By Marge O’Brien, past Director, Drum
Located at Wilmington, in Los
Angeles County, Drum Barracks is California Historical Landmark No. 169.
Their website is
The wind tugged at the troops’
clothes as they stood at attention, waiting. Then the command came: “Right
face! March!” With the jangling of bridles and the creaking of
accouterments, the final detachments of 1st California Infantry Regiment,
U.S.V., some 350 strong under the command of Colonel James Carleton, left
The troops’ destination was Fort
Yuma, California, where the rest of the force, 2,000 strong, that history
would call the “California Column” were mustering, waiting to march. These
troops would be reinforcements, augmenting the army of Col. James Slough
U.S.V., now engaged in operations against Confederate forces in Arizona and
This is arguably the most
significant action taken by California’s military volunteers in the American
Civil War. Ironically, most troops never saw combat against rebels. They had
drilled at two camps but only one would remain. Camp Drum’s modest beginning
would become Drum Barracks, one of the largest Army supply facilities on the
west coast during the war. Today one can visit the remnants of Drum
Barracks. The State of California and the City of Los Angeles have
established a museum of Civil War artifacts in the junior officers’
quarters. Owned by the state, the museum is operated as a facility of the
City of Los Angeles by the Recreation and Parks Department.
This is the story of Drum
Barracks. It is not the story of California’s involvement in the Civil War.
That is beyond the limited scope of this article. Instead this is the
chronicle of an army post and its constant struggle for existence. Today
people are surprised that, considering the many deterrents encountered by
the Barracks, part of this bridge to America’s history is still intact.
Camp Drum came into existence only
because Camp Lathan, which was the southern staging area for the war’s
California volunteers, was rapidly becoming overcrowded. Established in late
September 1861, Latham was situated on Ballona Creek in Rancho La Ballona
where the present day intersections of Overland and Jefferson Boulevards are
located in Culver City. A new base of operations was needed, preferably near
New San Pedro Location
To the rescue came entrepreneur
Phineas Banning. Since the troops that were training at Camp Latham had
originally debarked at his wharf on his land in New San Pedro (now
Wilmington), it seemed a waste of energy to march to Latham, some 18 miles
away, a full day’s journey. Banning proposed ceding the Army a tract of land
to be used as the mustering camp outside New San Pedro. This site was
located where Avalon Street and Anaheim Boulevard now cross.
There were problems of inadequate
drainage with this site. A heavy rainfall in early January 1862 washed the
site out, causing discomfort to its inhabitants. In response to the
complaints, Banning proposed a new site on higher ground, one mile northwest
of the town. During the change of sites, the new camp was named Drum in
honor of Lt. Col. Richard Coulter Drum, Assistant Adjutant General of the
Pacific Department of the U.S. Army.
Banning, while being a patriot,
also wanted to see New San Pedro become the largest seaport in Southern
California. With the main Union military supply depot on his land, he got
the United States to give him almost exclusive contracts to supply and
support the Federal armed presence in Southern California and Arizona for
the rest of the war. Because Banning owned and operated both land and sea
transport, it gave him a monopoly on moving supplies. This would be the
springboard that would allow Banning to eventually amass a fortune.
In mid-March 1862, all the troops
that were drilling at Camp Latham were transferred to Camp Drum, leaving
about a company of soldiers to observe the Los Angeles area. Now Drum would
have sole responsibility to protect Los Angeles County from Indians and
At the end of April, Carleton and
his 350 men marched out of Camp Drum into history, leaving it deserted and
forgotten. In the following months the garrison increased, but there were
problems with the Camp. Tents that would leak badly when it rained
(apparently it did this much of the time) composed the men’s quarters and
gritty sea winds would blow across the sandy plain causing much discomfort.
There were no stands of trees to act as wind breaks; the only vegetation was
low scrub. Also there were no structures nearby that would act as shelters
except the Banning-built warehouse on his wharf a mile away. Troop morale
was low when Lt. Col. Harvey Lee U.S.V. took command on October 7, 1862. Lee
inspected the camp, then fired off an angry letter to the Camp’s namesake
He complained about the conditions
of the camp and the unsuitability of the accommodations there. He concluded
“...that I will find it difficult to keep this command in proper discipline
unless quarters are built or a more comfortable location selected.”
Rather than relocate Drum, the
Army saved it by responding with a large construction program. Lumber was
shipped from the east coast around Cape Horn, South America. The cost of
construction has been estimated at a million dollars, quite an expenditure
for its day. However, there was a war on and money was the least of the
Government’s concerns. After six months an Army barracks, complete with a
hospital, stables and corrals, even a guardhouse, all neatly surrounded by a
white picket fence, had replaced the untenable tent city. An officer, seeing
the new camp for the first time, recalled in a letter: “We were astonished
to find the barracks one of the finest we had ever seen. Some of the men in
our company, who had seen service in the East, said they never saw anything
The Camel Experiment
Camp Drum had been rescued from
closing. It now went on to become the military headquarters for Southern
California and Arizona. As the mustering point for recruits and soldiers
bound for posts in California and Arizona, it was a depot for supplies and
weapons. Its garrison fluctuated from 200 to 6,000 men during the war years.
All types of troops were stationed there including camels! In fact until
recent publicity, Drum Barracks was best known for being the California
Truth was the camels were at Drum
less than two years. The 31 beasts were originally stationed at Fort Tejon
which guarded Tejon Pass in North Los Angeles County. When the 1st U.S.
