Saturday, November 30, 2019

The California Column Routed The Confederacy


OK, so I'm always amazed at history that had such a huge impact yet is almost forgotten. Worse is that it's completely unknown and never acknowledged. That includes the role which Californians played in the Civil War. They played a big part in the Civil War. Certainly a lot bigger role than most know.

Among other things, California volunteers routed the Confederacy out of California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas. It's true. Californians spoiled the Confederacy's plans to invade California, steal Union gold, and establish itself in America's Southwest.

During the early days of the Civil War in 1861, the United States Army withdrew all regular troops from the West and Southwest to re-enforce Washington D.C. and the Eastern states. This left only local militia and volunteers to defend the Western frontier. Because of the vulnerability of the Union's gold supply and the subsequent threat of a Confederate invasion of California, as well as the threat to the Western territories, the California Column was created.

The California Column was in fact the Union force sent to Arizona and New Mexico to deal with the Confederate Army. Made up of miners, shop keepers, teamsters, hunters, lawmen, and many other men of various trades. They were also members of vigilante groups and local militias, from mining camps and towns, big and small. They were California's contribution to the war effort on the side of the Union. And frankly, what became know as the California Column turned out to be a formidable force from the West.

The State of California and the Territory of New Mexico, which included the present day states of New Mexico and Arizona, remained with the Union. The State of Texas joined the Confederate States of America. With the Union Army gone, Confederate President Jefferson Davis saw the West as extremely vulnerable and subsequently wanted to seize the opportunity to try and win the entire American Southwest including the California gold fields that funded the Union war effort.

As early as July of 1861, a group of Texans, led by Confederate Lt. Col. John Baylor, had captured the southern half of the New Mexico Territory and renamed it the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Then, that fall, Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley was given permission by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to open a wider corridor to California through the upper New Mexico and Arizona territories to capture the California gold fields.

The fighting raged up and down the Rio Grande River with Sibley fighting Union Col. Edward Canby in an attempt to take control of the Union forts lining the great river, the border between Texas and the New Mexico Territory.

Earlier that year, in May of 1861, the Union War Department ordered Major James Henry Carleton and his First Dragoons from Fort Tejon to Los Angeles to protect a one-man quartermaster depot occupied only by Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, chief quartermaster for the Army’s District of Southern California. Later, Winfield Scott Hancock would be a General embroiled at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Dragoons settled into a temporary tent encampment just south of the depot and named it Camp Fitzgerald. This camp was abandoned after a few months in favor of a new site named Camp Latham, located along Ballona Creek in what is today Culver City, California. The first site chosen was a half-mile from the harbor on a low sandy plain where the old and leaky tents gave little protection from the wind, sand, or rain. This camp would not last long because it was soon determined that a post nearer the harbor was needed. The second location was named Camp Drum.

By December of 1861, Washington sent Colonel Edward Richard Sprigg Canby and a force of 4,000 New Mexico and Colorado Volunteers occupied Santa Fe -- but could they hold it?

In April of 1862, out of Camp Drum, newly promoted Colonel James Henry Carleton and the California Column would head out to help stop the Confederate invasion of the New Mexico and Arizona Territories. The objective of the California Column was to drive any and all Confederate troops out of Arizona and New Mexico which they had occupied in 1861.

Much like the Confederate Army of New Mexico, which was also known as the Sibley Brigade, which had entered New Mexico from Texas in December 1861, the California Column traveled in small groups at intervals of a few days so men and horses would not exhaust the springs and wells along the way. The column followed the established route of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which had ceased operation the year before. It should be noted that the mail posts on the route were filled with food and grain. It was such because Union spies had stockpiled those provisions there before the march.

