Reading Between the Lines with a Rare Civil War-Related Letter from Los Angeles, 31 July 1864

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A previous post on this blog concerning the Drum Barracks historic site in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington made brief reference to the highlighted artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post, a 31 July 1864 letter written by Private Charles S. Wright of Company B, 4th California Infantry, Union Army to Peter Bequette of Forest Hill, a gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.

Wright’s unit was quartered at what was then known as Camp Drum, situated in Wilmington near the rudimentary harbor and the residence, completed that year, of the hamlet’s founder Phineas Banning, who also was instrumental in the Union Army’s presence there during the Civil War. This was because southern California was truly Southern as sympathy for the Confederate cause was so strong that the government in Washington gave orders for the creation of state volunteer regiments to be deployed in California and elsewhere on the Pacific Coast during the conflict.

Charles S. Wright’s listing a a miner at Forest Hill, Placer County, California in that county’s 1861 directory.

In fact, there were many residents of greater Los Angeles who left to fight for the Confederate Army, some from militias who took their state-issued weapons with them, while there was but one lone Angeleno who enlisted with a Massachusetts cavalry unit at San Francisco and fought for the Union side—this being Charles M. Jenkins, whose brother, William, was, in July 1856, the principal figure in the killing of a Latino man that had potentially grave consequences for local race relations and who later was a confidant of the Temple family.

Unfortunately, little could be found about Wright, who was a resident of Forest Hill and appeared in the Placer County Directory for 1861 when he enlisted on 12 September with the newly organized Fourth Regiment. Most of the regiment was sent north to Fort Vancouver, now in the city of that name in Washington state across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, where there was also strong Confederate support. After four months, it was moved to Fort Dalles, on the Oregon side of the river about 85 miles east and remained there until October 1862.

Wright, listed as #7 among “Enlisted Men ‘Casually At Post” at Camp Latham, in what is now Culver City, west of Los Angeles, in a “post return” report from June 1862, when he was “sent with the Owens River Expedition as teamster.”

The next stop was Benicia, the former California state capital not quite 40 miles northeast of San Francisco, where the regiment stayed through March 1863 when orders were issued for it to move south to the headquarters of the District of Southern California at Camp Drum. Some companies, however, were placed in other locations, including Company B, which included Wright as a teamster. For at least most of 1862 and likely until the rest of the regiment came south, Company B was stationed at Camp Latham, situated along Ballona Creek on the edge of the Baldwin Hills in what is now Culver City (a little more than a decade later, this would be part of the Centinela townsite, of which F.P.F. Temple was president.)

In June, for example, a “post return” form for Camp Latham, under the command of Colonel Ferris Freeman, included Wright listed as “a teamster on “sent with the Owens River Expedition as teamster.” The 11 June edition of the Los Angeles Southern News reported that “the expedition . . . against the Owens’ river and other hostile bands of Indians in that vicinity, will leave Camp Latham tomorrow,” though it was added that “a number of the transportation wagons,” these including Wright, “left town on yesterday.”

Los Angeles News, 11 June 1862. The paper was a pro-Union one, in contrast to the Star, which supported the South.

Demonstrating much of the views towards the indigenous people of California, the paper expressed the hope that the incursion would “rid the country of the pests which now infest Coso and other mining districts in that vicinity.” On the other hand, the article also opined that “white men, who may possibly be found, have been the cause of the existing difficulty, should be made to feel the utmost rigor of the law.” Two days later, the paper reiterated the need to “keep [the Indians] in check” and also mentioned “the late discoveries of gold placers on the Colorado [River]” and the importance of establishing military posts to protect mining areas from the natives.

In fact, much of the operations of Union Army forces in the Southwest during the Civil War concerned conflicts with native Americans, although there was certainly no shortage of concern about Southern sympathizers in greater Los Angeles, including small encampments and expeditions to places like El Monte and San Bernardino. Once the 4th Infantry was centered at Camp Drum, its presence was also felt at community events in Los Angeles, including Independence Day celebrations, Union election rallies and others, with the regimental band taking a prominent place in such activities.

News, 27 February 1863.

As for mining, it was hardly a surprise than an experienced prospector like Wright would be drawn toward work being conducted in places where he was sent for duty, whether it was the Owens River Valley (where F.P.F. Temple would be heavily involved, though to the extent that it was financially a problem, at Cerro Gordo silver mines) or along the Colorado, where gold, silver and copper were actively sought. In this latter region, on both the San Bernardino County side in California and on the eastern bank in the Arizona Territory, there were such districts as the Irataba, named for the powerful chief of the Mohave Indians.

Los Angeles, following the earliest discovery of gold in March 1842 at the west end of the San Gabriel (then the Sierra Madre) Mountains at Placerita Canyon—and from which F.P.F. Temple procured gold dust to sell at the national mint in Philadelphia—and then being the center of beef cattle trade during the Gold Rush of 1849 to about 1855, readily embraced all of the real or idealized mining rushes that followed. This included San Gabriel Canyon north of the Homestead, as well as throughout the desert regions of Inyo and San Bernardino counties, and in Arizona.

