It was the 1860s, the Civil War was raging on the other side of the continent, and in California, choosing sides was a burning issue.
Northern California was loyal to the Union; Southern California was decidedly pro-Confederacy. Faced with secessionist sentiment, it became imperative to the federal government that it establish a military presence. For years, there had been talk about how to safeguard the port of Wilmington and its ships, which carried gold mined in the San Gabriel Valley.
So in 1862, Camp Drum was formally established, named for Richard Coulter Drum, then adjutant general of California's state militia. Though the federal government paid a token $2 for 60 acres of land in Wilmington, it wound up spending more than $1 million for permanent buildings after the camp--a batch of ragged tents and lean-tos subject to heavy winds and blowing sand--was elevated to the status of fort in 1863.
Its soldiers did indeed see Civil War service when 1,500 to 2,000 troops marched from Ft. Drum to Yuma, Ariz., to fight the westernmost battle of the war with the Confederates--who had come from Texas in an attempt to open a western supply route. The Confederates were defeated.
In those days, the sprawling fort had five barracks for enlisted men, officers' quarters, a hospital, commissary, blacksmith, stables (the fort had camels as well as horses) and various outbuildings. It was surrounded by a white picket fence.
In 1988, Ft. Drum is not just a memory. Some of it--notably the barracks once reserved for married officers--still exists, though it is so deeply tucked into a Wilmington residential neighborhood near the Banning Residence museum and park that tourists seldom find it.
"People don't know this is here," said Marge O'Brien, director of the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, which was opened to the public by the Los Angeles city Recreation and Parks Department in October, 1986, after standing for years as a little-used historic site.
O'Brien says that when she arrived, the building had little in it dating from the Civil War--"there were plastic candles, deco furniture and World War II cots"--and she has been working to build a collection and research library worth visiting.
So far, so good.
There is a large model of the original fort, made by Vincent Manchester of Bellflower, who used to be a caretaker on the property. Ornate 19th-Century furniture, including a piano, sits in the parlor where the officers once lounged and entertained friends. In a lofty second-floor room, O'Brien has re-created a military dispensary, using many medical instruments donated by Ed Cote, an Orange County collector of Civil War artifacts.
There are also portraits of all of the fort's commanders, uniforms, military swords and rifles, and what O'Brien says is "one of our proudest possessions"--one of the few working Gatling guns left in the country.
Manufactured in 1872, it was left in front of the barracks when the camp was dismantled in the 1870s and remained while the remaining barracks served as a university.
"Somehow, after the university closed down, the gun ended up in Wilmington Cemetery," O'Brien explained. It was stolen from the cemetery in 1963, only to be found six years later in boxes in a Long Beach refuse dump. "Two pieces were missing," she said, adding that the parts were later donated. "Now it works."
O'Brien praises the Banning museum for providing many of the items on display and said that donations come from all over the country, sometimes from people whose ancestors were stationed at the fort. Six volunteers restore and display the artifacts and lead tours through the spacious white wooden building, with an impressive central staircase and an ornate wood porch.
In private ownership for many years, the barracks was threatened by demolition for development in 1963, but local residents and history buffs banded together as the Society for the Preservation of Drum Barracks and raised $5,000 to buy the building. It was later deeded to the state, which turned it over to the city to run.
Group tours, ranging from senior citizens to students, still provide most of Drum Barracks' visitors, but O'Brien hopes that more individuals will begin dropping by as the museum--still in its infancy--becomes better known.