BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Monuments honoring Confederate generals and other secessionist Civil War figures are coming down across the country as attitudes and assumptions about race relations enter a new era hastened by protests animated by the death last month of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
This seems, therefore, like an appropriate time to survey Confederate monuments in Kern County. The list is short — and if we take the challenge literally, it is blank.
But there’s this: Breckenridge Mountain, a 7,600-foot peak in the Sequoia National Forest, east of Bakersfield, that honors U.S. Senator John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, 14th and youngest-ever vice president of the United States, Democratic candidate for president in 1860 against Abraham Lincoln — and one of the nation’s most prominent traitors.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Breckinridge joined the Confederate Army, prompting his expulsion from the U.S. Senate. He commanded the First Kentucky Brigade in several prominent battles, including Shiloh and Murfreeboro, and eventually became the Confederacy’s Secretary of War.
We don’t know who proposed naming the Kern County mountain after Breckinridge — and misspelled his name in the process — but we do know that one of his most ardent admirers was a dedicated secessionist and criminal fraudster by the name of Asbury Harpending, also a Kentucky native, who was at the center of the Kern River Valley’s considerable gold-mining community of Confederate sympathizers.
But Harpending was not just a secessionist — he was an agent for the Confederate government. In 1863, he eluded a Union blockade and traveled through Mexico to reach Richmond, Virginia, where he met with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He then traveled to San Francisco, where, with the aid of other Kern County-based Rebel sympathizers, he stocked a ship, the Chapman, with supplies and ammunition, and set out to become a privateer — essentially a pirate ship that would raid Union ships at sea.
But his plot was discovered, and Harpending was convicted of high treason. He was granted his freedom a year later as part of an amnesty act and in the winter of 1864 moved back to Whiskey Flat — Kernville, as we call it now — and returned to gold mining and assorted dubious behaviors.
And why do we remember him today? In part because Harpending once wrote of his connection to this region, “If the matter of paternity is ever brought up in court, it will probably be proved to the satisfaction of a jury that I am the father of Kern county.”
Col. Thomas Baker might dispute that. The acknowledged founder of Bakersfield, who had served as a colonel in the Ohio militia 30 years before, came to the settlement that would bear his name in 1862.
But Harpending did in fact participate in the effort to carve out the new county from swaths of Tulare and Los Angeles counties.
Other than Breckenridge Mountain, however, few actual man-made remnants of the Civil War remain in Kern County.
A marker for the California section of the Jefferson Davis Highway, a precursor to Highway 99, placed along the route by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1942, is now at the Kern County Museum, although it has been removed from view. Museum Executive Director Mike McCoy understands the difference between preserving history and demonstrating undue reverence for its errors.
“If you have something that’s occurred that was nefarious or evil or considered a bad historical moment,” he said, “then that could go in a museum — but not out on public display.”
Historic Union Cemetery is the other touchstone. Exactly 110 former Union soldiers are buried there, many in the section set aside for members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Civil War Yankees. And 19 veterans of the Confederate Army are buried at Union Cemetery, their graves cared for by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, whose representative declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the present social upheaval.
The former Confederates who moved west to Kern County apparently assimilated as well as their Union counterparts. One, named Wilkinson, served as a county Justice of the Peace, for decades marrying local couples of all Civil War sympathies.
When we think of the Civil War, we generally think of the Eastern Seaboard and the Deep South, but the War Between the States played out almost everywhere on the continent — including the deceptively tranquil Sierra Nevada of central Kern County.
We don’t have any Confederate statues to take down, or preserve for that matter — not of Harpending and not of Breckinridge. Not like the city of Lexington, Kentucky.
The John C. Breckinridge Memorial, erected in 1887, no longer stands watch in that city’s courthouse square, as it did for 130 years. In 2017 the bronze-on-granite statue was moved to the Lexington Cemetery, where heroes and traitors alike rest in peace.