Sharing History with the Civil War Roundtable of Orange County: Charles M. Jenkins and His Postwar Years in Los Angeles, 1865-1933

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As series of posts here in early 2016 discussed, a remarkable circumstance occurred when, after being sequestered in a box held in storage by the Historical Society of Southern California, of which I was then a vice-president, for about a half-century, a pocket diary belonging to long-time Los Angeles resident, Charles M. Jenkins (1839-1933), emerged. This, however, wasn’t just your general journal, but happened to be the young man’s accounting of his service with the Union Army (Jenkins was the only Los Angeles resident to fight on the battlefield for the North) in the closing months of the Civil War and continuing until he returned home in September 1865.

Those aforementioned posts, along with and introduction and transcriptions published in the Society’s journal, Southern California History, in its summer, fall and winter issues in 2016, provide plenty of information and images of this amazing historic artifact, which was soon donated by the Society to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This post, coming after tonight’s presentation on Jenkins and his diary to the Civil War Roundtable of Orange County, summarizes the veteran’s postwar years in Los Angeles, spanning nearly seven decades before his death.

Los Angeles News, 23 September 1865.

The fact that Jenkins reached the age of 93 is remarkable given the immense amount of suffering he endured as a prisoner of war held in Confederate camps, including the notorious Andersonville in Georgia—in fact, it was reported that 150 men from his company who were captured, Jenkins was just one of three survivors when he was paroled in a prisoner exchange. In applying for a soldier’s pension, moreover, he cataloged in some detail the many ailments he suffered from his war service and, yet, he managed to live so long that, upon his passing, it was remarked that he was the oldest living person in the Angel City.

After coming back home, Jenkins was featured in the 23 September 1865 edition of the pro-Union Los Angeles News under the title of “HOME FROM THE WARS.” The paper recorded that it was glad to see the 26-year old back home “from the East, where he participated in the struggles which ended in the glorious triumph of our country.” Given that a significant number of greater Los Angeles residents were Southerners who supported the Confederate cause, this was hardly a majority opinion. The News, in its welcome home concluded, “Charley has had a hard time of it, but it does not seem to have dampened his ardor.”

Chares and Phoebe Jenkins, who were married the prior year, enumerated in the 1870 census at Los Angeles. Their neighbor, Simon B. Cox, lived with Jenkins in the census of 1860.

The end of the diary included the statement that Jenkins and his older brother, William, whose life was one filled with drama and controversy (more of which will be covered here in future posts), acquired some land on the eastern end of the Rancho San Antonio near the San Gabriel River (now the Río Hondo), but Charles quickly sold his interest to his brother and settled just the others side of the southern edge of Los Angeles, which was then not far below today’s Interstate 10.

For many years, he owned a tract that is today near the intersection of Broadway and 24th Street, not far northeast of the University of Southern California, and he raised Angora goats into at least the late 1870s, with his wife, Phoebe Sprague, achieving some local renown for the fine cloaks she spent months making and which won awards at agricultural fairs. Whether it was in recognition of his war service or because of past experience, Jenkins was appointed the deputy zanjero, or water overseer (the ditches which provided Angelenos with their water were a series of zanjas, tapping the Los Angeles River.) He then became the chief overseer and served in that position until the mid-1880s.

Reference to Jenkins being selected by a Common (City) Council committee as a deputy zanjero, or water overseer, Los Angeles Herald, 10 May 1878.

As the political pendulum moved from Democratic Party dominance to Republican Party supremacy in the 1880s, with this being aided mightily by the famed Boom of the Eighties that transformed the city and region, Jenkins, who worked for a time as a collector for the private Los Angeles Water Company, was able to secure some patronage, given his loyalty to the G.O.P. For most of the last years of the 19th century, Jenkins served as a federal district deputy marshal and occasional reports in Angel City newspapers provided information on his forays throughout southern California as he tracked down, arrested and brought back to Los Angeles suspected criminals wanted on federal charges.

Jenkins was not only continually involved in local Republican Party political circles, such as being a delegate to the county convention, but he was a founder, in 1878, and leader in the veterans’ group, the Grand Army of the Republic, comprised of Union soldiers from the Civil War. He had a special place as a marshal’s aide (as was Boyle Workman) in the visit of President Benjamin Harrison, who came to Los Angeles in 1891, perhaps because both men were veterans of the war but also natives of Ohio.

The Jenkinses at their property on Main Street near Adams Street at the south end of the city in the 1880 census.

