Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This is the tenth and final post on the Civil War diary of Charles M. Jenkins, who was the only Los Angeles resident to fight for the Union Army during that conflict. The diary, owned by the Historical Society of Southern California, is on temporary deposit with the Homestead Museum. This post discusses Jenkins’s later years and wraps up the story of the diary and how it came into the possession of the Society.
As noted in the last post, Charles Jenkins’ diary ends with his return to Los Angeles in late September 1865, excepting a couple of posts in December. His early years back to civilian life appear to have been very quiet, although his biographer, Louis DiDonato [“Charles Myers Jenkins: A Sketch of the Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man,” Southern California Quarterly, 88:2 (Summer 2006), 125-160] quoted two acquaintances as noting that Jenkins “was completely broken down in health” and “in a most pitiable condition” and looking “as though he might have been dead, buried and resurrected” because of “appearance of being quite broken down.” Dysentery was another condition that Jenkins suffered from for the duration of his long life. Just after his arrival, Jenkins briefly went back into newspaper printing, which he had done as a young man in the 1850s.
In 1869, Jenkins married Phoebe Sprague, a recent arrival in Los Angeles from Vermont, and the two were settled on a farm south of town. They remained in that location for almost 30 years before moving to the intersection of Santee and 12th street in what is now the Fashion District downtown. The couple had a child that died at birth early in the marriage and, in the 1890s, adopted a daughter, Gabriella Eckland. Whether farming proved to be profitable, Jenkins did find other employment as he became a deputy zanjero for the city. This meant that he worked to keep the city’s water ditches (zanjas), tapping into the Los Angeles River, clean and functional for town dwellers and nearby farmers.
In 1881, Jenkins was promoted to “water overseer” and also dealt with the purchasing of city water, as well as maintenance of the ditches. According to DiDonato, Jenkins’ four-year tenure was a mixed bag. While his biographer stated that “the system was improved and modernized during Jenkins’ tenure, proving him to be an able administrator,” there were also tangles with city officials and customers that appear to have been partly due to Jenkins’ “outspokenness…his combative personality” and irritability. In 1885, he was let go, a circumstance he blamed on being a Democrat in a Republican town.
Subsequent years found Jenkins working for a private water company, selling real estate, interpreting from Spanish in the courts, serving as a deputy federal marshal, and working as a bailiff in the county’s superior court. He was also a deputy fire fighter for what was then an all-volunteer organization. In 1899, at age 60, and experiencing vision and hearing loss in addition to his many other ailments, Jenkins retired.
Some 20 years after the war, he also became active in the Andersonville Survivors Association, the Society of the Army of the Potomac and the Grand Army of the Republic, where he was an officer in the local post. After Congress passed a pension bill for veterans of the Union Army, Jenkins applied for benefits, but needed some assistance from Senator Stephen White, who was from Los Angeles, to receive a pension. Occasionally, Jenkins’ role as the only resident Angeleno of the time to fight for the Union Army during the Civil War was highlighted.
At the end of 1898, the Los Angeles Herald published a lengthy article featuring Jenkins’ recollections of a particular aspect of his wartime experiences involving an escape attempt at Andersonville:
I dug a tunnel under the palisades, and one dark night I punched a hole through the other end and struck out for the Union lines . . . my escape was not observed till morning . . . so I waded in the stream for a distance, going ashore when it began to get light, and covering myself up with brush I slept till nightfall . . . I kept that up for several days.
Finding a small watercraft, Jenkins used that to move further away, but ran into a thick chain strung across the stream by the Confederates to deter Union boats. After he tried to lift his boat over the barrier, Jenkins dove into the water and swam to shore, where, he continued, “I broke into a barn and stole an old gray horse” which carried him to where the creek met a river. Just a little too far away from reach, in the midst of the river, were two Union gunboats and as Jenkins pondered what to do, he was recaptured.
Jenkins’ personal life was often turbulent and DiDonato wrote that he “was not an easy man to live with; he had always been hot tempered and combative.” While the biographer continued that “it appears he and Phoebe had some happy years together,” there was a darker side to their situation.