News, 22 May 1863. These resolutions thanked Army personnel, including from Wright’s Company B, 4th Infantry, for aid in the Ada Hancock steamship explosion at Wilmington. Included among those killed in the disaster was Thomas H. Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste and chief clerk for Phineas Banning. “C.V.” means “California Volunteers.”

So, when Wright wrote his missive to Bequette, an Indiana native and miner who remained at Forest Hill until his death in 1914, it is somewhat disappointing that there is virtually nothing recorded about his military duties, though the majority of the content concerning mining along the Colorado does have relevance for greater Los Angeles because of the great interest locals took in prospecting in that region. Calling Bequette “Posey,” Wright acknowledged receipt of a letter of 3 July and noted that he waited to answer until he’d seen a man named Oliver “for I am stationed in Los Angeles with the Mustering Officer (Capt. Fitch).”

What this likely meant is that, as the 4th Infantry was about to be mustered out (disbanded), perhaps because the tide of the war was turning towards Union victory and it was felt that the regiment was no longer needed. Wright was providing some assistance to Captain Jesse Ives Fitch, who enlisted at Forest Hill three months after Wright and remained in the service until early February 1865. Wright then added that Oliver had a dual stroke of devastating news as his father died, followed by the killing of a brother at the Battle of Cold Harbor (the letter called it the Battle of Chickahomany [meaning, the Chickahominy River) in Virginia in early June.

Los Angeles Star, 30 January 1864. The pro-Confederate paper did not, of course, cover much of the Union Army’s activities like its competitor.

Respecting what Bequette told him about the fact that “Forest Hill [was] such a dull place,” Wright expressed surprise about this, but then observed that ” the old Roughs are down in this vicinity” before reporting that a friend or acquaintance was in Los Angeles from the Colorado for about a month. When informed by Bequette that he was working for wages but “yet realized nothing,” Wright told his friend, “Posey, a man working for wages is almost sure of making a decent living,” but noted “if anything more he must deny himself of all luxury in this world.”

Turning to the matter at hand, Wright informed Bequette that he had power of attorney for him and Fisher Follensbee, another long-time miner from their part of California, for a claim in the Irataba district, but nothing had been happening “for all he owners are soldiers, but will commence work about the middle of October next.” This was clearly because of the expected mustering out of the Fourth Regiment, which took place early in that month, and Wright continued,

You state you wish me to let you know where I shall be after my discharge and in reply I will mention that Oliver and myself will be in San Francisco about the 20th of September next and from there will proceed to Fort Mojave for the purpose of opening our Copper Claims. If Posey you will meet us and go out to the Colorado and try your luck Oliver and myself will give you interests in the Putnam Company who are the owners of four of the most celebrated Copper Ledges in Irataba District.

Wright went on to inform his friend that “the claims in this section of country are all proving good and you see no one from there that does not intend going back.” Additionally, the river was running high and “at present four Steamers are running on it,” with the Philadelphia Mining Company, which began its operations in the district in the spring, “have had a fine steamer built in San Francisco for the purpose of carr[y]ing their rock down the river, she is to leave San Francisco on the 3rd of August.”

Note the reference to Wright’s Company B at the bottom as the 4th Infantry mustered out, News, 25 October 1864

In fact, the News covered this in late July and early August, observing in its edition the day prior to Wright’s letter, that the Nina Tilden “a new light draft steamer,” was launched from her construction bay in San Francisco a week before and was to be finished quickly and then sail for the Colorado (meaning around Baja California and into the Gulf of California and up the river from its mouth along the border of Baja California and Sonora in México. There was some delay as the paper reported on 13 August that the steamer, bearing 40 tons of coal as well as lumber and temporary bulwarks, was to leave San Francisco that day.

Wright ended his missive with “if you make up your mind to come down to San Francisco, write me immediately and let me know, and where we shall meet one another.” Asking to be remembered to Follensbee, he then concluded. As to whether Bequette and Wright did meet up in San Francisco and went to the Irataba District together to pursue their search for copper, is not known.

What is known is that Bequette remained at Forest Hill for another half-century, but the whereabouts of Wright have remained elusive. A Charles S. Wright, who had interests in a copper mine at Bisbee, Arizona, near the Mexican border southeast of Tucson, died in 1904, but it has not been verified if this is the same person who wrote the letter, though the connections to mining in that territory and the time period are suggestive.

Again, while it would have been great to hear more about what was happening in Los Angeles and Camp Drum, Wright’s letter is a very rare artifact connected to that military post, which was soon dismantled, although the Drum Barracks historic site remains as a reminder of the Civil War period in our region. We may yet be able to learn more about Charles S. Wright and his life, both before and after his military service, and, if that happens, we will certainly update this post.

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