Southern California and the Civil War:

Gold, Southern Sympathies and the Texas Threat

Many in Southern California Were Talking Revolt, and the Union Army Depot in Los Angeles Had Plenty of Guns and Ammunition. Only One Man Stood in Their Way. And What About The Confederate Troops Invading the Southwest? Would They Reach the City?

Sunday, August 31 2008 10:54   California
Confederate general escaping into the desert, Texas soldiers heading west to invade, a troop of California militia "going over" to kill Yankees, and a Confederate privateer planning to sail boldly into San Francisco Bay.

It's a story big enough only for Hollywood. And it's all true.
California's role in the American Civil War is often ignored or even dismissed by many who also overlook the entire scope of the Civil War as it played out in the West. After all, there were no battles between Union and Confederate Army forces fought in California.

Defining California's relevance by whether Union and Confederate troops ever shed blood in the state, however, misses its significance in the war. California contributed more than 17,000 volunteers to the Union Army; on a per capita basis, more than any other state. It also overlooks missed opportunities by the Confederacy to gain a foothold in California, a foothold that might have brought them victory, or at the very least a negotiated settlement.

Often overlooked in the equation is California's gold-and Nevada's silver-which helped President Abraham Lincoln pay for the war. According to the California State Military Museum, from 1861 through 1864 more than $173 million in gold and silver went east. In today's dollars we're talking about billions. The Confederacy had nothing like that to fund their war effort.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis was well aware of the potential impact of stopping the monthly gold shipments that sailed out of San Francisco Bay. It is reported that he said keeping the gold away from the Union "...would be more important than many victories in the field."

California was not solidly in the Union camp, and it had the divided politics and attitudes more like those found in one of the border states such as Missouri. There were many Southern sympathizers in California at the start of the Civil War. Many of the Anglo emigrants that settled in southern California, for example, came from Southern states.

To look at the relationship of California to the Civil War, one really must look at California as two separate states-northern California and southern California. In 1859 the California legislature approved dividing California into two, but with the Civil War looming nothing really became of the idea. With about 500 miles separating the state's two economic and cultural centers (San Francisco and Los Angeles), it is the best way to tell the story.

Southern California-The Path to Texas and the South

While there's simply too much of the southern California story to present in this article, a few key people, events and critical moments include:

These are just some of the key players in the Civil War struggle for Los Angeles and southern California. There are others, but usually they get lost in the overall telling of the fight between the Blue and the Gray.

One thing's for sure, however. If the South had been able to take control of at least southern California, the overall picture might have changed.

"Think about it," said Dan Sebby, director for the California State Military Museum. "Texas forces were outside of Yuma, and there was an active effort to get to southern California. If they had gotten there, it could have given the Confederacy a free port on the West Coast."

And just possibly a chance to go after the gold coming down from San Francisco.

The Drum Barracks in Los Angeles

Physically, there's not much left of the Civil War to see in southern California. Aside from a few scattered monuments and plaques, most of the Union Army's presence is long gone - torn down, burned or destroyed by time and the elements. One exception is a building leftover from what was Camp Drum, later known as the Drum Barracks.

It is one of only two remaining structures of a Union Army camp that included 18 buildings on a 60-acre site in Wilmington, not far from Los Angeles' harbor in San Pedro. (The other structure is the camp's powder magazine, located on private property a few blocks from the Drum Barracks, but is not available to the public for viewing.) In addition to Camp Drum, there was a large quartermaster's warehouse located on 37 acres near the harbor. That warehouse is long gone, too.

The Drum Barracks is operated by the City of Los Angeles' Parks and Recreation Department and is one of the finest Civil War museums in the West. The museum is housed in what was the old junior officers quarters, a two-story wooden structure that actually was two housing units separated by an interior hallway and a very long stairway.

The Drum Barracks Museum is divided into several rooms, including a parlor, an armory, a bedroom, a revolving display room, a model room and a library. Each room is packed with Civil War artifacts, photos, paintings, books, documents and furniture representative of the time.

The museum's director, Susan Ogle, has done a very credible job bringing the museum's collection up to first-class ranking.

"It's amazing how much we have here," said Ogle, as she guided us through the rooms and displays. "A lot of very unique things just come to us, gifts from people or their estates that we never knew about."

One such treasure is the Dunbar Autograph Book, a gift from the estate of Edwin Dunbar, Jr. It is a leather-bound autograph book that contains signatures gathered by Dunbar's great-grandfather, Captain G. Edwin Dunbar, between 1862 to 1916.

This remarkable piece of American history contains signatures from 50 Union generals, including Sherman, Hooker, Burnside, Meade, Custer and Sheridan; Presidents William Howard Taft, Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes; Admiral George Dewey; Confederate General J.B. Gordon, and celebrities such as Buffalo Bill Cody, William Jennings Bryan, actor Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth) and Helen Keller.

The contents of the book have been digitized and visitors to the museum can go to a computer where they can page through the autographs, bits of history, (such as a fragment of a star shot from the flag of the 13th Michigan Volunteer Infantry), and important background information.

"There is nothing else like it," Ogle said, "and it just simply came to us. That's the way we get many things, from donors who want their family's Civil War artifacts to be safe with us."

It's remarkable that the Drum Barracks is even still here. The building was due to be torn down in the early 1960s, but community groups successfully saved it. It was renovated and opened to the public in 1987 as a museum. The State of California owns the property, and the City of Los Angeles manages it and the museum.

The Drum Barracks Museum is located in a residential neighborhood, part of Los Angeles called Wilmington. If you're not familiar with the Wilmington/San Pedro harbor area, you'll need a map. You'll drive along a few residential streets, then all of a sudden, there it is.

"We have great neighbors who understand what we have here, a part of Los Angeles' heritage, and they support us," Ogle said.

Even with the ghosts?

"Well, we've been told by some of our neighbors that at night sometimes they've heard horses' hoofs and carriage wheels," she said. "And I've even heard a few things while I've been inside the building."

The Drum Barracks is real, however, something you can touch and feel that was a physical part of the American Civil War. Walk into a room, turn around a corner, and suddenly it's the 1860s.

To paraphrase the director, there's nothing else like it in Los Angeles.


Drum Barracks Civil War Museum

1052 Banning Blvd.
Wilmington, Californias 90717

(310) 548-7509

Operating Hours and Seasons:
The museum is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, with guided tours available on those days. A $5 donation per person is requested, and children under 12 are admitted at no charge. check the museum's Web site at for driving directions.


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