By Don Driese
Although California is credited with having furnished 15,725 volunteers to the Union Army during the Civil War, you will search in vain for any mention of California regiments in the great struggle of a century ago.
Either California was considered too unimportant politically to be worth such notice, or our state officials were too far away to do any effective desk-pounding, or Washington was mad at us for nearly going Confederate. At any rate, our boys marched off to war without getting us a bit of publicity.
As San Diego was described by at least one visitor as being “a nest of Copperheads”, it is unlikely that any great number of the local stalwarts joined up to fight under the Union colors. In the north it was different, and there was no trouble in filling the state’s quota from around San Francisco and up into the mining-camps.
Those California units identifiable as such, were used largely for guarding lines of communicition to the eastward and keeping Texas from raising its own colors in the Old Town Plaza, as well as releasing regular Army troops for service in the east. Californians who wished to volunteer for the actual combat zone found themselves, for reasons which are far from dear, unable to do so. Finally, word got out that Massachusetts was paying heavy bounties for enlistment; why not use such money as a means for getting to the war zone? Eventually, that was what was done, and men from California, who proudly carried their Bear Flag colors with them, saw service, as Massachusetts troops, at Gettysburg, Appomattox and elsewhere.1 Just what kind of riots and repercussions would develop if an eastern state were to fill its ranks from California today is frightful to contemplate, but that is just what happened in the winter of 1862-63, when California Lot the go-ahead signal on supplying five companies of men for the Second Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers.2 The call for volunteers went out and the volunteers themselves came in. Massachusetts got her imported horse-soldiery, rather appropriately, from the very farthest of the Far West; after all, did you ever see a TV horse-opera with a locale of, let us say, Boston or Provincetown?
A wood-engraving from an unidentified Civil War “pictorial” is captioned “Camp California”, and its location is given as being on the Fairfax Road, south of Alexandria, Virginia. This appears to be more than a mere coincidence, for it was here that the five companies of Californians were mustered out as the war ended. It looks as if this were a belated effort — and pretty small one, at that — to give California some credit for having participated in the war. Dates of the mustering in of the five companies at San Francisco are as follows:3
Company A, December 10, 1862.
Company E, March 20,1863.
Company F, April 22,1863.
Company L, March 21, 1863.
Company M, same date.
All five companies are listed as being mustered out of the Army at Fairfax Court House, Virginia, on July 20, 1865. If our Division of Beaches and Parks of the State of California has a treaty with its opposite number in Virginia, would it be out of order for them to suggest a suitable bronze marker at the site of Camp California?
l. Hunt, Aurelia: The Army of the Pacific, Glendale, 1951, p. 284.
2. Orton, Brig. Gen. Richard H.: Records of California Men in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1867, Sacramento, 1890, p. 11.