by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A poll released last week by the University of California-Davis Violence Prevention Research Program and the California Violence Research Center found that half of more than 8,600 Americans surveyed believed that a civil war was possible, with some 14% saying they strongly or very strongly felt this was likely and another 36% answering that they somewhat agreed with the possibility.
Divisions in our country are clearly alarming to a growing number of people and whether we can find ways to breach the widening gaps is a critical issue in coming years. Such chasms between Americans have probably not been experienced since the Civil War of 1861-1865 in which hundreds of thousands of people died on the Union (North) and Confederate (South) sides of a brutal campaign that, with time, was followed by a significant degree of reconciliation and healing, terrible as the human costs were.
The featured photo from the Museum’s holdings for this post is a 26 July 1894 cabinet card by Harry F. Rile of Santa Monica showing several dozen “Illinois Veterans” at the encampment in that city of the Southern California association of the Grand Army of the Republic, comprising veterans of the Union Army from the war. The G.A.R., as it was commonly known, was established the year after the conflict ended and it was very active for decades with national, state and regional gatherings, or encampments, providing opportunities for fellowship, remembrance, fun and mourning for those who died in service to the country.
Santa Monica was a particularly apt place to hold such an event, which lasted for ten days at the end of July and first day of August because it was near the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers, of which there were several in the country with this one opening a half-dozen years before. Additionally, the rapidly growing population of greater Los Angeles, including a large swath of new residents who came during the Boom of the 1880s that ended just about the time the facility was opened, brought many Union Army (and Confederate, as well) veterans to the region.
Dubbed “Camp Fort Fisher,” the encampment site was near the Santa Monica Polo Grounds, situated at Sixth and Nevada (now Wilshire Boulevard) streets and later the Santa Monica Country Club on the Miramar estate of Nevada (hence the name of the thoroughfare) United States Senator John P. Jones, founder of Santa Monica. When the town was established by him in 1875, one of its main pieces of infrastructure was the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, founded by the prior year with F.P.F. Temple as president and who became its treasurer when Jones bought the majority of the stock, took the executive chair. This ensured a branch line was built to his new seaside resort community before the main line to eastern California silver mines in Inyo County—though this latter was not completed as the state economy cratered in 1875-1876 and took down Temple’s bank, Temple and Workman.
On 24 July, that evening’s edition of the Los Angeles Express reported that, the prior day, “every train brought detachments of the old veterans, and before sunset every tent in Camp Fort Fisher—some 250—was occupied” and that this meant that “this will be the largest gathering in the history of the association. With the proceedings beginning on the 24th, it was noted that a veteran’s drum corps sounded the call to assemble at the main tent, where the camp commander, Sam Kutz, introduced Santa Monica’s mayor Juan José Carrillo, one of the very few Latinos in our region in a position of political authority in those days and whose son, Leo, was a famous actor and namesake of the nearby state beach, for a short speech.
Mayor Carrillo was followed by G.A.R. comrade Leroy D. Brown, who waxed eloquently on the host city, calling her “a happy princess of nineteen years” who was:
enthroned upon a plain of matchless fertility and beauty, her head veiled in the clouds and shaded by the mountain pines, her waist girdled by roses and jasmine from her own gardens of perennial bloom, her feet covered in becoming modesty with lace-like surf forever washing her footstool of sand . . .
Notably, Brown mentioned that 1894 was a time “of industrial stress and national peril,” a industrialization, concentration of wealth, a national depression, labor agitation and other conditions raised specters of class warfare due to a myriad of worker strikes, often meant with brute force, such as the infamous Pullman strike, which included sprees of violence and ended just a few days prior with a first-ever federal injunction against picketing workers. President Grover Cleveland, in fact, made Labor Day a national holiday in the midst of the agitation.
Brown suggested that Santa Monica constituted “the old guard of the constitution, as the advocates and supporters of a government of equal rights and equal opportunity for all our people” as we welcomed the G.A.R. veterans, who, some three decades before, were “the bravest of the brave” and “who in a great and just cause . . . bared your breasts to the storm and carried Old Glory through four years of death and danger to the final victory at Appomattox.”
Next was Kutz who thanked the W.R.C. or Women’s Relief Corps, an adjunct of the G.A.R., as well as the Sons of Veterans “for the kind assistance they have given us in building up this camp” and lauded the organizations for their endeavors “in teaching . . . that love of liberty which is necessary for the perpetuation of the Union.” He then introduced Colonel John Brooker of the G.A.R. Association, who thanked those Santa Monica residents who approached the organization early in the year with the offer to hold the encampment there.
Brooker observed that the veterans present were “in the flush of youth” some thirty years before and “filled with bright dreams of peaceful and happy futures” when “a spirit of dissension and destruction broke forth” and “red handed war stalked abroad in the land.” He noted that these fresh-faced young men put aside their hopes and plans “with hasty farewells and tearful goodbyes” as “they donned the habiliments of war and went forth to face the enemies of their country.”