The California Column originally consisted of ten companies of the 1st California Infantry, all five companies of the 1st Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry, Company B, 2nd Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry and Light Battery A of the Third U.S. Artillery. This command contained 1500 well drilled and disciplined troops. Later on, Lieutenant Colonel George W. Bowie's 5th California Infantry was added, bringing the total strength of the Column to 2350 men

In 1862, the California Column commanded by Colonel Carlton was ordered to send over 2,000 men to the Rio Grande River in New Mexico – over 900 miles away – to drive invading Texan rebels out of Arizona Territory. These men traveled by foot, from April to August, through the desert with 120 degree temperature in full wool uniforms. They traveled in groups of 400 to conserve water for the men and horses, and stayed in a series of forts spread out between the Camp Drum and the Rio Grande.

The 2,350 men, largely on foot, in summer, wearing wool uniforms and carrying heavy rifles and knapsacks, made the journey in a very hot and dry environment without losing a single man due to non-battle causes. And while this might not sound that impressive, think about this, that hike from Wilmington, California, to El Paso, Texas, has been reported to be the second longest infantry march in infantry history.

The first in what has been called the longest infantry march in history, approximately 1,850 miles, began on July 20, 1846 on the Little Pony River in Council Bluffs, Iowa. That took place during the Mexican War of 1846. As incredible as it sounds, the California Column, the entire command, marched over 900 miles from California through Arizona and New Mexico Territory to the Rio Grande and as far east as El Paso, Texas, between April and August of 1862.

During their advance the California Column engaged the Confederates in skirmishes. During one such skirmish, Confederates attempted to burn forage gathered at Stanwix Station near the end of March 1862. What is not known is that the Confederates tried everything they could to stop or slow them down.  In fact Arizona Confederate volunteers, their Company A, Arizona Rangers, arrested the Union Army agent, Ammi White, destroyed White's flour mill at Casa Blanca, and destroyed supplies of food and fodder being gathered there, as well as at other stage stations along the California Column's route between Fort Yuma and Tucson.

After the establishment of the Confederate Arizona Territory, Governor John Robert Baylor decided he needed to supplement existing militia companies with a regiment of Rangers like the Texas Rangers. He intended this regiment would consist of several companies of cavalry. Baylor was a ruthless man. Among other things, he was known for having a genuine hatred for Indians of all tribes.

In 1861, he organized the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles to drive the Union forces from the southwest and led his men into New Mexico Territory. Following his victory at the First Battle of Mesilla and the surrender of federal forces in the area, he proclaimed himself the military governor of Arizona Territory which today is a region encompassing the southern half of the modern states of New Mexico and Arizona.

At one point, while he was Governor, Baylor's frustration with the attempts by the Apaches to drive out Anglo-American invaders hit an all time high. To give you, my reader, a glimpse at what sort of savage Baylor really was, take a look at an order he issued to his men pertaining to the treatment of Apache Indians wanting peace.

He issued the following: "Use all means to persuade the Apaches or any tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them together kill all the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them to defray the expense of killing the adult Indians. Buy whiskey and such other goods as may be necessary for the Indians and I will order vouchers given to cover the amount expended. Leave nothing undone to insure success, and have a sufficient number of men around to allow no Indian to escape."

His Arizona Rangers did in fact delay Col. Carleton's California Column, and to make things worse for the California unit -- most of Carleton's attempts to send messages to General E. R. S. Canby, the Union's departmental commander of New Mexico, were being intercepted. In fact, because of the intercepted messages, one of Col. Carleton's patrol which was sent to meet Mr. Ammi White was actually surprised and captured by the Confederate Arizona Rangers at White's Mill at the Pima Indian villages.

At White's Mills, near the Pima Villages, about twenty miles south of present Phoenix, the Confederate Arizona Rangers under the command of Captain Hunter captured the scouting party of nine men of Company A, 1st Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry under Captain William McCleave. They did so without firing a shot. Following their surprise of McCleave they destroyed caches of hay stored at the Butterfield stage stations along the barren route from Fort Yuma to the Gila River.

