- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

What does California have to do with the Civil War?

The state barely gets a mention in most conventional histories of the war. No battles were fought on California soil. Most Civil War maps and atlases show the westernmost locale of the conflict to have been in New Mexico or Texas. However, California and Californians played an important, if limited, role in the Union war effort.

California had been a state for a little more than a decade when the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861. It had entered the Union in 1850 as a free state, but by 1861, secessionist sentiment had gained a foothold, especially in the southern part of the state.

When the war began, the Union took steps to ensure that California and its resources did not fall into Confederate hands.

One such step involved moving Union troops stationed at Fort Tejon — near the San Andreas Fault in Grapevine Canyon, nearly 80 miles north of Los Angeles — to Drum Barracks (originally called Camp San Pedro and Camp Drum) in Wilmington, just south of Los Angeles.

Fort Tejon was constructed during a six-year period beginning in 1854. A huge earthquake in 1857 damaged some of the fort, but significant numbers of troops continued to occupy it until the outbreak of war in 1861. In the late 1850s, the fort played a small role in the army’s unsuccessful camel experiment.

When news of Fort Sumter reached California, much of the garrison at Fort Tejon, including the 1st Dragoons, was transferred east, where the soldiers fought in several Civil War battles. Jay Wertz and Edwin C. Bearss, in their very useful book “Smithsonian’s Great Battles & Battlefields of the Civil War,” say that future generals Winfield Hancock (Union) and Lewis Armistead (Confederate) became close friends while serving at Fort Tejon.

In 1858, Col. James Henry Carleton commanded at Fort Tejon. After the outbreak of war, Carleton became commander of the 1st Infantry, California Volunteers. In late 1861, Carleton assembled a force of more than 300 men at Drum Barracks, which had become a staging area for Union troops in transit, and moved them, along with another 2,000 troops (some from as far north as San Francisco), to Fort Yuma, on the California side of the Colorado River.

These California Volunteers — comprising elements of the 1st California Infantry, the 5th California Infantry, the 1st California Cavalry, the 2nd California Cavalry and a battery of the 3rd U.S. Artillery — became known to history as the California Column after they endured what has been called the “longest and most difficult march of the Civil War.”

The march of the California Column was a response to the Confederacy’s attempt early in the war to gain control of the Southwest, including the New Mexico territory (Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Nevada) and California. Confederate President Jefferson Davis envisioned, according to historian Shelby Foote, “the glittering light of victory by way of California.”

Mr. Foote explained Davis’ thinking as follows:

“Out there beyond the sunset lay the gold fields and the ocean. Control of the former would establish sound financial credit on which the South could draw for securing war supplies abroad, while the opening of Confederate ports along the Pacific Coast would ensure their delivery by stretching the tenuous Federal blockade past the snapping point.”

Davis also, according to Mr. Foote, viewed this territory in the context of “the old Southern nationalist dream of expansion,” meaning the extension of the South’s traditions and way of life, including slavery, to the American Southwest, parts of Mexico and Central America.

In February 1862, Confederate forces under Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley invaded the New Mexico territory, defeated Union forces at Valverde, captured Albuquerque and Sante Fe, and occupied Tucson.

Carleton’s California Column left Fort Yuma on March 1, 1862, to meet the threat posed by this Confederate force. During the march, Union and Confederate forces clashed three times in minor skirmishes at Grinnell’s Ranch near the Gila River, at the Pima Indian villages, and on April 15 at Picacho Pass (the westernmost “battles” of the war).

In the latter fight, the California troops decisively defeated the Confederates and forced them out of Tucson. After Confederate forces lost the Battle of Glorietta Pass to Union troops from Colorado, the California Column moved into New Mexico and Texas.

Union Army Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck called the California Column’s effort “one of the most creditable marches on record” and praised the “mobility and endurance of the California troops.” The Confederate threat to California and the Southwest had ended.

More than 15,000 Californians fought for the Union in the Civil War. While some units and individual soldiers fought in the better-known battles of the war, most Californians served in the southwestern part of the country throughout the conflict.

Travelers to Southern California can still visit Fort Tejon, north of Los Angeles, just off Interstate 5 after the Lebec exit. The fort, a state historic site, is nestled in the Tehachapi Mountains, nearly 4,000 feet above sea level. One restored original barracks building, the quartermaster’s office, and a reconstructed officers quarters still stand.

Historical archaeologists are in the process of uncovering the original site of the fort’s hospital. Civil War re-enactments, including musket and artillery demonstrations, are conducted at the fort.

The one remaining wooden building of Drum Barracks is south of Los Angeles, off Interstate 110 in Wilmington on Banner Boulevard in a residential area. The building, once the junior officers quarters of the camp, has been turned into a Civil War museum.

These two sites are useful reminders of the role California and Californians played in the American Civil War.

Francis P. Sempa is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century.”

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