Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Several years ago, a friend handed me a large piece of thick folded cardboard tied together with twine. He’d been the executor of the estate of a local historian, Robert Blew, whose work on Los Angeles vigilantism was a big influence on my work on criminal justice in the region during the 1850s to 1870s, and it sat in a closet for some time. My friend knew it had something to do with California volunteers during the Civil War, but that was about it. Once it was passed on to me, it also sat in my office for a period.
Meanwhile, in October 2015, while I was 2nd vice-president of the Historical Society of Southern California and assisting the organization’s executive director in sorting through materials in a storage facility in Pasadena after the Society vacated its long-time headquarters, I stumbled upon the Civil War diary of Charles M. Jenkins, the only Los Angeles resident of the time to fight for the Union Army. That got me thinking about the folder I had sitting at home, so I got home one day and cut off the twine and took a look.
What Bob Blew compiled from the California State Archives was muster rolls of the 1st Battalion of Native Calvary from the California Volunteers, this being an organization almost completely composed of Spanish-speakers from California or Mexico, who volunteered for the Union Army for service in the latter days of the Civil War. Having been fully immersed in the Jenkins diary, these documents became very interesting, especially because Jenkins was a member of the California Volunteers, but in a different capacity.
I was particularly interested in Company D. the fourth of the battalion’s companies, because it comprised volunteers from Los Angeles, so I started reviewing the muster roll sheets and began to compile a list of company members using the information found on the sheets (name, age, occupation, date of muster, etc.). Then, it occurred to me that I’d better see what had been published in print or posted online about the battalion and the company.
What I learned is that Tom Prezelski, a former Arizona state legislator, had just published that same year, a history of the battalion called California Lanceros, including sections on the formation, membership and activity of Company D. After ordering and reading Perzelski’s fine work, I went ahead and finished up a basic review of the muster roll sheets I inherited and thought I’d keep the information for future use.
A few months ago, I was asked to make a third presentation to the Inland Empire Civil War Roundtable, which holds its meetings at the amazing Lincoln Memorial Shrine, which is adjacent to the stunning A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands. Previous talks I’d done for the Roundtable were on Los Angeles during the 1860s and about the Jenkins Diary. When the request came for tonight’s talk, I immediately thought of Company D of the Native Cavalry.
Borrowing liberally from Prezelski as well as using the muster roll sheets and additional research in census records, voter registration entries, and newspaper articles, I put together the talk I gave tonight. Here are some of the highlights.
First, I provided some context, noting that many of California’s first Spanish settlers were soldados de cuera, or leather-jacketed soldiers, who came up in 1769 and afterward. Many of them were from small towns in northern Mexico and military service and the opportunity to resettle in what has been called “the Siberia of Mexico” meant an upgrade in social status and financial stability.
Moreover, Californios, as its early Spanish-speaking residents were generally known, were renowned for their horsemanship and use of the lance, a spear-like weapon, and this combination was particularly memorable during the American invasion of Mexican California in 1846-47. This was especially true at the Battle of San Pasqual at the end of 1846, when Californio lanceros, mounted on horseback, routed an ill-prepared and poorly positioned American force in a rain-spattered battle near San Diego. The company was led by Andrés Pico, brother of California’s governor, Pío Pico, and included Tomás Sánchez among the officers.
During the 1850s, when violence was at a dramatic peak in greater Los Angeles, Californios again made a name for themselves with their skills on horseback, most notably in early 1857 after the Flores-Daniel gang, which committed a murder and robberies at San Juan Capistrano, ambushed and killed Sheriff Barton and several members of his badly outnumbered and poorly positioned posse.
While there were many companies of volunteers, including German, French, and American contingents, that hunted the gang in the Santa Ana Mountains, none were more successful that Andrés Pico’s Californios (asisted mightily by Indian scouts). Pico even ordered the lynchings of some captured men who’d escaped custody from Americans. Again assisting was Sánchez.
It was almost certainly no accident that Pico soon secured election as a member of the state assembly, where, in 1859, he presented legislation to divide California into two states, California (a free state) in the north and Colorado (a slave-holding state) in the south. It passed, but the proposal died in Congress, which was caught up in the events leading to the Civil War.
Moreover, Sánchez was elected Los Angeles County sheriff, serving eight years in that position, which usually had very short occupancies (in fact, Barton’s successor, Los Angeles marshal William C. Getman, was killed in the line of duty for both jobs just a year after Barton’s murder.)
So, when Romualdo Pacheco, a state senator, militia general and recent convert to the Union cause, argued for a “native cavalry” for the California Volunteers, the concept was approved. Pacheco argued there were plenty of Californios who would loyally serve the Union. When Andrés Pico turned down a commission as major, Salvador Vallejo of a prominent family in Sonoma County, took it up.
Notably, southern California was a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers, there being so many residents who’d migrated from the South in the preceding decade or so and the pro-South Democratic Party ruled the political roost. The main local newspaper, the Los Angeles Star was openly supportive of the rebels and it was rare to find greater Los Angeles residents who espoused Republican or pro-Union sympathies. Among those who did was F.P.F. Temple, William and Nicolasa Workman’s son-in-law. Another was Phineas Banning, whose harbor-side town of Wilmington, was his own private fiefdom.
