By Bill Virden
Although there are records of dozens of cases of Army activity in the Far West during the Civil War, only one of those in California involved the great conflict itself, the others being Indian warfare and action to curb lawlessness.
The one lone example of what might be termed contact between the Union and Confederate forces took place in San Diego County, in the Mesa Grande region. This was the capture of the “Showalter Party” by a detachment of the First Cavalry, California Volunteers, from Camp Wright, in the early winter of 1861. In his report to Col. James H. Carleton, commanding the First California Infantry, Maj. Edwin A. Rigg gave the location as “John Winter’s Ranch”; actually it was the Minter Ranch (now the Angel Ranch), about two and a half miles southwesterly, as the hawk flies, from Henshaw Dam.
Many Californians, of Southern background and sympathies, left for the Confederate states in the early stages of the war, to join the rebel army, and had little trouble in getting through. Among them were judge David S. Terry, who had killed Senator David C. Broderick in the notorious Broderick-Terry duel in 1859, and another outstanding secessionist, Daniel Showalter.1
Like Terry, Showalter, a State Assemblyman from Mariposa County, had killed his adversary in a duel. He had been challenged by Assemblyman Charles W. Piercy of San Bernardino, and the duel, with rifles at 40 paces, was in Marin County on the afternoon of May 25, 1861. On the first fire neither was hit. Showalter demanded a second fire, and this time Piercy was killed. It was the last political duel in California.2
Determined to put a stop to the more or less steady stream of secessionists going back to join the Confederate Army, Brig. Gen. George Wright, commanding the Union Army’s Pacific Department and California District, greatly strengthened Fort Yuma (then in San Diego County) and established a military prison there.3 This was right on the main line of travel into Texas. To further curtail the rebel “underground railway” a camp was established at Warner’s Ranch on Oct. 18,1861, with Major Rigg in command. On Nov. 22 it was moved to the Aguanga/Oak Grove area, and Rigg named it Camp Wright, in honor of the department commander.
Showalter started for Texas, to join the Confederate Army, at about the same time. His party numbered 18 men, all mounted and well armed. He had no desire, however, to meet any great strength of Union forces, and so, after reaching Temecula, he and his men dropped down into the valley of the San Luis Rey and began making their way southeast through the mountains, carefully avoiding the newly-established Camp Wright.
Word of the movement of a sizable party of armed men having come to Major Rigg, he deployed his forces from Camp Wright, then less than a week old. Taking the field for the search were Company G, detachments from Companies D and F, First California Infantry, and a patrol led by Second Lt. C. R. Wellman of the First Cavalry, California Volunteers. It was this unit which made the capture, as his report states:
Early on the morning of the 29th I discovered the party that I went in search of. They were encamped at John Winter’s (sic) ranch. I saddled up and proceeded with my detachment to their camp, and proceeded to question them as to their business, destination and purpose, to which I received the following reply: That their destina- tion was Sonora, Mexico…. I then asked them if they would go peacefully with me to Oak Grove…. There were two or three that demurred. Showalter was one of them.4
Finally, Showalter agreed to go along with them, and they were all taken to Camp Wright. Here they were examined, and the next Army “express” to Colonel Carleton must have been a heavy one indeed, for it contained not only the incriminating letters found on each man, but their oaths of allegiance and signed statements, and the somewhat voluminous reports of Major Rigg, Second Lt. Wellman and the other officers whose detachments had taken part in the affair. Meanwhile, Rigg had availed himself of a passing traveller to take the initial word of the capture. Under date of Nov. 30 he wrote:
I take advantage of Senor Sepulva, Ramon Carrillo’s brother-in law, to inform you of the capture of the Showalter party, Showalter with them … each man armed with a rifle and a pair of revolvers…. They now regret that they did not resist. If they had they would have given us a hard fight. There is no doubt but every one of them is a rank secessionist, and are on their way to lend aid and comfort to the enemy.
I would like to know as soon as possible what to do with them. They have pack-mules and are well fitted out, and a desperate set of men.5
He was told what to do with them. The Showalter party was sent on to the prison at Fort Yuma, where they spent several months.6 Then, apparently having convinced the authorities that their oaths of allegiance were actually worth the paper they were written on, and that they were mere peaceful miners bound for Sonora, they were released, and probably soon were joining the Southern forces.
Showalter, at least, lost no time in getting to Texas, where he immediately enlisted. On Feb. 8, 1864, he wrote from San Antonio to a friend:
I at once joined his company (Capt. Geo. L. Patrick, late of Tuolumne, Calif.) as a private, and soon after had the honor of participating in the battle of Galveston, and … Sabine Pass…. Soon after the latter I was promoted to a lieutenant-colonelcy. I have since organized a fine cavalry regiment and been in several engagements in Arkansas and the Indian Nation…. I have not heard a word from my people since I left California. I fear my brothers in Pennsylvania have gone in the Northern Army; if so, I can only pity; I have no desire to see them again.7
So ended The Affair at Minter’s Ranch. Although far from the scene of the main conflict, San Diego County can claim the only action of the Union Army in California during the Civil War.
1. Bancroft, H. H.: Hist. of Calif., S. F., 1890; vii, 289-90.
2. Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner: Hist. of Calif., N. Y., 1915; iv, 194.
3. Bancroft, op. cit.
4. Official Records, Union and Confederate Armies, Series I (hereafter cited as Records) Part 1, p. 44.
5. Records, Part 1, p. 33.
6. Bancroft, op. cit.
7. Records, Part 2, p. 1079.