When the threat of war between the United States and Great Britain loomed in 1895-1896 because of a dispute about the boundaries of Venezuela with British Guiana, now Guyana, United Senator Stephen M. White wrote to the Los Angeles Times that he was contacted by Jenkins, who offered to form a regiment to fight in South America, though White replied that it was unlikely, should a conflict arise, that “the ‘old boys’ would be aroused again,” but noted that veterans like Jenkins “could show the youngsters how to manage the affair.”

In 1897, Jenkins was a founding member, along with William H. Workman, of the Pioneer Society of Los Angeles County and he sometimes weighed in on the history of the Angel City, such as when he wrote a long letter to the Los Angeles Times concerning the fallacious claim that an adobe house was the Mexican War-era headquarters in the pueblo of John C. Frémont.

Reference to Jenkins as a federal deputy marshal, Herald, 28 March 1890.

By the time to the 20th century dawned, Jenkins was basically retired and had moved in the early Nineties to a home on the corner of Santee and 12th streets in what is now the LA Fashion District. Notably, it was observed that, because of the horrors of his imprisonment in the Confederate POW camps during the war, Jenkins was unable to sleep indoors, so had a special screened porch built on the upper floor of his dwelling so that he could sleep properly.

Jenkins and his wife were unable to have children so resorted on a couple of occasions to informally or formally adopting girls, though in the two known cases, this proved to be a subject of some public controversy and notoriety. In April 1891, it was reported that Emma Christian, a young woman who worked for about three years in the Jenkins home, was found to be pregnant and then suddenly died in childbirth following very soon after by the passing of the baby, with some reports seeming to suggest that Jenkins may have had something to do with Christian’s condition.

Reference to the Emma Christian mystery, Los Angeles Express, 1 May 1891.

He issued a lengthy statement for the newspapers laying out in detail what his version of the story, though some of this was disputed by a man who also employed the young woman but at a different time than what Jenkins related. Notably, when Christian became pregnant, Jenkins arranged for her to go Azusa and then, when he was in Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Fresno when she was ready to deliver the child, she told the woman from whom she rented the room that she would have money from her husband when he returned from the mountains. Yet, after a few days in the papers, the matter passed without further comment.

In 1916, however, it was revealed that Jenkins and his wife were embroiled in a nasty divorce in the courts and it was reported the following year that the two were probably the oldest litigants in the court system at that time, while the fact that they were married almost a half-century was also highlighted. It was noted that Phoebe and an adopted child, Lillian, also known as Gabriela, left the family home to live in Acton in the Antelope Valley near Palmdale and Lancaster, because of the teenager’s tuberculosis, but Jenkins did not want to move from Los Angeles and also stated his unhappiness with Phoebe’s decision to adopt a girl, when he wanted a boy, and that the young woman was also chronically ill.

Part of the coverage of the Jenkins divorce court battle, Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1916.

Phoebe filed for divorce, claiming that she was basically abandoned by Jenkins and, while he was said to have sent some money for her and Gabriela, she needed more from him for their subsistence, but he purportedly told his estranged spouse, “there will be no home-coming for you and your ingrate.” Beyond this, a judge had to order Jenkins to release some of Phoebe’s jewelry to her and, while he did not decree a divorce, he did oblige Jenkins to pay $40 monthly for support and suggested the aged veteran sell some apartments he owned and used the money for his subsistence, as well as providing the money for his wife and daughter. Jenkins, however, fought this, as well, claiming there was an attempt to send him to the National Soldiers’ Home at Sawtelle, as the matter dragged on for a few years.

During the court battle, Jenkins flatly stated, “I will never live with my wife again after this exposure” complaining that there was no reason for Phoebe to claim that she was abandoned by him—in fact, he countered that she left him in 1912. Incidentally, in October 1916, during this legal fracas, it was reported that Jenkins, before his capture during the war was “said to have shot [John S.] Mosby, the guerilla chief of the Confederate army,” Mosby having died just several months prior in May 1916.

Times, 7 October 1916.

Jenkins’ final years were lived in relative obscurity, though in November 1923, the 84-year old did address the Proximo Club on the topic of “Early Days in Los Angeles.” His death, not quite a decade later, occurred with his wife passed away early in Twenties, Gabriela dying in 1927, and Jenkins survived by another “adopted” daughter, Juanita Olivera, who was at the city’s orphan asylum in Boyle Heights before she went to live with Jenkins, likely not long after his wife and Gabriela went to Acton. Juanita, however, died a few years after Jenkins and her sister, Tadea Gagliano, appears to have inherited the diary, which upon her passing, within a short time of her sister’s, went to her son Clement, donor of the artifact to the Historical Society in 1954.