Banning, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, saw an opportnity to get a Union military post and all of the benefits that would accrue to him as a result and made the most of it. In 1862, Camp Drum was opened in Wilmington and it became the home of the Native Cavalry.
Meanwhile, José Antonio Sánchez, whom Prezelski identified as a cousing, but other suggest was a half-brother (José Antonio being, presumably, illegitimate or an hijo natural son), was appointed captain of Company D and took on the responsibility of recruiting volunteers for the battalion. Having to use his own resources, Sánchez was able to round up over 80 men who not only signed up, but reported for mustering in the early part of 1864. Notably, nearly two-thirds of the company were natives of Mexico, most from the northern border state of Sonora, from whom early Gold Rush miners came. There was an area of Los Angeles north of the Plaza called Sonoratown, as well.
As his support staff, Sánchez had 1st lieutenant José Redona, a native of Los Angeles, and Jacob Clement Cox, who hailed from Pennsylvania and was a plasterer. Another local resident, William P. Reynolds, was brought in to train the recruits. Phineas Banning, however, had other plans and quickly convinced the battalion’s colonel and overall commanding officer, James Curtis, a former San Francisco vigilante, to use the new company for digging a water ditch for Wilmington from the San Gabriel River.
This obvious private use for federal employees did not sit well with Reynolds and others, though perhaps the soldiers who did the work were at least resigned to having something to do other than routine guard duty at Camp Drum. Curtis, who had clear bigotry against Californios and Mexicans, proposed strange ideas for putting company detachments in the San Fernando Valley, where there were no permanent structures for them, and then in the Mojave Desert, where a sole adobe guardhouse existed in the harsh environment.
Among other assignments was sending company soldiers on a circuit through Los Angeles County prior to the November 1864 presidential election in case any pro-Confederate pressure was put on Union supporters at the polls. The longest time encamped was at El Monte, where many Southerners resided, but these were stints at Anaheim and Santa Ana, as well.
Finally, with the war’s end and Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 a change in the purpose of the battalion came. Apaches in southern Arizona had long been defending their homeland against miners, settlers, migrants and the military (as well as doing so in northern Mexico) and it was decided to send the native cavalry to a new post, Fort Mason, south of Tucson, near the old Tubac mission, to ready for a campaign against the Indians.
All four companies marched out in July 1865 and arrived by early September. After an outbreak of illness that took some lives and incapacitated others, troops made a circuit through the southern Arizona and northern Sonora borderland at the end of the year and in the first weeks of 1866. The Apaches were not only tough and resilient, but, obviously, were the “home team” and easily evaded the battalion’s detachments. By then, it had been decided to disband the battalion.
So, the companies saddled up and made the long march back to Camp Drum, arriving in March and being mustered out by the end of the month. After about two years of existence, the native cavalry was disbanded.
The talk ended by discussing what happened to a few of the members of Company D. For example, José Redona, who resigned his post before the Arizona adventure, went on to be a Los Angeles constable. He was present in 1870 when fellow officer Job Dye shot and killed their boss, Marshal William C. Warren, in the middle of the street in broad daylight in a dispute over reward money. Four years later, Redona was a member of the posse that captured notorious bandido Tiburcio Vásquez.
William P. Reynolds, who tried to train the recruits when they mustered into the company, was born in Hawaii, whose mother was a native and his father an American. Reynolds came to California in 1845 as mate of a trading ship. He remained in Los Angeles after the war and became a surveyor, well known for his work in mining, platting ranchos, and surveying new towns, like San Fernando, established in 1874.
Juan Robarts was another mixed-race member of the company, born in Sonoma to a member of the Vallejo family and a British father. Robarts, who may have joined the company because of his connection to Major Vallejo, remained in Los Angeles and became an attorney in 1879. He had some well-connected partners, including future governor Henry Gage, and specialized in land and estates.
One of his best-known projects was serving as an executor for the estate of Miguel Leonis of the Encino area, though he was later criticized for poor management. He also was involved in a notorious gunfight in 1883, in which he shot and wounded a bystander who tried to intervene. Although indicted for attempted murder, he got off and remained a lawyer until his death in 1894. Notably, his granddaughter married a member of José Redona’s family.
Then, there was Jacob Cox, who also served as a policeman briefly while continuing his work as a plasterer and builder. In October 1871, however, when inter-Chinese fighting led to the death of an American who intruded on the dispute, a mob stormed the Chinese area of Los Angeles.
Cox was identified as among the rioters who cut holes into the main building where the Chinese were hiding, nineteen of whom were lynched that evening. In testimony before the coroner’s inquest, Cox claimed he was trying to help defuse the situation, but it appeared otherwise. Still, he wasn’t tried for his role in the most notorious and violent episode in the city’s early history and went back to a quiet life in Los Angeles.
It was fun once more to give a talk in the confined of the Lincoln Memorial Shrine to a group of Civil War historians and buffs and to share the history of the little-known (but now better known thanks to Tom Prezelski’s book) Los Angeles-originated Company D of the 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry, California Volunteers!