At the villages of the Pima Indians on the Gila River, about 30 miles south of present-day Phoenix, Capt. Hunter also discovered 1,500 sacks of flour from wheat purchased from the Pima by federal purchase agent Ammi M. White. It had been ground into flour and stored in his mill in anticipation of the advance of the Union forces. Hunter's men arrested White, disabled the mill and confiscated the flour. However, because of insufficient transport, Hunter could not remove the flour, so they gave it to the Pima Indians for them to use.

When news of the capture of McCleave got back to Fort Yuma, a larger force under Captain William Calloway was sent along the same route with orders to find and free Captain McCleave and his men. Capt. Calloway's force clashed with elements of the Arizona Ranger company burning hay at Stanwix Station and after a brief skirmish, the Arizona Rangers retreated to Tucson. Afterwards, Capt. Calloway reached the Pima Villages and the main supply point between Fort Yuma and Tucson and after a short rest, set out toward Tucson.

As they approached Picacho Pass, Indian scouts brought in information that Confederate pickets were just ahead. Lieutenant James Barrett and a small group of his Company A, Arizona Rangers 1st Cavalry, were ordered to make a wide detour to strike them on the flank, while Capt. Calloway would make a frontal attack with the main party.

In the Battle of Picacho Pass, the California Column's cavalry engaged alone and suffered defeat in a brisk engagement. A total of 12 California Column cavalry troopers and one scout, commanded by Lieutenant James Barrett of the 1st California Cavalry, were conducting a sweep of the Picacho Peak area, looking for Confederates reported to be nearby.

The Arizona Confederates were commanded by Sergeant Henry Holmes. Barrett was under orders not to engage them, but to wait for the main column to come up. However, later it was reported that "Lt. Barrett acting alone rather than in concert, surprised the Rebels and should have captured them without firing a shot, if the thing had been conducted properly."

Instead, in mid-afternoon the lieutenant "led his men into the thicket single file without dismounting them. The first fire from the enemy emptied four saddles, when the enemy retired farther into the dense thicket and had time to reload ... Lt Barrett followed them, calling on his men to follow him."

Three of the Arizona Rangers surrendered. While Lt. Barrett was securing one of the prisoners and had just remounted his horse, a bullet struck him in the neck -- it killed him instantly. Fierce and confused fighting continued among the mesquite and arroyos for 90 minutes, with two more Union fatalities and three troopers wounded. Exhausted and leaderless, the Californians broke off the fight and the Arizona Rangers, minus three who surrendered, mounted and carried warning of the approaching Union Army to Tucson.

Lt. Barrett's disobedience of orders had cost him his life and lost any chance of a Union surprise attack on Tucson. Captain Calloway returned to the Pima Villages and started work on a permanent camp, throwing up earth works around the flour mill of Ammi White, who had been taken away with McCleve to Mesilla by the rebels a few weeks before. This earth work was named "Fort Barrett" in honor of their comrade. There, they waiting to gather resources to continue the advance. Confiscation of the wheat and burning of hay now forced a halt at the villages while new supplies were gathered.

All in all, it required several weeks for the main elements of the California Column to reach the Pima Villages because of the time needed to gather more hay along the route. Further delay occurred because only detachments of less than four companies could move over the desert routes within twenty-four hours of each other, due to the scarcity of water.
After Picacho Pass, the Arizona Rangers retreated. And since Governor Baylor refused to send Confederate reinforcements, Captain Sherod Hunter and his men withdrew as soon as the California Column again advanced. The net effect of the Arizona Rangers' actions was to delay the advance of the California Column for over a month, which probably saved the Confederate Army of New Mexico, now retreating back to Mesilla from its defeat at the Battle of Glorietta Pass from being intercepted and destroyed by the California Column during April 1862.

The Battle of Picacho Pass was one of a handful of times when members of the California Column engaged Confederate troops, and it is considered the western-most battle during the Civil War.

