According to a listing in Wikipedia, there were still a handful of veterans of the American Civil War (1861-1865) alive when I was born. (Let me short circuit all anticipated smart-aleck comments here by saying that there WAS electricity as well as telephones and automobiles and even television when I was born, and Give ’em Hell Harry was President and not Andrew Jackson).
With all the members of those armies and all who were alive then now gone, that war still is present in the form of written records, artifacts, weapons and materiel (for some reason it’s always spelled that way when material is military) to forts, fortresses, encampments and buildings of endless variety. For that single American conflict 150 years ago, there is a vast extant inventory of structures, in part because the war itself consumed the entire nation and, of course, because a lot of the buildings and sites have been preserved as monuments and testimonials to a conflict that killed two-thirds of a million soldiers in four years: a level of productivity that should be highly admired by todays warmakers (although it was soon eclipsed by WWI, a highly productive war, which killed 16 million people, including 20,000 English dead in a single day at the battle of the Somme).
It’s amazing to consider the vast scale of armament and construction associated with the Civil War. To pick just a few random examples, I have been to Fort Knox in Maine, a massive example in granite of the classic pentagonal style of military fortresses of that era. It was begun as a coastal defense against the British, but was garrisoned by Maine volunteers during the Civil War. (Click on photos to enlarge)
More than a thousand miles down the coast to the south, I’ve also visited Fort Clinch, on Amelia Island, Florida, another 5-sided fortress, this one built of earth and brick guarding another strategically important waterway. It also was begun for a previous conflict, the Seminole War, but became a hotly contested strategic point and construction of the fort was accelerated in response to the onset of the war.
The Counselor and I also stopped to see Fort Stevens, three thousand miles to the northwest, at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, seaward from Astoria, another earthwork fort protecting a key waterway.
In between, across the width of the continent, are hundreds, probably thousands of forts, encampments, battlefields and other Civil War sites. One couldn’t catalogue them in a lifetime, much less visit them. I don’t go out of my way to search out old forts, but they’re everywhere, and the curious traveler just has to stop. (Here’s a question to ponder: is there a state other than Alaska or Hawaii that does not have a structure — a depot, artillery emplacement, fort — built by one of the armies for the Civil War?)
It’s not too surprising, then, to learn that there’s a Civil War survivor just a few miles from our house: the Drum Barracks, the last remaining Civil War structure in Los Angeles, originally part of Fort Drum. I’ll provide links to material you can read at your leisure if you need more info, but here are a few basic facts.
A man named Phineas Banning was a co-founder of the city of Wilmington, which occupies the low ground at the north end of the Port of Los Angeles. Highly successful as an entrepreneur, Banning was an important figure in Los Angeles history, and had a pivotal role in establishing the Port of Los Angeles as a major force in shipping (now one of the world’s busiest ports).
With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union was concerned that the strong degree of support for the Confederacy in southern California could lead to the creation of a strategically powerful base of operations from the West. Banning and another prominent local donated land to the Union, which built Camp Drum. The camp would eventually house about 7,000 troops. A couple thousand of these soldiers did march out of Wilmington to seize control of the Arizona Territory from the Confederacy at the battle of Picacho Pass, the westernmost battle of the war.
Today, the former officers’ barracks is all that remains of Camp Drum, but it’s in fine shape. It is off the beaten path, a few blocks east of the little downtown of Wilmington, not far from the bustling harbor and east of I-110, 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles (to outside visitors, this seems like part of the endless urban morass of L.A., but, to locals, it’s a finite local city). The barracks is a museum now and, for residents of this far-flung shore, it’s worth a visit for a glimpse at the world of the 1860s. It’s probably not worth a special trip for residents of Virginia or Tennessee, who can’t swing a cat without hitting a Civil War landmark (although there are serious penalties, especially in Alabama and South Carolina, for striking a Confederate landmark with a feline, an act described in local ordinances as cataclysm).
The very best thing that a discussion of the Barracks affords us is an opportunity to mention, aside from the mere fact of its existence, that a photo at the museum indicates that Camp Drum was supplied at least once by the army’s Camel Corps. The Army had imported camels from Africa as an experimental source of pack animals to serve in the arid southwest. The camel experiment was nearing the end of its run as the Civil War began, and the camels were based up in Benicia, California, in the San Francisco Bay area.
There was, by the way, a more western Civil War fort, out on Santa Catalina Island, and an original building still exists, occupied today by a yacht club.
Just a few blocks away from Drum Barracks is the Banning family mansion, which is also a museum worth visiting in its own right. Banning eventually bought his donated land back from the Army when the fort was decommissioned, and he and his family continued to prosper.
CLICK HERE to access the Wikipedia entry on the Drum Barracks.
CLICK HERE to access the Drum Barracks official site.
Admittedly, Civil War history is not my strong point, and my research has been rather casual. If any true history buffs have corrections to any of the above, I welcome them. My goal, as always, is to point out that fascinating discoveries await inquisitive travelers anywhere they go, if they take the time to look!
This article originally referred to Camp Drum as Fort Drum. There is now a Fort Drum in New York, named after a different individual than was Camp Drum. Thanks to CW5 Nixon for setting me on the trail to the correction.
© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017. Photo of Drum Barracks front © Marcy Vincent 2010. Used by kind permission.