Monday, December 2, 2019

The California Column 1861- 1865

The following was written by Lieutenant George H. Pettis, Commander, Company K, 1st Regiment of Infantry, California Volunteers, 1861 to 1865:

Immediately after the first battle of Bull Run on July 24, 1861, Governor John G. Downey received from the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, a communication which said: "The War Department accepts, for three years, one regiment of infantry and five companies of cavalry to guard the Overland Mail Route from Carson Valley to Salt Lake City and Fort Laramie."

This was the first official action towards organizing troops in California, and it required but a short time to raise the required number of men, and as fast as the companies were mustered in at the Presidio, near San Francisco they were transported across the bay to Camp Downey in present day Oakland.

The First California Volunteer Infantry and five companies of the First Cavalry were being well drilled and disciplined at Camp Downey when the news was received at Department Headquarters that Secessionists in the southern part of the state were becoming turbulent and more outspoken, and on September 17th General Sumner ordered Colonel Carleton's command to Southern California.

The First Infantry, under Colonel James H. Carleton since July 26, 1861, and the First Cavalry, under Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin F. Davis, arrived at San Pedro and marched some eighteen miles north to lay out a camp for fifteen companies near a small creek, Ballona Creek in present-day Culver City. They named it "Camp Latham" in honor of one of the California senators. When the order came for regular Army troops to transfer to the East Coast, Major Edwin A. Riggs of the First California Infantry was sent with several companies to replace those leaving Fort Yuma. Other regulars from Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego were soon assembled at San Pedro for shipment to New York.

On the 20th of October, 1861, General Sumner was replaced as commander of the Department of California by Colonel George Wright of the Twelfth U.S. Infantry. Colonel Sumner, shortly thereafter, was drowned on his way to take command of the Department of Oregon when the steamer "Brother Jonathan" sank off the mouth of the Columbia River.

On November 20th, Colonel Carleton was called to San Francisco to take command of California troops heading east by the overland route through Salt Lake City. But these orders were superseded when news was received of the successful invasion of New Mexico and Arizona by a force of Texans under Confederate General H.H. Sibley. Within a few days, Wright and Carleton developed a plan to proceed with a command through Arizona and attack Sibley on his flank and rear. General Wright submitted this plan to the War Department on December 9, 1861, and received immediate approval from General McClellan.

It was decided that Fort Yuma, on the California side of the Colorado River, should be the jumping off point for the expedition, and advance units were sent with all promptitude to prepare for the increased activity which would take place in a few months, and to strengthen its defenses in case Confederates arrived there before the main force of California Volunteers.

A small camp at Warner's Ranch (near present Warner's Springs), named Camp Wright, was enlarged to serve as an intermediate supply and staging point halfway between Wilmington and Fort Yuma. Supplies started moving forward, both by Phineas Banning's teams across the desert and by steamship to the head of the Gulf of California and then up the Colorado by river steamboats of the Colorado River Navigation Company.

The "California Column" originally consisted of ten companies of the First California Infantry, five companies of the First California Cavalry, one company of the Second California Cavalry and Light Battery A of the Third U.S. Artillery. This command contained 1500 men, well drilled, well disciplined, and eager to show what stuff they were made of. Later on, Lieutenant Colonel George W. Bowie's Fifth California was added, bringing the total strength to 2350 rank and file. 

It should be pointed out here that never did the entire column move as one unit. Advance parties, some quite large, were sent ahead to scout, to strengthen fortifications at camping points, and to collect what food and forage was available for the large groups to follow. Another reason for breaking the column into smaller units was to conserve the water supply at springs and water holes, many of which only had enough water for a few hundred men with their mounts and mule teams at one time.

Before these advance movements and training of the California troops were being made, Union forces in New Mexico under the command of General Canby had not fared well. Confederate Colonel John R. Baylor had arrived in New Mexico, proclaimed him self Provisional Governor of New Mexico and Arizona, and started up the Rio Grande on July 1, 1861.