For example, in 1891, the Herald published an article about the death in child-birth of
Emma Christian, who “had formerly worked for Mr. Jenkins, and it has been implied that Mr. Jenkins might possibly know more of her child’s parentage than had yet been published.” The piece continued, “Mr. Jenkins was highly indignant at the reflections cast upon him, and said that a particular injustice had been done him by this girl’s father,” who, Jenkins, went on, knew the true facts of the situation.
Jenkins’ statement to the Herald was that Christian worked for him for about 1 ½ years, leaving for other work “about a year ago.” He continued that “the first intimation that she was in a delicate condition was received from her father about five months ago” when she had left another employer and returned to work for Jenkins and his wife. Jenkins stated that “I did not see Emma from that time till about the first of January, when she came to the Marshal’s office and called me out.”
He further related that Christian told him she’d been thrown out of her family’s home and that she wanted Jenkins to find her employment, presumably as a domestic, and that her father promised not to tell her mother of her condition. Jenkins did find her a position in south Los Angeles, noting that he was also keeping the situation a secret from his own wife. He went on to say that Christian “promised me that as soon as the baby was born she would tell me who seduced her, and I promised to try and make him marry her, or make amends.”
Christian’s untimely death, however, changed all and Jenkins concluded his statement by claiming “I . . . will make every effort to find out who the man was who seduced her” and while noting that she “always behaved herself,” he ended by obliquely observing that “she would sometimes leave, however, and be gone two or three days, but always said she had been home.”
25 years later, in October 1916, the Los Angeles Times reported that Phoebe Jenkins charged her husband with desertion in a court hearing. The paper noted that “the trouble that separated them was the natural sequence of adopting a girl as their daughter.” The Times did not define what “the natural sequence” was, but one meaning, in light of the earlier issue with Emma Christian, comes to mind.
The article stated that the child, Gabriella Eckland, was living with Phoebe Jenkins in Acton, in the northern reaches of the county near Palmdale, and Charles told the judge that, on a recent visit, “he was made uncomfortable” and “lays the alleged discord to the adopted daughter.” After testifying that “he never quarreled with his wife…but there were little things,” he went on to note that his wife and Gabriella left the home and went to the Antelope Valley.
The piece discussed financial disputes and other matters and then ended with Jenkins’ flat and firm statement that “I will never live with my wife again after this exposure. There was no cause for this suit at all.” According to DiDonato, there had been a separation between the two a decade before, in 1906. The Jenkinses never divorced, however, though they did remain apart for the rest of their lives.
Notably, several years before the 1916 spat, Jenkins had already taken in another young woman into his Santee home. Juanita Olivera was a domestic who lived with two sisters in the same neighborhood and, in 1910, was a 23-year old business school student. A decade later, she was a copyist in the county recorder’s office. DiDonato located an uncited Times article that described Olivera as Jenkins’s “foster daughter.” She was apparently Jenkins’s caretaker in his last years, remaining with him at least a quarter century until his death at 93 years of age in early 1933.
This leads to how the diary wound up in the hands of Clement J. Gagliano, donor of the artifact to the Historical Society of Southern California. Wayne Sherman, who acquired a cache of photos and documents relating to Jenkins some years ago in the Santa Barbara area and became a diligent researcher and collector, along with DiDonato, about Jenkins, recently connected the dots and closed the circle.
Juanita Olivera, who inherited the diary and, presumably, Jenkins’ other personal effects, died just a few years after Jenkins. She left the artifact to her sister, Tadea, who was married to Joseph Gagliano. After Tadea’s death, within a short time after Juanita’s, the diary passed to her son, Clement. It was roughly 15 years later, in 1954, that he donated the artifact to the Society. Now, six decades after the gift, this remarkable document, revealing a personal story about America’s most significant war and having a unique connection to the history of greater Los Angeles, has finally seen the light of day and been given the public access.