Over the course of the four long years of battle, Brooker went on, these dedicated warriors “helped to conduct the greatest war that history records” and “during those years they underwent the toil and sweat of the march and the battle, the horror of the prison pen, of wounds, the humiliation of defeat, [and] the exaltation of victory.” In the postwar period, he continued,
with the same courage which animated them at the front they re-entered the arena of civil life, an since then have devoted their energies toward building up and increasing the grandeur of the country they fought so nobly to save.
Brooker added that in attendance at the encampment were those who served in every Army corps, squadron and regiment from every state in the Union and who participated in all battles, on land and sea, that were part of what was popular called the “War of the Rebellion.” On behalf of his compatriots, the orator thanked Santa Monica for its “royal welcome” and expressed the hope that participants would recall the event “as a green oasis in the desert of life.”
A letter was read by General William S. Rosecrans, known as “Old Rosy,” whose successes with the Army of the Cumberland were dashed by the humiliation of the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863 and his reassignment away from direct fighting. In 1869, Rosecrans bought a large portion of the Rancho Sausal Redondo and established a ranch near today’s Vermont Avenue and Rosecrans Boulevard. Though he lived in the Bay Area for some years, he subdivided much of his ranch for the Boom of the Eighties town of Rosecrans.
While Rosecrans was asked to come to the encampment, he sent his missive, dated the 19th from Los Angeles, to explain that “my physician’s instructions to avoid all over-exertion and fatigue in my present state of health” prevented him from accepting and “to meet the gallant comrades who faced unflinchingly the dangers of those days of conflict over thirty years ago.” The general sent his regards and “the wish that you may enjoy many such peaceful reunions in this chosen land of sunshine, and be ready as ever to rise to the call of duty when hostile spirits, at home or abroad, assail the institutions and liberties of our great Republic.” Of course, war did break out again, albeit under a specious pretext with the Spanish-American War in 1898 just before Rosecrans‘ death at his ranch.
In its “Bugle Notes” on the 24th, the Los Angeles Herald reported that the following Saturday, the 28th, was “Santa Monica Day” and a parade to be held in town (other special days including one for Los Angeles, another for the Sons of Veterans and one honoring the W.R.C.); that Professor Fred Elsen, the music director, was readying his band for performances throughout the ten days; that a $10 reward was offered for anyone caught stealing bunting, decorations and flags; that an 800 square-foot pavilion with a stage would offer entertainment and camp fires; and that “Buckskin Joe,” who served in four wars and had scars from 14 wounds along with a raft of medals had a tent on “Grant Avenue” (there were several such “streets” named for American military heroes.)
Another notable feature of the encampment was the occasional court-martial, one of the many light-hearted aspects of the event. On the 26th, for example, Comrade A.J. Buckles of Solano County in the northern part of the state, stood “accused of the heinous crime of having made away with a ‘yaller-legged pullet,'” that is, a chicken. With a judge appointed for the proceeding, evidence was entered including the deceased animal, the gun and the exploded cartridge, while Buckles “tried to establish an alibi, but broke down completely” and claimed the chicken was his. He then claimed that he was “deaf in one eye” and “couldn’t see in the dark,” but then added that he “was never near enough to the colored population to learn the subtle art of chicken-snatching when the moon went behind the clouds.” Obviously, Black veterans were not likely invited to these events and racism ran as rampant at the encampments as elsewhere in society at large.
It turned out that the largest contingent of representatives at the encampment in terms of the home state of the veterans was those who hailed from Illinois and were those (at least, a good number of them) who were captured in the photo featured here. The Los Angeles Times of the 27th reported that “the Illinois corps, which has perfected a permanent organization” elected its officers for the next year including a president and a secretary/treasurer. About 80 men were listed, some residing at the National Soldiers home (in what was long called Sawtelle and now the Veterans Administration campus in Westwood) and others from all over the region, including Orange County, the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley and more.
The photo shows about 65 individuals, with most likely in the 40s though some appeared to be considerably older and it can be imagined that a few were in their seventies. One was standing with a large flag and another with a bass drum, and the group appeared to be on the polo field with a row of trees, perhaps eucalyptus in the background. It was reported that the next largest state grouping at the encampment was that of veterans from Iowa, who numbered about 60 and the Times observed that “the camp was successfully photographed just before dress parade” on the evening of the 26th.
The final day of the encampment was on the 1st of August and one of the last of the comic court-martials was visited upon the quartermaster, “who was accused of having taken a bath” at some point during the ten days of the event. The Times reported that the evidence was scanty, especially because “it was shown that the use of water in any form was against the traditions of his family for the last 1500 years,” but the jury determined, circumstantially, “that it was impossible for any one to remain at Santa Monica for a week and resist the temptation to bathe, and he was therefore found guilty.” When the sentence was handed down and the convicted men held out his hat, a gold watch-chain and charm were deposited in it as thanks for his work during the encampment and he was ordered to wear it at all G.A.R. functions.
The photo is a great early visual representation from the Homestead’s collection of Los Angeles-area veterans, from the G.A.R. or otherwise, and also of one of the many encampments held by the organization and like ones over the years in greater Los Angeles.