On July 25th, Major Isaac Lynde, 7th U.S. Infantry, in command of Fort Fillmore, about three miles east of Mesilla, proceeded to attack Baylor's "Second Texas Rifles", a partial regiment of less than 300 poorly armed men. After a weak assault with his more than 500 well equipped and armed troops headed by capable officers, Lynde ordered a retreat to the adobe walls of Fort Fillmore with three men killed and four wounded.

On the 27th, Lynde attempted to start a march to Fort Stanton, some one hundred miles to the northeast to escape the "superior" Rebel army. He was overtaken by the Texans before he had gone fifteen miles and surrendered without firing a shot. Further Union setbacks followed Lynde's surrender.

A major battle at Valverde on February 21, 1862, between General Canby's 2500 New Mexico volunteers and a force of 3000 Confederates under General H.H. Sibley, who had replaced Colonel Baylor, resulted in a victory for the Texans. After the Union troops retreated behind the thick adobe walls of Fort Craig, Sibley continued his march north. Albuquerque and Santa Fe surrendered with little resistance, marking the high water mark of Confederate operations.

A Union force made up of Colorado volunteers under Colonel J.P. Slough, with some regular U.S. troops from Fort Lyon and Fort Union won a major victory at Apache Canyon and Glorieta, a few miles east of Santa Fe. In three days of fighting, the Union forces had 25 killed, 64 wounded and 30 missing; Confederate losses were 82 killed, 155 hounded and 96 taken prisoner. This fight, from March 25th to 28th, was the last major combat in New Mexico.

Sibley started his long retreat back to Texas, aware that any delay would find him trapped between the Colorado troops to the north, General Canby with a still effective force at Fort Craig and the Californians approaching from the west. Sibley reached Fort Bliss at Franklin, now El Paso, late in April.

About this time, General Sibley ordered a Confederate company under Captain Sherod Hunter to proceed west through Tucson and then along the Gila River as far as Yuma if possible, the same route which would be used by the California Column on their way to the Rio Grande. At White's Mills, near the Pima Villages,about twenty miles south of present Phoenix, Captain Hunter met and captured a scouting party under Captain William McCleave and nine men of his A Company. 

When this news got back to Fort Yuma, a larger party under Captain William Calloway was dispatched along the same route with orders to find and free Captain McCleave and his men. Calloway reached the Pima Villages, the main supply point between Fort Yuma and Tucson, with no sign of the rebels other than a number of burned haystacks, and after a short rest , set out for 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, First Infantry were ordered to make a wide detour to strike them on the flank, while Calloway would make a frontal attack with the main party. After traveling several miles, Calloway heard firing on his front and soon came upon a bloody scene. Barrett had found and attacked the rebel pickets, and in the short encounter, had been killed along with Privates George Johnson and William Leonard. 

Two other Union soldiers were wounded. One Confederate was killed, four were wounded, three were taken prisoner and one of the nine pickets escaped. This "battle" between fewer than a dozen troops on each side was the only time that members of the "California Column" engaged Confederate troops in combat. The graves of Lieutenant Barrett and his men may be seen within twenty feet of the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad as it goes through Picacho Pass.

Captain Calloway returned to 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 by the rebels a few weeks before. This earth work was named "Fort Barrett" in honor of their comrade. It required several weeks for the main elements of the "Column" to get to Pima Villages, as only detachments of less than four companies could move over the desert routes within twenty four hours of each other because of the scarcity of water. 

On the 15th of May, Colonel West and his advance detachment moved out of the Pima Villages for Tucson, going through the "Casa Grandes" and Rattlesnake Springs to old Fort Breckenridge (later named Fort Grant), where the American flag was run up again on the flagstaff of the fort amid the hurrahs of the men and the field music playing "The Star Spangled Banner".

The command camped that night in the "Canon de Oro". The next day, May 19th, a short march of fifteen miles was made, and the party encamped within ten miles of Tucson. An early reveille on the morning of the 20th, and the command moved forward with a light step. When it had arrived within two miles of the town, Captain Emil Fritz, Company B, 1st Cavalry, was ordered take his first platoon to make a detour and come in on the east side of the town; the second platoon, under Juan Francisco Guirado, was to charge in on the north side, while the four companies

of infantry were to come in on the road from the west. The three parties arrived at the plaza at the same moment, the cavalry at the charge and the infantry at the double quick, but found no enemy. The rebels, before they left, had publicly announced that the "Abs" (abolitionists ?) would soon take the fair city, which would then be given over to the ravages of a brutal soldiery, and the population, mostly Mexican, had started southward for the Sonora line.

