Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 13, 2020

Get Those Camels to the Barracks: Drum Barracks

For as long as there’s been human history, there have been armies marching across nearly every square foot of the inhabited planet. Armies need supplies. Whether you’re Agamemnon camped outside Troy, Antony and Octavian at Alexandria, Genghis Khan in central Asia, or Napoleon staggering away from Moscow, you need supplies.

Here’s a typical 19th century scene from that history: animals outside a military camp, one of them a draft animal. This is Camp Drum in Wilmington, California, circa 1863.

US Camel Corp 75085347 680

Is that a Camel?

The horse is easy to identify. The large, hairy, somewhat lumpy creature in front of it is, indeed a camel. It was one of several hundred camels the U. S. Army imported from Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey and Greece for use in the arid southwest. Based originally in Camp Verde, Texas, the “Camel Corps” was a reality between about 1855 and 1864.

On a significant number of long, demanding traverses of arid, rugged territory, the camels proved themselves superior to the Army’s draft animal of choice, mules.

That camel in the photo was probably one of about 31 originally sent to Ft. Tejon, beyond a mountain pass north of Los Angeles. Merely driving over the Tejon Pass in an automobile on an interstate highway can be a harrowing experience today, if there is snow or ice on the steep climb to the 4,144 ft. (1,263 m) summit. Ft. Tejon stood on the far side of the pass. Supplying the garrison there was a logistical challenge. Hence: camels.

A Civil War Camp in Los Angeles?

I’m actually here to write not about camels, but why that particular camel is tied up outside a military post in the Los Angeles area during the Civil War. I’ll come back to the camels.

At the outset of the Civil War in April, 1861, there was considerable support for the Confederate cause in southern California. A large number of settlers had come from southern states. There were active demonstrations — some armed — for the southern cause. Presidential candidate and Confederate sympathizer John C. Breckinridge outpolled Abraham Lincoln 2-to-1 in the Los Angeles area in the 1860 election.

Phineas Banning, founder of Wilmington, south of Los Angeles, and the driving force in establishing the Port of L.A. there, wrote to President Lincoln, advising him that without an armed force, southern California and its ports could easily be seized by the Confederacy and the state lost to the Union without a fight.

In response, by 1862, the government began building Camp Drum on nearly 100 acres of land Banning and another local leader sold for $1 for each man. By 1863, the Army completed at least 19 buildings housing from 2,000 to 7,000 troops at various times.

Along with troops, the Ft. Tejon camels were also relocated to Camp Drum.

One of those buildings — formerly officers’ quarters — still stands.

Drum Barracks Brad Nixon 8341 680

The building is called Drum Barracks, a name that was also applied in the camp’s heyday to the entire compound. There were a number of nearly identical structures in the original camp, although the period photograph above shows two buildings built on a different plan.

Primarily, the Camp Drum garrison was what we’d call today a “deterrent force.” But when Confederate troops, the Texas Volunteers, occupied portions of New Mexico Territory, including Tucson, in 1862, approximately 2,300 soldiers rode and marched east about 500 miles from Camp Drum to confront them.

In a poorly executed skirmish — against a standing order not to engage — a Union lieutenant on a scouting foray led a dozen mounted troops in an attack on a small band of Confederates ensconced in deep brush on steep terrain. A number of Union soldiers, including the lieutenant, were killed. That small engagement, known as the Battle of Picacho Pass, was the westernmost fight of the war. In relatively short order, the Texas Volunteers retreated eastward in the face of the superior enemy force and the Union forces reoccupied Tucson.

Sole Survivor

The army continued to staff Camp Drum for a number of years after the war, but abandoned it in 1870. The single remaining structure is now in admirable condition.

Drum Barracks Brad Nixon 8333 680

The government auctioned off the buildings and restored the land to Banning and his colleague, Benjamin Davis Wilson, the first mayor of Los Angeles.

Drum Barracks Brad Nixon 8331 680

Wilson donated land and two buildings to the Methodist church, including the surviving structure. The church opened Wilson College there, allegedly the first coeducational college west of the Mississippi River. It operated on the site for only a short time before relocating to another site. That school later evolved into the University of Southern California.

Today, after several decades of hovering near dereliction, Drum Barracks has been restored by volunteer efforts and is owned by the State of California. It now operates as a Civil War museum. I toured it some years ago, and enjoyed it. As I write, the museum is closed for the duration of the current Covid 19 circumstances. A link to the museum site and location appear below.

Where Did the Camels Go?

By 1866, the Army ended its camel experiment and sold them off.

One factor that contributed to their falling into disfavor — aside from the army’s longtime orientation to mule power — was that the U.S. Secretary of War who authorized the program in 1855 was Jefferson Davis, the eventual president of the Confederacy, and persona non grata thereafter.

There are unsubstantiated accounts that some were simply turned loose into the desert. The last sighting of one of the California camels was in Arizona in 1891.

Drum Barracks Brad Nixon 8342 680

Visiting Drum Barracks

Drum Barracks Civil War Museum is at 1052 N. Banning Boulevard, Wilmington, California. There’s a free parking lot off Banning, on the west side (2nd photo, above). Wilmington is at the north end of the Port of Los Angeles, about 25 miles south of downtown L.A.

For enthusiasts of the paranormal, there are accounts of mysterious sounds and ghostly apparitions wearing Civil War era attire in the building.

Blogger Shoreacres wrote a series of posts about the Camel Corps in Texas beginning at this link on her blog, The Task at Hand. Extensive research, interesting stories, highly recommended.

Licensable, high resolution versions of some photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Shutterstock.com. Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2020. I relied on Wikipedia for the majority of the historical detail. Rudolph D’Heureuse photo is public domain, used under open content rules, retrieved from wikipedia.org April 11, 2020.


Responses

  1. Thank you for the historical and educational blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Piano Nan. Trying to hold up the historical/educational precedent.

      Like

  2. I wrote a three-part series on the camels in Texas, but stopped my account at the grave of the camel driver in Arizona. I didn’t know a thing about this part of the history, and enjoyed it tremendously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Now I’m reading.

      Like

      • I’m glad you enjoyed the history – thanks for the link!

        Liked by 1 person


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