Our visit to the Drum Barracks Museum in Wilmington proved to be an exciting and educational experience for this Writer. A long time buff of the Civil War and its history we knew very little about the role California played in the struggle. Thanks to its mines the flow of gold to aid the Union was very important. Which is why Drum Barracks was established in 1862 to guard the adjacent harbor as well as headquarters for protecting all of California and Arizona from Confederate forces.
I only learned about Drum Barracks at a recent dinner party where I met a woman, local to Wilmington, who told me about the Museum and the role it played in early California history. Previously I did know that there were military units formed in California to guard again Confederate invaders. A trip on Highway 79 in east San Diego county revealed a place that had been Camp Wright, established in 1861 and manned by the First California Volunteers, to guard that approach to California from Arizona.
The building that houses the Museum was once the junior officers quarters and is all that remains of the original Drum Barracks. It was saved from destruction in the mid 1960s and became a museum in 1987. It is administrated jointly by Los Angeles and State Departments of Parks and Recreation.
Guided tours are required for a visit to the museum. Our guide was Guadalupe Pena, who has been conducting tours at the Barracks for two years while pursuing a college degree in history at Cal State University Los Angeles. She was most knowledgeable as she moved us through each room of the barracks with its own subject. These included weapons, a library filled with civil war books, (they could have locked me in this room for a couple of weeks without complaint), civil war medicine, and formation of the native California Cavalry.
The museum also contains The Dunbar Autograph Book. This leather bound autograph book contains signatures gathered from 1862 to 1916. It includes the signed signatures of fifty Union generals, three presidents and many celebrities of the time. It was given to the museum by the estate of Edwin Sargent Dunbar Jr. whose great-grandfather, Captain G. Edwin Dunbar gathered them over the decades.
The Union generals included Sherman, Rosecrans, Hooker, Burnside, Meade, Custer, Sheridan, Kilpatrick, Wheeler, Thomas, and Slocum. Also confederate generals Bragg and J. B. Gordon. The presidents are William Taft, Ulysses Grant and Rutherford Hayes. Two saved documents display the signature of Abraham Lincoln while another that of Confederate general James Longstreet. There is a display of muzzle loading rifles, all large bore and the shot they used which caused such a large number of casualties. Also sabers of the cavalry, the famed Spencer repeating carbine, as well as the swords of officers.
Women played a new role in the Civil War being used as military nurses. Clara Barton was the head nurse to the Army of the James and later founded the American Red Cross. Sally Tompkins converted a private home in Richmond into a hospital and then became the first American woman to receive an officer's commission and first to be commissioned an army nurse. Native Californians were renown for their expert horsemanship so General George Wright, commanding the department of the Pacific, organized four companies of these men and they served throughout the Civil War, many in Arizona, and later in the Indian wars as well.
Prior to the Civil War the Army imported camels to use on desert terrain in the southwest. A total of 75 camels were imported to the U.S. In 1857 Lt. Edward Beale led an expedition west of twenty five camels to map a road from Texas to the Colorado River in New Mexico. Then continued west to Fort Tejon. In 1861 the camels were moved to Los Angeles and then to the Drum Barracks. Here the camels were used to carry freight from Wilmington to Los Angeles. In 1863 the Army sold off the remaining 37 camels in San Francisco. Now a metal statue of a camel named after one of the original, "Bert" greets visitors to the Barracks.
One exhibit displays some of the many things and customs first used in the Civil War. These included first use of the railroads in moving troops. The United States was the first country to establish national military cemeteries. The Civil War was the first where conbatants used the telegraph extensively. And the first U.S. decoration for bravery in combat was established by Congress with the Medal of Honor.
The Drum Barracks assembles a list each year of Civil War events and reenactments taking place throughout the west. The principal Civil War in the Southwest reenactment takes place each year at the Picacho Peak State Park outside Phoenix, Arizona where the battles between Confederate and Union forces took place. Called the Battles of Glorieta and Valverde. This list is always available at the Drum Visitors Center.
Guadalupe Pena skillfully took us through the tour that included two floors of the barracks and lasted almost two hours and was well qualified to answer all our questions as well. Our tour included four adults and three children. The Tour schedule is at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Saturday and Sunday the tours are 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Special tours for groups of six or more can be arranged by calling 310 548-7509. No individual access to the Museum is allowed.
The Drum Barracks is located at 1052 Banning Blvd., Wilmington, Ca 90744. Free parking is available at the Museum. For more information check the web at www.drumbarracks.org.
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