The California Column arrived in Tucson on May 20, 1862, forcing the heavily outnumbered Confederate garrison to withdraw without a fight. After the fall of Tucson, a Southern sympathizer by the name of Sylvester Mowry was arrested at his mine in Mowry, Arizona, by the Californians. General Carleton, an old political enemy of Mowry, charged him with selling lead for musket balls to Confederates. Mowry was jailed for six months at Fort Yuma before being released due to the lack of evidence. As a result of his being arrested and jailed, his mine was destroyed and he was forced to leave Arizona.
As for General Carleton's messages, in June of that year, a scout named John W. Jones was finally able to outrun pursuing Apaches and get one to General Canby.  The message said, "The Column from California is really coming."

After capturing Confederate Arizona's Western outpost in Tucson, General Carleton prepared to march east with his main body in July, intending to enter New Mexico through Apache Pass in Southeast Arizona. To prepare for the advance of his main force, he sent an element of his column ahead as he had on his march from Yuma to Tucson.

On July 9th, 140 men of Co. E, 1st California Infantry and Co. B, 2nd California Infantry, was led by Captain Thomas L. Roberts. His united was accompanied by two 12-pounder mountain howitzers, a twenty-two man cavalry escort from Company B, 2nd Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry led by Captain John C. Cremony, and twenty-one wagons plus 242 mules and horses.

After Capt. Roberts reached the San Pedro River, it became necessary to learn whether Dragoon Springs, twenty-eight miles further east, could supply both companies with water, or whether they would be forced to separate into smaller detachments. Capt. Roberts led the advance detachment with his infantry company, joined by three wagons, the howitzers and seven of Cremony's best horsemen to serve as scouts and couriers.

Capt. Cremony remained behind with fifteen cavalry and ten of Roberts' infantrymen, including the detachment left as a garrison at the river, where an adobe stage station building provided shelter and a defensive position to guard the remaining wagons and animals. Capt. Roberts found the water at Dragoon Springs was enough to support the entire force, and Cremony joined with him the next day. Together they advanced on the springs at Apache Pass in the same manner, leaving Capt Cremony with the guard detachment.[

Then came the Battle of Apache Pass. The Battle of Apache Pass was fought in 1862 at Apache Pass, Arizona, between Apache warriors and the California Column. Why was the Battle of Apache Pass such a big deal? Well, fact is that the battle between the Californians and the Apache was one of the largest battles between Americans and the Chiricahua during the Apache Wars.

At noon on July 15th, Capt Roberts' detachment had just entered Apache Pass. After traveling about two-thirds through, his force was attacked by about 500 Apache warriors led by Mangas Coloradas and Cochise. And yes, if you're wondering, a young warrior by the name of Geronimo claimed to have fought in this battle as well.

The Californians were not in a good situation. The infantrymen had walked dozens of miles across the hot Arizona desert, heading for the spring at Apache Pass, which was now blocked to them by the well-armed Chiricahua warriors. Low on water, and realizing a retreat back to Tucson without water could cost him many men, Capt. Roberts chose to fight.

The Apaches had thrown up defenses consisting of several breastworks made of stone. They had also surprised the Californians with an ambush, waiting until the soldiers came within thirty to eighty yards of their positions before opening fire. Behind almost every mesquite tree and boulder hid an Apache armed with a rifle, a pistol, and knife.

At first the California volunteers could barely see their attackers. Because of this, after a few minutes of intense combat, Capt. Roberts ordered retreat to withdraw his force to the mouth of Apache Pass. His men regrouped and unleashed their two mountain howitzers for an advance against the Apaches. It is interesting to me that this was one of the first times the U.S. Army had ever been able to use artillery against the Indians in the Southwest.
Capt. Roberts ordered his infantry to take the hills overlooking the pass, while he remained in the pass to direct the artillery support. The skirmishers moved forward where they were able to take cover in an abandoned Butterfield Overland Mail station.