There is one other notable item connected with Jenkins’ post-war life to bring up—this being an article in the Los Angeles Herald from 26 December 1898, when patriotism following the Spanish-American War was still very pronounced. A group of county officials were reminiscing about instances that the American flag was important in their lives, when Jenkins, then serving as a deputy sheriff, spoke up about just such a time:

It was right after I got out of Andersonville prison, and I saw it on a gunboat in the river. I was on shore, and the rebels came up just then and took me in again, and as they carried me away I looked back, and I never saw the Stars and Stripes look brighter or more beautiful than when I saw no possible way of getting nearer to them.

At this, someone in the assemblage encouraged Jenkins to continue with his recollections and the Herald recounted that “it required some persuasion” because he was “not disposed to be personal in his story-telling,” but reluctantly agreed to carry on. When he mentioned that he enlisted with the Massachusetts cavalry unit, someone chimed in “oh, yes, I have heard that Jenkins was the only man who went out of Los Angeles county to fight in the war of the rebellion, at least on the union side.”

Times, 8 November 1923.

Jenkins noted that he joined a cavalry unit because he had no interest in any other part of the army, but then told the gent “you mustn’t bother me if you want to find out how I happened to get into that fix where the rebels bagged me.” He continued that when first seized by the Confederates, he was taken to Libby Prison at Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States of America, where he and he other non-officers were held in a tobacco house until it got too crowded.

That led to Jenkins’ transfer to Andersonville and he observed that “I didn’t much like the looks of the place when I got there, and I was always scheming how I could get away.” He dug a tunnel under some palisades and managed to make his way out and headed for the Union Army lines. He said he was about five miles away, after walking at night, before his absence was discovered but, feeling sure dogs would be sent to trace his scent, he waded in a stream and then found a spot on the shore to sleep until darkness.

Jenkins’ obituary, albeit with his first and middle names incorrectly stated, Times, 29 January 1933.

After several days of alternating moving through the watercourse and walking along it, Jenkins noted, he found a skiff, broke the lock keeping it ashore and, without paddles, had to allow the craft to be carried by the current, though he used a tree branch to provide some steering. At one point, the skiff hit a chain laid across the stream to prevent Union craft from getting too close to Confederate positions, but, as Jenkins was lifting the boat over, rebel soldiers appeared and began firing at him. While he hoped the skiff could carry him past the contingent, “foolishly I plunged into the river and swam ashore” and then ran inland, hoping to elude the pursuers and then make his way back to the watercourse.

Seeing, however, that it was daylight before he got back to the stream and he would easily be spotted, Jenkins broke into a barn and stole a horse and got back to where the stream met a larger river, where

There in the middle of the stream lay two gunboats, with the old Stars and Stripes floating in the gray of the morning, almost within reach, but just too far for me to get aboard before the squad came up which had been hunting for me . . . They grabbed me and wanted me to start right off with them to camp, but . . . I dropped right down there on the ground and told them they could carry me along with them or kill me on the spot if they wanted to . . . They cussed around, and kicked me, struck me with the butts of their muskets . . . but they finally gave it up and carried me away.

It was then, when more dead than alive, I looked back and saw the old flag waving there over the gunboats . . . But I lived to fight under the Stars and Stripes again after all, for not long afterwards I was exchanged and found my way back to the Massachusetts boys who had counted me as dead and never expected to see me again in this life.

Notably, Jenkins added that he was offered a commission as a colonel in a Black regiment, but noted “I refused it, preferring to stay with the men I knew and be contented with my shoulder straps,” that is, his current rank as corporal (he was mustered out as a sergeant.) After observing that he remained with his regiment until mustered out near Boston, Jenkins concluded, “whenever I see the old flag I think of the time it looked so good to me in the swamp along the banks of the river.”

Jenkins’ reminiscence of his near-escape from Andersonville Prison as related in the Herald, 26 December 1898.

As with his assertion that he shot Mosby at Gooding’s Tavern just before he was captured, Jenkins might have invented or expanded significantly on this story of his near-successful escape from the horrific Andersonville. Whatever happened with Emma Christian, his wife (who claimed he was never satisfied with her), and the other young women he “adopted,” Jenkins’ diary is a truly remarkable artifact of our regional history and it was a pleasure to share some of the story with the Civil War Roundtable of Orange County this evening.

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