By George Ruhlen
Colonel, U. S. Army, Retired
When the last gun was fired at Fort Sumter, S. C., April 13, 1861, two-thirds of the United States Army was garrisoning the frontier posts scattered over the country west of the Mississippi River. One-fourth was on the Pacific slope, and another fourth had been surrendered to the Confederates in Texas on February 18, by Major General David E. Twiggs, commanding the Department of Texas.1
Operating under confidential orders of the War Department, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner arrived unannounced at San Francisco on April 24, 1861, and assumed command of the Department of the Pacific, relieving Brevet Brigadier General Albert S. Johnston. A Texan, Johnston was colonel of the 2d Regiment of Dragoons, and had occupied that position since January 15, 1861. Johnston resigned his commission in the army and departed for Los Angeles; there he stayed from May 3 to June 16, visiting his brother-in-law, Dr. J. S. Griffin, who had been surgeon for Brigadier General S. W. Kearny’s command on its march to California in 1846.2
Southern California was an open powder keg. All that was needed was an able leader to ignite the fuse which would rend the state asunder and bring the Civil War to the Pacific coast. There were many Southerners and their sympathizers in California, especially in Southern California, in the San Joaquin Valley and in the mining camps of California and Nevada. A number of officers of the army who were Southerners resigned their commissions to join the Confederate army, generally at increased rank. The towns of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, El Monte and Visalia were hotbeds of secession rumors, and loyal Unionists appealed to the military authorities for help. They feared an open outbreak within the state and an invasion from Lower California.3
A conspiracy existed, with headquarters in San Francisco, which had as its object the seizing of California and Nevada, and establishing state and territorial governments under Confederate authority. Commissions of governors and military officers were signed by Jefferson Davis and sent to leaders of the organizations. Nevada was to be given to judge David S. Terry, of California, who visited Nevada and held secret meetings with his followers. Terry assured Davis that if the road from El Paso, Texas to California could be opened he would at once have an army of 25,000 or 30,000 men. He expected considerable help from two secret societies, the Knights of the Golden Circle and the Columbian Star, of which many Southern officers were members. Plans were prepared by the Confederate military authorities for the invasion of California and Nevada, and severing their lines of communication overland with the east.4
The first act of General Sumner upon taking command was to order the regular Army garrisons in Oregon and Washington Territory moved to San Francisco; the troops at Fort Mojave, on the Colorado River, to New San Diego, and those at Fort Tejon to Los Angeles. Two companies were at Fort Yuma and one at New San Diego.5
On June 2, 1861, two 24-pounder guns were shipped from Benicia Arsenal to San Diego to control the harbor and strengthen the position of the garrison at that port.6
The military garrison at San Diego consisted of Company F, 6th U. S. Infantry, commanded by Captain and Brevet Major Lewis Addison Armistead, a son of Brevet Brigadier General Walker K. Armistead, a graduate of West Point in 1803, Chief of Engineers of the Army, and the first colonel of the 3d Artillery from 1821 to 1845. His uncle was Major George Armistead, distinguished for his gallant conduct in the defense of Fort McHenry, Maryland, September 13, 1814, the scene of the inspiration of Francis Scott Key’s immortal “Star Spangled Banner.” Armistead was a cadet at West Point from 1834 to 1836, but did not graduate. Appointed Second Lieutenant in the 6th Infantry in 1839, he served in the Mexican War where he was brevetted for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco, and Molino del Rey. In the latter battle he led the way and was wounded. He was to be wounded again on the field of battle sixteen years later as, with hat on the point of his sword, he waved on his brigade to follow him over the stone wall of the cemetery at Gettysburg — and to die that night in the hospital of the corps commanded by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, his fellow lieutenant in the Sixth at the storming of Chapultepec. Not far behind Armistead on that occasion was Lieutenant James Longstreet who, “advancing color in hand,” was shot down. The flag he carried was caught up and carried on by young Lieutenant George E. Pickett — the same Pickett, who at a nod from this big, bearded Longstreet, would launch his division on the charge in which Armistead, and many another, would lay down their lives.7
When General Johnston departed for Texas to join the Confederacy, Major Armistead and a number of other former officers and civilians accompanied him.8
On June 17, 1861, Brevet Major George O. Haller with Company I, 6th Infantry, fifty-two enlisted men and one officer, arrived at New San Diego, twenty-one days out of Fort Mojave; they had marched 387 miles in eighteen days, mostly across the Mohave Desert in summer heat. Upon its arrival, Company F marched to Camp Latham, near Los Angeles.9