Good quarters were found for the troops, who would be in Tucson for the next two months, until July 20th, while the "Column" was being assembled here, with food and forage enough to start on the final leg to the Rio Grande, still almost 250 miles away. Everything, except for a small quantity of wheat which was purchased from the Pima Indians,was brought by Banning's teams from Southern California. Military equipment and supplies came from the Wilmington Depot after arriving there by ship. No forage or food could be had in or about Tucson, and the hearty appetites of the thousands of young Californians consumed the rations nearly as fast as the wagon trains arrived.

No news had been received from the Rio Grande since the column had commenced its march from California. Several express parties had been sent forward to open communications with General Canby, but none had ever returned. On June 15, 1862, Sergeant William Wheeling of Company F of the 1st Infantry, expressman John Jones, and a Mexican guide named Chaves left Tucson with dispatches for General Canby. 

It was afterwards learned that this party was attacked by Apache Indians at Apache Pass, about seventy five miles east of Tucson, on June 18th. Chaves was killed by the first exchange of shots and Sergeant Wheeling was seriously wounded, falling off his horse and being dispatched. 

Both bodies were found badly mutilated later. Jones escaped by a miracle, and after a ride of over 200 miles, he reached the Rio Grande at a point five miles above Mesilla. He was taken prisoner by the rebels, who still held Mesilla. He was taken before Colonel Steele, the Confederate commander, who questioned him, took his dispatches, and threw him in jail. But he managed to get word to General Canby that he was there, and that the "California Column" was really coming. How he did it is still not clear.

On the 21st of June, a strong reconnoitering party of cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Eyre left Tucson. After a hard march, they arrived at Fort Thorn on the Rio Grande about seventy miles above present El Paso, on July 4th. It had been abandoned by the rebels. Eyre was reinforced by a squadron of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry, and would have attacked the rebels at Mesilla, but was forced to forego that pleasure by peremptory orders from Colonel Chivington of the 1st Colorado Volunteers at Fort Craig, who under General Canby's orders was in command of the southern military district of New Mexico. 

Meanwhile, Colonel Steele greatly feared he would be overtaken by the California troops, and in his hurried retreat burned a number of his wagons and destroyed a large amount of ammunition. The rebel forces were so disheartened by their defeats upriver and weakened by loss of supplies that had they been attacked by even a small force, they would have surrendered at once.

On July 9th Captain Thomas L. Roberts with his Company E of the 1st Infantry and Captain Cremoney's Company B of the 2nd Cavalry and with two mountain howitzers under the command of Lieutenant William A. Thompson,left Tucson for the Rio de Sauze (probably today's San Simeon River), where they were to establish a camp, having rations and forage for Colonel Eyre's command in case they were forced back by the Texans. 

When this command reached Apache Pass (now Fort Bowie), they were attacked by a large force of Apache warriors under the leadership of "Cochise". After a stubborn contest, the Indians were forced to retire with a loss of nine killed, while the troops suffered a loss of two killed and two wounded.

On July 20th, Colonel West left Tucson for the Rio Grande with five companies of infantry. On the 21st, Captain Edward P. Willis left with two companies of infantry and Battery A of the 3rd U.S. Artillery. On the 23rd, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin A. Rigg, with a third command consisting of five companies of the 1st Infantry followed. Each of these detachments had subsistence for thirty days, with a full supply of entrenching tools. 

Up to the time of arrival of the troops at Tucson, the infantry had carried their full fifty pound packs the entire march, a notable achievement considering the nature of the country through which they had marched in woolen uniforms, and the fearful heat and thirst they had encountered.

General Orders, No. 10, Headquarters of the Column from California, dated Tucson, July 17th, 1862, contained the following paragraph: 

That every soldier may move forward with a light, free step, now that we approach the enemy; he will no longer be required to carry his knapsack. 