The foot soldiers were now about 600 yards from the spring. The Apache behind the breastworks on the hills were delivering a deadly fire against the attackers. Capt. Roberts advanced with his two howitzers forward and had them open fire. Their effectiveness was limited by the fact that they were 300 to 400 feet below the Apache defenses. But that did not stop Capt. Roberts who moved his guns ahead to a better position, all the time under heavy fire. Once the guns were in effective range, Capt. Roberts' artillery opened fire in earnest.

The Apaches held their positions until nightfall when they fled for someplace safer. Their retreat allowed the California troops to reach the spring. After allowing his tired men to enjoy a meal, Capt Roberts returned to Capt Cremony's detachment to bring them up. The next morning the Apaches again returned. But as soon as the two mountain howitzers opened fire, they fled. Two of Captain Roberts men were killed and three wounded in the battle for the spring.

According to a report General Carleton on September 20, 1862: "From the hostile attitude of the Chiricahua, I found it indispensably necessary to establish a post in what is known as Apache Pass; it is known as Fort Bowie, and garrisoned by one hundred rank and file of the Fifth Infantry, California Volunteers, and thirteen rank and file of Company A, First Cavalry, California Volunteers; this post commands the water in that pass.

Around this water the Indians have been in the habit of lying in ambush, and shooting the troops and travelers as they came to drink. In this way they have killed three of Lieutenant-Colonel Eyre's command, and in attempting to keep Captain Roberts' company. First Infantry, California Volunteers, away from the spring a fight ensued, in which Captain Roberts had two men killed and two wounded. Captain Roberts reports that the Indians lost ten killed. In this affair the men of Captain Roberts' company are reported as behaving with great gallantry."

According to Capt. Cremony, a prominent Apache who was present in the engagement had said that sixty-three warriors were killed by the artillery, while only three died from small arms fire. He said, "We would have done well enough if you had not fired wagons at us." The howitzers being on wheels, were called wagons by the Apaches, who were unfamiliar with artillery tactics.

Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas himself was wounded in the action, receiving a bullet wound in the chest when attempting to kill one of Capt. Roberts' cavalry scouts. One day after the battle, on the New Mexico side of Apache Pass, the bodies of nine murdered and scalped white civilians were found. Becuas of that, General Carleton decided that it was necessary to establish a post at the pass to prevent settlers from being ambushed as they passed through it.

On July 4, the first units of the California Column reached Mesilla, New Mexico, along the Rio Grande. At the same time, the last remnants of the Confederate Army withdrew to Texas. The 5th California Infantry was ordered to build a fort in Apache Pass, calling it Fort Bowie in honor of their Colonel, George Washington Bowie.

General Carleton was placed in command of the Union Army's Department of New Mexico, and he continued to campaign against the hostiles in that area. When the California Column finally reached the Rio Grande River in August of 1862, the Confederate troops had retreated. General Carlton followed them into West Texas, capturing Franklin, Texas and advancing as far as Fort Quitman.

Because of the grit and bravery of the California Column, the vulnerability of the Union's gold supply and the subsequent threat of a Confederate invasion of California, as well as the threat to the Western territories, was effectively over.

Parts of the California Column were then scattered throughout the Southwest. Most of their service after that would be as garrisons in West Texas to prevent the return of the rebels. Their main activity for the remainder of the war was as garrisons of the settlements and forts in New Mexico Territory, and fought the Apaches, Navajo and other tribes.

While the focus has usually been on what took place back East, we need to acknowledge the bravery and endurance of the California Column who took the fight to the Confederates from the West and protected Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas from any further Confederate invasion. Our acknowledging their bravery and endurance is the least that we can do for those California volunteers.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Thanks for some of the history most Californians do not get in school.

  2. If I were California, I would have let the Confederates come into the state on the condition that they not steal anything or harm anybody. But then again, look what happened to Bakersfield.

  3. Great piece of history, thanks for taking the time to write it out!


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