On July 24,1861, the Secretary of War called on Governor Downey, of California, to furnish one regiment of infantry and five companies of cavalry to guard the overland mail route from Carson City to Salt Lake City. Three weeks later an additional call was made for four more regiments of infantry and a regiment of cavalry. All of these units were recruited and organized in the northern part of the state, around the Bay region and the mining camps. During the four years of the war close to seventeen thousand joined one or another branch of the service; all volunteered, there was no draft. However, very few recruits were obtained from the southern part of the state. The volunteers replaced the regular troops, nearly all of whom were transferred to the eastern theater before the year 1861 ended.10
On November 6, 1861, Captain T. L. Roberts with Company E, 1st California Infantry, relieved the regulars assembled at San Diego prior to their departure by steamship for the east.11
The winter of 1861-1862 was exceptionally wet. Thirty inches of rain fell in San Diego County. The rivers overflowed their banks, flooding the countryside and washing out the roads. The grounds around the army camp became a quagmire, travel by wagons on the road impossible. Fuel gave out; the nearest source of supply was twenty-seven miles distant and there was no way of replenishment. Deeming the matter of survival a military necessity, the soldiers proceeded to demolish William Heath Davis’ wharf and use the lumber for firewood. After the war Davis submitted a claim before Congress for reimbursement for damages to his property. After years of wrangling the claim was finally settled for $6,000, about one-tenth of what Davis considered was owed him.12
Late in January of 1862, Captain Roberts was ordered to march his company to Warner’s ranch. That capable officer informed Colonel West, his commander, that it would be impossible to move a wagon over the roads for two months; however, if a trail were passable the company would be at Warner’s in two and a half days, even if they had to swim at some places. The march was successfully made in February without swimming. Later, on July 15, 1862, an escort under command of Captain Roberts, while conducting a supply train of the California Column from Tuscon, Arizona, to the Rio Grande, was attacked in Apache Pass, Arizona, by Apache Indians under the leadership of the notorious chiefs Cochise and Mangas Coloradas. As the troops moved into the pass to the spring, Apaches, posted behind the rock rim along the canyon wall above, opened fire on the soldiers. Roberts deployed skirmishers up both sides of the canyon. After a stubborn contest, the Indians hidden in the ledges above the spring were finally dislodged by howitzer shells bursting among the rocks, causing bloody havoc. After getting water, Roberts withdrew his men from the pass and camped. The following day the battle was renewed as the entire command proceeded through the pass, using rifle fire and the howitzers. The spring was taken and held by the Californians until they left the next day for the Rio Grande.13
Company D, Captain William H. Ffrench, and Company H, Captain Sylvester Soper, both of the 5th California Infantry, occupied the post of New San Diego in February and March 1862. The latter organization was ordered away shortly afterwards and Captain Ffrench’s company was transferred in November, being replaced by Company G, 4th California Infantry, Captain Alfred S. Grant in command. This company was organized at Auburn, California, and upon the expiration of the terms of service of the original members in February 1864, many reenlisted for the period of the war. The company remained at the post until August 1865, when it was moved to La Paz, Arizona. Captain Grant returned to San Diego after the war and served as Clerk and Auditor for San Diego County from 1871 to 1877.14
The protection of the Mexican border had been a matter of concern to the authorities since the occupation of California by the United States. For this reason, troops had been stationed constantly at San Diego to prevent raids from Lower California by Indians, outlaws and organized bands of insurgents. The occupation of Mexico by England and France during the Civil War was a disturbing factor. It was feared that the friendly attitude of those powers to the Confederacy would allow the latter to use Mexican territory and seaports to the advantage of its cause. This threat became more menacing after the establishment of a French-supported monarchy in Mexico, and the blockading of the Mexican ports on the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean.15
The Union Navy was practically non-existent on the Pacific, and the danger that Confederate privateers might operate against west coast ports and shipping motivated the department commander to strengthen the harbor defenses. In October 1863, Captain R. S. Williamson, Engineer Corps, was ordered to San Diego for the purpose of directing the construction of field works for the protection of the entrance to the harbor, and, in accordance with the custom prevalent in military establishments from the beginning of time, “the work to be performed by the soldiers stationed there.”16
At the close of the Civil War the 2d Artillery was transferred from the east coast to California. One company of the regiment was stationed at New San Diego from October 1865 to June 1866, when it was sent to a warmer climate at Fort Yuma. Due to the scarcity of available soldiers on the Pacific coast, the post of New San Diego remained untenated of military personnel for a decade.17
1. W. A. Ganoe, History of the U.S. Army (N.Y., 1936) pp. 244, 248. War of the Rebellion. A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Wash., 1897), Series 1, Vol. I, p. 502. (Hereafter referred to as WR.)
