upon the ship Mariposa . Their curiosity was too much for them, and they went aboard. Perhaps they were surprised to come upon eleven cases of muskets and three boxes of pistols. In a short time these too were added to the mounting arsenal in the Sacramento Street headquarters.

On June 21 another party of Vigilantes took to the waters of the bay and chanced to come upon the schooner Julia , which on close inspection proved to contain some 150 muskets in six cases. On that occasion a protest was registered by Mr. Rube Maloney, the leader of several men who said they represented the state. The Vigilantes brought back to Fort Gunnybags not only the muskets, but also, under protest, Mr. Maloney and two of his companions. The committee released the three men, but not the muskets.