California in the Civil War

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Most people know that the Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, began with the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 in Charleston, South Carolina. But they don’t know that California did play a significant role in the War Between the States.

California became a state in 1850, and in 1859 the California legislature approved the division of California into two states, the northern half as the state of California and the southern half as Colorado Territory. The citizens of California voted their approval, but the Federal government refused to allow the decision.

Even though Southern California was part of a free Union state, it had strong Confederate sympathies. These Confederate ties were due to the large number of Southerners who had transplanted to the Southern California region. This partiality was evident in the 1860 presidential election; Lincoln received only 25% of the Los Angeles vote.

Once the war began, the Confederacy began thinking of gaining Southern California as a Confederate state. Not only did the state have gold, but the Union blockade of all Southern ports gave the harbors in Southern California a great appeal. Without the accessibility of Europe, the South had no market to export their cotton for income and no source to import needed supplies for the war.

As early as July 1861, a group of Texans led by Confederate Lt. Colonel John Baylor had captured the southern half of Arizona Territory and named it the Confederate Territory of Arizona. In autumn 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Henry Sibley was given permission by Jefferson Davis to open a wider corridor to California through upper Arizona Territory and to capture the gold fields in San Francisco.

Fighting raged up and down the Rio Grande River, with Sibley fighting Union Colonel Edward Canby in an attempt to take control of the Union forts lining the river, the border between Texas and New Mexico territory.

Back in Los Angeles, the danger of a takeover from within was becoming alarming. In April 1861 the Union War Department ordered Major James Henry Carleton and his First Dragoons from Fort Tejon to Los Angeles to protect a one-man quartermaster depot occupied solely by Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, chief quartermaster for the District of Southern California.

FUN FACT: Hancock would later be a general at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Dragoons settled into a temporary tent encampment just south of the depot and named it Camp Fitzgerald. The camp was abandoned after a few months in favor of a new site named Camp Latham located in what is now Culver City. The camp did not last long either after it was decided that a post nearer the harbor was needed. The first site chosen was a half-mile from the harbor on a low sandy plain where the old and leaky tents gave little protection from the wind, sand or rain. This location was named Camp Drum and it was from this camp that newly promoted Colonel Carleton and the California Column would head out in April 1862 to help stop the Confederate invasion of the Arizona Territory.

When the California Column finally reached the Rio Grande River in August 1862, the confederate troops had retreated and the threat of invasion of California and the western territories was effectively over. Parts of the California Column were scattered throughout the Southwest, occupying the forts, dealing with the Indians and protecting the territory from any further Confederate invasion for the remainder of the war.

Meanwhile, Winfield Scott Hancock had become friends with prominent Los Angeles citizen and fervent unionist Phineas Banning. Banning had become wealthy by establishing a booming freight business in the new San Pedro Area, which he later renamed “Wilmington” after his birthplace in Delaware. Hancock and Banning agreed upon the need for a strong Union military presence, so Banning, along with business partner B.D. Wilson, “donated” the tract of land to the U.S. government for the building of permanent facilities. Wilson, a prominent businessman in his own right, was the second mayor of Los Angeles, a wealthy rancher – and later grandfather to General George S. Patton. Banning and Wilson would each receive a payment of $1 for the donated land. This area, which was on higher ground and about a mile away from Camp Dum, became the site of the Drum Barracks. It was an ideal location because of the nearby wharf owned by Banning for receiving supplies and troops and for a jumping point for troops going to the east.

This deal was beneficial for Banning – he was promised the military shipping contracts to supply the bases in the Southwest, he was helping to protect his state from a hostile Confederate takeover and the land he and Wilson “donated” would turn a profitable investment in years to come.

Eventually California would have over 17,000 volunteers, and the Drum Barracks would be the staging area for over 8,000 of those soldiers head out to the Southwest. This strong military presence at the hot spots of Southern hostility had the desired effect: trouble was confined to a few demonstrations and public display of the Stars and Bars for the balance of the war years, and California remained a firm Union state.