Dragoons abandoned the fort to act as a deterrent against possible secession
in downtown Los Angeles, the camels accompanied them. At first they gathered
crowds but the novelty of the creatures soon wore out and residents of Los
Angeles began complaining of the smell, asking the military to move them
elsewhere. They came to Camp Drum in early 1862 joining the other miserable
An attempt to utilize them as a
dromedary courier line, connecting Drum with Fort Mojave and other outposts,
proved to be a failure and they were ordered sold by Secretary of War Edwin
Stanton. The Barracks’ camels were removed to Benicia Arsenal in late 1863
for public auction. The camel experiment was consigned to oblivion.
Now a permanent Army post, the Barracks were busy during 1863. That year Los
Angeles had several minor disturbances that involved Southern sympathizers.
Troops were called out to help local law enforcement. When in November of
1863, there came the announcement that a military conscription quota in
California for the Federal army was in effect, rebel supporters attempted to
lynch Los Angeles’ provost marshall to prevent him from carrying out the
order. Troops from Camp Drum quickly restored peace.
Role in History
By March of 1864, the Camp was
called Drum Barracks in military dispatches. The Barracks continued to play
a major role in Southern California history. Several Indian disruptions were
quickly quelled and, when the proclamation of new quotas for conscription
into military service was announced in April, the garrison, remembering the
riot of ‘63, was deployed in Los Angeles ready for trouble. The quota was
filled by volunteers from the northern part of the state and the crisis
Photos above include a scene from a re-enactment held
at Drum Barracks,
as well as a Gatling Gun exhibit on display.
Part of the tedium of camp life
was relieved by a furlough off the post. Los Angeles was too far a hike, so
most of the troops would go to nearby Wilmington. It wasn’t an ideal R&R
spot. A trooper described the town in a letter home: “The place consists of
Banning’s residence, blacksmith shop, soap and tallow factory, coal and
lumber yard.. .The distance to any where from here [ is twenty miles, no
roads, no fences, no houses intervening.”
This boredom caused some of the
garrison to dig a seven-mile canal from the San Gabriel River to Wilmington.
With materials supplied by Banning, a dam was constructed and water diverted
to the town and Barracks. The troops received no extra compensation for the
task. The project was completed in February 1865. By this time, everybody
knew the war was winding down. Each Union success in the east, was one more
nail in the coffin of the Confederacy.
On April 11, 1865, Drum Barracks
received the following telegram: “To Colonel James E. Curtis, Commander Drum
Barracks. Lee, with whole army, has surrendered to Grant.” (Signed) F.F.
Low, Governor of California.
This terse message spelled the end
of the post. While Los Angeles and the Barracks were celebrating victory,
plans were being made to disband the Barracks. With the death of Lincoln,
the post carried out its last operation against rebels. Soldiers arrested
and briefly detained anyone who “exulted over the assassination of our
In late 1870, the camp was
officially abandoned. Only 90 men remained on the post whose structures were
deteriorating rapidly. By 1871, all had left with their equipment and stores
transferred to Fort Yuma. On July 31, 1873 the camp’s buildings were sold at
an auction. Banning bought five of them for a sum of $2,917 with his
business partner, B. D. Wilson, buying one for $200. The land was returned
to Banning and Wilson.
The saga of the Barracks was not
over. In 1874, B. D. Wilson opened a Methodist co-ed college called Wilson
College on the grounds of Drum. The school was a success but was closed in
1877, moving to a location closer to Los Angeles. Reopened in 1880, this
college probably was the forerunner of the University of Southern California
in Los Angeles.
B. D. Wilson and other notable
Wilmington families continued to live on the grounds. In 1910, Thomas
Keaveny bought the junior officers’ quarters, turning the 14-room mansion
into a boarding house. This and the powder magazine would be the only
original structures to survive. As Wilson and the others passed on, their
descendants sold off their property to developers and oil companies. The
outlines of Drum Barracks was slowly submerged in the waves of progress.
But the Barracks did not totally
die. Even though by 1962 the old officers’ quarters were unlivable,
Keaveny’s family would not let developers buy the land and demolish the
house they loved. Instead the Society for the Preservation of Drum Barracks
was founded and a plan was developed to save the house as a historic
monument. This touched off a bureaucracy battle that lasted for years; space
precludes it being told in its entirety. After much struggle with little
money, the house was restored as a Civil War museum.
Drum Barracks lives today as the
restored junior officers’ quarters. There is the powder magazine but it has
deteriorated and is too far from the museum to be counted. The mansion’s 14rooms contain Civil War artifacts, weapons, paintings of Barracks
commanders, a library dedicated to the study of the Civil War and southern
California history and several rooms laid out as they might have appeared
during the period.
The Drum Barracks is designated
City of Los Angeles Cultural-Historic Monument No. 21, State of California
Historical Landmark No 169, and is on the National Register of Historic
Places. Lead abatement and restoration projects are planned for the exterior
of the building in 2003 and new exhibitions and displays are designed for
the interior. Programs, activities and attendance steadily increase. Like
the letters of its former inhabitants, it will continue to act as a bridge
to a past--a past that only recently has been rediscovered as an important
part of the heritage of the United States. We can all be proud to be a part
of this heritage.
Robinson, John W. Los Angeles
in Civil War Days 1860-65, Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1977.
Hunt, Aurora. Army of the
Pacific 1860-66, Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1951.
McDowell, Don. Drumbeats, Vols.
I–IV (Periodicals), Wilmington: Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, 1977-90.