2. WR Li, pp. 433, 456, 463, 469. W. A. Keleher, Turmoil in New Mexico, 1848-1868 (Santa Fe, 1952), pp. 215-17.
3. Imogene Spaulding, “The Attitude of California to the Civil War,” Historical Society of Southern California, Publication ix (1912-1914), p. 105. Benj. F. Gilbert, “The Confederate Minority in California, California Historical Society Quarterly, June 1941, pp. 157, 160. Keleher, op. cit., p. 216. WR Li, pp. 27-45, 475, 502, 503, 556-8; ibid., ii, pp. 236, 258, 572, 813.
4. Ibid., op. cit., pp. 137, 621-2, 628-30; ibid., ii, pp. 561, 938-41, 1018, 1037-8, 1078-80. Keleher, op. cit., pp. 159, 220. Aurora Hunt, The Army of the Pacific (Glendale, 195 1), pp. 178-9, 342-8. Oscar Lewis, The War in the Far West. 1861-1865 (N.Y., 1961), pp. 21-3v 100-104. Joseph Holt, Official Report of the Judge Advocate General, U.S. Army, to the Secretary of War, 1864.
5. WR Li, pp. 472, 473, 475, 479, 485, 503, 506-7, 512, 514, 518.
6. Ibid., pp. 493, 496.
7. Ibid., p. 429. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (Wash., 1903), vol. i, pp. 43, 57, 169. Geo. W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy (N.Y., 1879), vol. i, p. 91. R. S. Henry, The Story of the Mexican War (Indianapolis, 1950), p. 361. T. F. Rodenbough and Wm. L. Haskins, eds., The Army of the United States (N.Y., 1896), pp. 487, 488.
8. Keleher, op. cit., pp. 217-18. WR Li, pp. 566, 629.
9. Ibid., pp. 473, 485, 518.
10. Ibid., pp. 543, 569, 645, 684, 723, 732. Hunt, op. cit., pp. 24-5, 29. R. H. Orton, Records of California Men in the War of the Rebellion (Sacramento, 1890), pp. 7-10.
11. WR Li, p. 677.
12. Wm. Heath Davis, Seventy-five Years in California (S. F, 1929), p. 335. Southern California Rancher, Dec. 1955, p. 2; Dec. 1956, p. 4.
13. Ray C. Colton, The Civil War in the Western Territories (Norman, 1959), pp. 114-115. WR Li, pp. 128-32. 772-3. 829, 837, 856-7; ibid., ii, pp. 10-11.
14. Orton, op. cit., pp. 597, 674. Douglas Gunn, A Historical Sketch of San Diego (S. D., 1876), pp. 11-12. Wm. E. Smythe, History of San Diego (S. D., 1907), p. 72 5. Orton, op. cit., pp. 597, 674. WR Li, pp. 797,919,923; ibid., Lii, p. 222.
15. Ibid., Li, pp. 454-5, 626-7, 628-30, 766-8, 825-6, 988-91, 1012-13, 1030-33; ibid., Lii, pp. 962, 1118, 1158-60. Hunt, op. cit., pp. 180-82. H. H. Bancroft, History of Mexico, vol. vi (S. F., 1888), pp. 12, 21-4,174.
16. Lewis, op. cit, pp. 19, 196 et seq, 235, 238. WR Lii, pp. 357, 449, 643, 678-9, 911, 948-9, 956.
17. Ibid., p. 1290. Rodenbough and Haskins, op. cit., p. 325.