"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Before He Marched Through Georgia Sherman Marched to Sutter's Mill

by Don Baumgart

We learned in our history classes what an important role General William Sherman played in the winning of the Civil War. What we didn't learn about is his earlier role in kicking off the Great California Gold Rush.

Sherman served under General Ulysses Grant in 1862 and 1863 during campaigns that led to the fall of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. He went on to succeed Grant as Union commander and led his troops to the capture of Atlanta. Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas undermined the Confederacy's ability to continue fighting and he accepted the South's surrender in 1865.

But before he rose to glory and victory in the civil War, Sherman was assigned to administrative duties in the California Territory, reaching the port town of Yerba Buena two days before its name was changed to San Francisco. His journey West took 198 days at sea. Fellow West Point classmates were winning promotions in the War with Mexico while Sherman shuffled papers in the territorial capital of Monterey, still a first lieutenant.

Perhaps his duties in Monterey as Quarter Master in charge of building saw mills brought him in contact with two questioning visitors who were trying to build a saw mill on the America River. In March of 1848 John Sutter and James Marshall arrived in Monterey with a question: "Is this gold?"

Marshall had found what he thought might be gold where he was working with a crew constructing a mill for Sutter. Originally their question was presented to Richard Mason, the colonel in charge at Monterey, who referred it to Sherman. After making a couple of simple tests, Sherman gave his commanding officer the one word answer that would change the world and help finance the Civil War in which Sherman was destined to become a star: "Yes."

The two military officers accompanied Sutter and Marshall to the discovery site and came back with the news that they had seen thousands of men panning for gold, taking out as much as $50,000 a day. Sherman was ordered to write a report which was sent to President Polk in the nation's capital. The report hit the eastern newspapers and the Gold Rush was on.

While he was given a "meritorious service" promotion to Captain for his involvement in the discovery of California's -- and the nation's -- new wealth, Sherman still had no combat experience and he felt his military career was at an end. He resigned his commission and followed the money, opening a bank in San Francisco. Ahead lay a return to military service and a stellar role in this nation's most divisive war.


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2007

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