General Carleton, with headquarters of the "California Column" arrived at Fort Thorn on August 7th, 1862, and immediately communicated with General Canby. The balance of the column arrived on the Rio Grande in detachments as they had left Tucson, one day apart, and by the 15th, Mesilla was made the headquarters of the district of Arizona. The Southern Overland Mail Route had been opened and the and the United States military posts in Arizona, New Mexico and Northwestern Texas had been reoccupied by troops composing the "California Column".

On the 18th of September, 1862, General Carleton assumed command of the Department of New Mexico, General Canby having been ordered east by the War Department. The "Column" was soon distributed throughout the Department, and active operations commenced against the hostile Indians, the Apaches and the Navajos. Three days after his appointment, Carleton issued the following order:

Headquarters of the Department of New Mexico,
Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 21st, 1862

Gen. Orders No. 85

In entering upon the duties that remove him from immediate association with the troops constituting the "Column from California", the Commanding General desires to express his grateful acknowledgement of the conduct and services of the officers and men of that command. Traversing a desert country that had heretofore been regarded as impracticable for the operations of large bodies of troops, they have reached their destination and accomplished the object assigned them, not only with out loss of any kind, but improved in discipline, in morale, and in every other element of efficiency. That patient and cheerful endurance of hardships, the zeal and alacrity which they have grappled with, and overcome obstacles that would have been insurmountable to any but troops of the highest physical and moral energy, the complete abregation of self and subordination of every personal consideration to the great object of our hopes and efforts give the most absolute assurance of success in any field or against any enemy. California has reason to be proud of the sons she has sent across the continent to assist in the great struggle in which our country is now engaged. The Commanding General is requested by the officer who preceded him in the command of this department, to express for him the gratification felt by every officer and soldier of his command at the fact that troops from the Atlantic and Pacific slope, from the mountains of California and Colorado, acting in the same cause, inspired by the same duties, and animated by the same hopes, have met and shaken hands in the center of this great continent.

Brigadier General U.S. Volunteers, 

-- end of article by Lieutenant George H. Pettis.

So what can I add to this? 

Well, first let's not confuse the California Column which went South and pushed the Confederates out of Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas with the "California Hundred" who was officially designated as Company A Second Massachusetts Cavalry. The California Hundred were made up of Easterners who arrived in California during the Gold Rush but returned East to fight for the Union. They fought in a number of battles in the East during the war.

And now, let's talk about Camp Downey. In July of 1861, the War Department requested that California's Governor Downey immediately raise a force of volunteers for infantry and cavalry. Their primary mission was to protect the overland stage and mail route between the Sierras and the Rockies; to repel Confederate incursions by land and sea; and to safeguard gold shipments coming out of the California gold country. What some might not realize is that California's gold was a key factor in bankrolling the Union's war effort.

By 1859, Fort Alcatraz was already established by the U.S. Army as a coastal fortification on Alcatraz Island near the mouth of San Francisco Bay. It was part of the Third System of fixed fortifications. But since it was an island, it was very different from most other Third System works such as Fort Pulaski which also belonged to the Third System of coastal fortifications. Third System coastal fortifications were characterized by greater structural durability. Since Alcatraz is an island, it was that without needing the robust earth works used in other Third System forts. 

After it's completion in 1859, besides acting as a coastal battery, Fort Alcatraz was also used for mustering and training recruits -- including in 1861 during the start of the Civil War. It was also used later as a long-term military prison, but we can talk about that on another day. 

At the outbreak of the Civil War, recruits wanting to sign up for the Union were plentiful in Northern California. While Fort Alcatraz was initially used for new enlistees, it saw a reduction in recruit training because two other training camps were established in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both of the other two were located in Oakland, in the east side of San Francisco Bay. The first was established in 1861. It was for infantry training and designated as Camp Downey. The second was used for cavalry training in 1863. It was designated Camp Merchant.

