Drum Barracks and Los Angeles Civil War History

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This morning, it was a great privilege to be part of a quartet of speakers sharing the remarkable story of Charles and William Jenkins, colorful brothers whose activities in greater Los Angeles were shared at the Drum Barracks, a City of Los Angeles historic park in Wilmington in a program co-sponsored by the Historical Society of Southern California.

Drum Barracks, a City of Los Angeles historic landmark in Wilmington, is the sole physical reminder of the Civil War years in greater Los Angeles and was the location this morning of a discussion about Charles Jenkins, the only Angeleno to fight for the Union Army during the war, and his amazing 1865 battlefield diary.

Among these episodes were William’s role in a near-riot in 1856 after he shot and killed a man during a civil serving process he undertook as a deputy constable; his role in a claim on Alcatraz Island; and his involvement in a violent 25-year land dispute dubbed the Castaic Range War, as well as Charles’ amazing diary, owned by the HSSC, of his service with the Union Army at the end of the Civil War in Virginia during 1865.

This presentation mirrored that given almost a month ago in Newhall and featured Louis DiDonato, author of a biography on Charles Jenkins; Wayne Sherman, vice-president of a support group for the Drum Barracks, and the owner of a remarkable collection of Charles Jenkins-related Civil War artifacts; Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society president Alan Pollack, who covered William Jenkins and his central role in the Castaic Range War; and me discussing the Jenkins diary and his brother’s involvement in the 1856 incident and the Alcatraz claim, which stemmed from a land grant in 1846 by Governor Pío Pico to William Workman, who then conveyed the island to his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple.  More on Alcatraz some other time on this blog!

Some of the amazing artifacts about Charles Jenkins and the Civil War owned by Wayne Sherman, one of this morning’s presenters.

The presentations went great and the audience of about twenty really seemed to enjoy the varied histories given.  Afterward, I took the opportunity to go on a guided tour of the Barracks led by Lizabeth Lopez.  It had been many years (over 25, probably) since I was at the Barracks and it was great to learn about the lives of enlisted men and officers at this Union outpost far from the theaters of battle during the Civil War, but still important as Los Angeles was brimming with Confederate sympathizers and there was concern over what they might do locally.

Consequently, Phineas Banning, whose imposing Greek Revival mansion was completed up the street from the barracks at the time the camp was in operation, used his influence to get Camp Drum, named for a San Francisco-based adjutant general, Richard C. Drum, established, though it did not last long.  Today, all that is left is the officer’s barracks, forming the museum now, and a brick weapons supply house a short distance away.

The first page of a very rare letter from 1864 by a soldier who, though he listed Los Angeles as the location, was almost certainly stationed at Camp Drum, now Drum Barracks.  The letter is in the Homestead’s collection.

The Homestead actually is fortunate to have in its collection, a very rare 1864 letter from a Union Army volunteer, Charles S. Wright, to a friend of his in Placer County in California’s gold country that most likely was written from Camp Drum, though Wright put “Los Angeles” above the date on the letter.

The missive, dated 31 July, doesn’t actually say anything about Camp Drum or Los Angeles.  It focuses mainly on the death of a friend’s brother in battle at Chickahominy in Virginia and the excitement going on with mining claims along the Colorado River on what later became the Arizona/California border.

The letter actually concerns news of a friend’s brother killed in a Virginia battle during the war and about mining opportunities along the Colorado River on what was then the border of California and New Mexico Territory (later Arizona), but it’s a highly uncommon artifact dealing with the military in Los Angeles during the Civil War years.

Wright was eagerly looking forward to his discharge after serving in Company B of the California 4th Volunteer Regiment and doing some mining before returning home to Foresthill, almost exactly due west of Lake Tahoe near the town of Auburn.

Still, the document is one of those objects relating to local Civil War history that are awfully hard to come by. Being at the Drum Barracks today was an opportunity to both recall this letter and refresh the understanding about Civil War-era Los Angeles.

2 thoughts

  1. Interesting, a group of us from Heritage Square Museum just visited the Drum Barracks and the Banning Museum 8 days ago…fun to see this!

  2. Hi Dana, yes, Drum Barracks is a very interesting landmark. Didn’t get over to Banning, which had a related display in its basement exhibit area, even though it’s been some years since the last visit. Some other time!

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