Although it doesn’t rank with Gettysburg or Appomattox, Wilmington’s Drum Barracks deserves at least a modest dot on America’s Civil War maps.
In fact, 138 years ago, the U.S. Army made the Southern California coastal town home to the first military compound west of the Mississippi built specifically for the Civil War.
The Drum Barracks processed and trained 7,000 volunteers and sent them to fight for the Union Army in the East, in Arizona and in New Mexico, as well as to battle hostile Indians, man coastal defenses, guard roads and wagon trains, chase outlaws and keep Southern sympathizers under control.
Among the volunteers were four companies of Spanish-speaking soldiers known as the 1st Battalion of Native California Cavalry, made up of accomplished young horsemen from California ranchos.
Wilmington was an interesting choice as the barracks’ site, since although Northern California was firmly loyal to the Union, Southern California was decidedly pro-
Confederacy, especially Los Angeles--half of whose residents had come from the South.
In the 1860 presidential election, for example, Angelenos cast 350 votes for Abraham Lincoln and 1,190 for his opponents.
Faced with such pro-secessionist sentiment, the federal government found it imperative to establish a visible symbol of the Union’s presence in the area.
In May 1861, Maj. James Henry Carleton and his First Dragoons, along with a herd of 36 government-owned camels, moved south from Ft. Tejon. They set up temporary posts, first in downtown Los Angeles at Camp Fitzgerald, then 10 miles west at Camp Latham, near contemporary Culver City.
Eventually, Washington decided that it was important to safeguard the port of Wilmington and its ships, which carried critical food, supplies and military personnel around the Horn to Union ports.
Camp Drum was formally established as a tent encampment, named after Lt. Col. Richard Coulter Drum, then assistant adjutant general of California’s militia.
The federal government paid $2 to buy 66 acres from civic leaders Phineas Banning and Benjamin Wilson, then spent more than $1 million to erect 19 buildings before the facility was elevated to the status of a fort two years later and renamed Drum Barracks.
Disenchanted miners were enticed away from the gold fields as volunteers flooded into the Drum for monthly pay of $13. Shattering the Confederacy’s hope of seizing the Western frontier, Carleton enlisted 2,350 volunteers, who became known as the California Column, to march to the Rio Grande in New Mexico in 1862.
After stopping off at Ft. Yuma, fewer than a dozen troops from the column, led by Lt. James Barrett, set out to recapture a 10-man scouting party held prisoner by Confederate troops. Hot on the rebels’ trail through Picacho Pass in Arizona, Company A of the 1st Infantry fought and lost its only battle, leaving Barrett, two of his Union soldiers and one Confederate dead.
Barrett’s grave is under a marker just off Interstate 10 a few miles south of the town of Picacho, between Phoenix and Tucson, while the two privates’ remains were later exhumed and returned home.
Although the California Column struggled in a number of brief encounters with Native Americans, this skirmish was the only time California troops engaged in combat with Confederates. The California Column marched on to New Mexico and Texas, hoping to engage in battle, but the rebels fled and the bored federal troops returned to the Drum.
From then on, the barracks’ biggest battles were against drunkenness, venereal disease and community catastrophes. On April 27, 1863, Banning’s small steam tugboat, the Ada Hancock, was dropping passengers off at San Pedro when the boiler exploded, killing 26 of 53 passengers. The critically injured and burned civilians and military personnel were rushed to the Drum Barracks hospital.
That same year Col. James Freeman Curtis, a former volunteer fireman, vigilante and chief of police in San Francisco, arrived in Wilmington with his wife, Maria, to take over command and assume an increasingly active role in policing the area.
Los Angeles and El Monte, both of which were veritable nests of secessionist sympathizers, were briefly occupied several times by troops from Drum Barracks. On several occasions, L.A. Sheriff Tomas Sanchez summoned the Union cavalry to rescue prisoners from lynch mobs.
By 1871, all but the barracks hospital was empty. The soldiers were gone, but the two-story commander’s quarters and adjoining 10 acres were soon occupied by scholars from Wilson College, the predecessor to USC. The area would later become known as College Hill.
Through the years, though, the Drum has been a focal point of the battle between Sacramento and Washington over the federal government’s unpaid Civil War debt to the state for expenses California incurred while providing troops for the war.
In 1995, accrued interest had brought the total on that bill to $82 million. But the U.S. Court of Claims rejected the bid for payment, saying, “California troops . . . were not used to do any fighting; they did only garrison and patrol duty.”
Over the years, 25 states, including Nevada, have seen such debts paid--but not California, which initially sold $668,000 in bonds and then refinanced that amount with a $2.3-million bond sale a decade later. Nevada was reimbursed nearly $600,000 in 1929, even though its troops never fought Confederates.
Today, tucked deeply inside a residential neighborhood, two Drum Barracks buildings remain--a small powder magazine that is privately owned, and the 16-room junior officers’ quarters, now a library and museum filled with Civil War artifacts, period furniture, documents and clothing.
Visitors to the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum often claim they see, smell and hear five resident ghosts, including Curtis, who is said to prefer the parlor, where he can sit near the fireplace; his wife, who some say sings and dances in her hoop skirt and apron and wears lilac perfume; a lovable Irish soldier named Patrick; a captain who was murdered in the stable area on payday; and a young boy, age 5 or 6, who reputedly bounces a ball while waiting for his father to return from the war.