Camp Downey overlooked Lake Merritt in the present day city of Oakland. And though Camp Downey was established on August 31st, 1861, by September 15th, 1st Infantry Regiment, California Volunteers, Companies A, B, C, E, G, and H left there and marched to Southern California. I really believe the 1st Infantry Regiment, California Volunteers, marched the more than 350 miles to Los Angeles because of the secession crisis in that area.

While Northern California was definitely in the hands of the Union, Southern California had an extremely vocal group of Southerners who wanted to spit the state and join the Confederacy. All were Southern transplants who came West during the California Gold Rush, but still had loyalties to the South and subsequently the Confederacy. Imagine what would have happened if those Southern Californians actually split the state of California and did in fact secede from the Union?

My belief is that the war would not have been primarily fought in the East, and it's not too outlandish to say the war's Pacific Coast Theater would have seen extended fighting. Keep in mind that major operations in the Pacific Coast Theater included the Pacific Ocean and in the States and Territories west of the Continental Divide. Because the secessionist movement in Southern California was seen as a wildfire that needed extinguishing immediately, I believe that was the reason that 1st Infantry Regiment, California Volunteers, marched south to Los Angeles as quickly as it did after forming. 

In Southern California, there were a number of pro-Confederacy groups including the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles and various chapters of the Knights of the Golden Circle. If we look at the history and agenda of the Knights of the Golden Circle, it's not hard to see which side they preferred. That group dedicated itself to annexing parts of Mexico so they could increase the number of slave states in the United States.

As for Lieutenant George H. Pettis who wrote the article, he was 73 years old when he did so. The year was 1907, and by then he was close to retiring after a career as a state inspector of weights and measures in Rhode Island. His age may have been the reason for his mistake regarding who drowned as a result of the wreck of the steamer Brother Jonathan off the California coast.

Contrary to what Lt. Pettis stated, it was in fact Brigadier General George Wright who drowned. In fact, as a result of the Brother Jonathan's wreck, General Wright and his wife both died at sea while they were en route to San Francisco to assume his new command.

After years of service, in 1861, the ship's third owner started the steamer Brother Jonathan on the northward route from San Francisco to Vancouver via Portland. This allowed miners and prospectors to work the Salmon River Gold Rush and get their gold to the mint in San Francisco. It is interesting to note that that the Brother Jonathan had a reputation as being one of the finest and fastest steamers on the Pacific Coast. It was known to make the run from San Francisco to Vancouver via Portland in sixty-nine hours. That's each way which is a feat when considering the currents work against ships going north. 

On July 30th, 1865, the paddle steamer Brother Jonathan struck an uncharted reef near Point St George right off the coast of Crescent City, California. According to sources, the steamer was carrying passengers, crew, and a large shipment of gold coins. Of the 244 passengers and crew, only 19 survived. Because 225 people are believed to have died, the wreck of the Brother Jonathan was one of the worse shipwrecks of that time on the Pacific Coast of the United States. 

General Wright's body was recovered six weeks later. He is interred in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery. Later, Fort George Wright, located near Spokane, was named in his honor.

From 1862 to 1864, the California Column fought the Confederacy and later took on the Apaches. It was tough duty and skirmishes were hard going. Among the problems they faced was simply not knowing the terrain as well as the Apache. That's especially true when it came to the location of water. Though that was the case, they endured and prevailed against an enemy more adapt to the conditions of the land. It should be noted that the California Column fought both Apaches and Navajos, as well as escorted settler wagon trains all the way to Fort Dodge, Kansas, where they maintained the peace for at least three years.

Why only three years? The nine companies of the 1st California Volunteer Infantry and the five original companies of the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry were discharged in August and September of 1864, because that was their EAS, the end of their obligated enlistment. As is the case today when troops get to the end of their enlistment, not all go back to where they came from. Things were no different back in the day. Many who were members of the California Column returned to their homes in California, but many remained in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Kansas after their enlistment was up.

As for Lieutenant George H. Pettis, he mustered out while stationed at the unit's headquarters in Santa Fe, New Mexico when the California Column was deactivated. That was February 15th, 1865. The official date of deactivation for the California Column.

Tom Correa


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  3. I think there's a reenactment group out of Hayward, California that reenacts the history of the California Column and celebrates "California Days". Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's what I heard.


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