A Piece of Civil War History in Southern California

Californians have fought and died in several wars, even the Civil War. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde takes us to a place where you can touch a genuine piece of Civil War history, the only military building in Southern California left standing from that era: the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington.

Kitty Felde: California's involvement in the Civil War was mostly about commerce. The Union wanted to protect its hold on the state's rich gold and silver mines. And a pair of local businessmen, Phinneas Banning and Benjamin Wilson, worried that their wagon supply business would be disrupted as well. So they offered 60 acres of land near the San Pedro harbor to the federal government for $1, if the U.S. government would build a military post there.

Glen Roosevelt (reading): "Colonel, on my arrival at this encampment, I found the command, both officers and men, very uncomfortably situated."

Felde: Glen Roosevelt, of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, reads from an 1862 letter from Lieutenant Colonel Harvey Lee of the California Volunteers to his boss, Colonel Robert Coulter Drum.

Roosevelt (reading): "There is nothing to shelter us from the sea winds, which at times are very severe. Tents are often blown down and the atmosphere filled with sand. There is no such thing as keeping anything free from sand; desks, tables, and papers are constantly covered."

Felde: The army spent a million dollars to build housing for the men, shipping precut lumber from Connecticut all the way around the South America's Cape Horn to San Pedro. Susan Ogle, Director of the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, stands on the front steps of a white clapboard house that served as the junior officers' quarters. She points across the street to what used to be a 16-acre parade ground with a 60-foot flagpole.

Susan Ogle: And across from us, there would have been five barracks buildings; off to our left, in the corner, far corner of the camp, which was a square, there would have been a two story hospital building. There would have been a bakery, and a laundry and a jailhouse, the guardhouse for those who weren't obeying the rules, and musicians' quarters; so there were all kinds of small buildings. A total of 22 here, it was a remarkably large place and it was surrounded by white picket fence.

Felde: The post was a mile away from an Army supply depot on the harbor. Everything to supply troops on the western frontier, from food to bullets, was shipped through San Pedro. You can see relics from that era inside the museum. There's a Gatling gun, the wooden leg of a wounded Civil War vet, even pictures of the camels stabled at the Drum Barracks.

Museum guide Alison Santoyo takes us into the barracks room and points out the bunk beds built to 1860 regulations.

Alison Santoyo: They are very short, and the reason for that is because the average height at that time was actually a lot smaller than we are today. They were about five-five or so, give or take a few inches. There would have been two men on each, the top and the bottom so it would fit four. And they would have slept head to food. You would have been smelling someone's feet. (laughs)

Felde: Thousands of soldiers passed through the Drum Barracks during the Civil War. The name, by the way, refers to that commanding officer, not the musical instrument. But after war, Ogle says military priorities changed.

Ogle: You know, they have base assessments now, and they had the same thing then. When the war was over and reconstruction was well underway, they did a reassessment and decided the Drum Barracks was not necessary. They had other forts that could do the job.

Felde: When the Army left, the land went back to Banning and Wilson, and the buildings were auctioned off. All except this one. Over the years, it was used as a private home, a boarding house – even Wilmington Township's High School.

Finally, a group of local residents convinced the state of California to buy it. The state turned it over to Los Angeles, and after a lot of love and hard work, it opened as a museum 20 years ago.

You can tour the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum Tuesdays through Thursdays on the hour from 10:00 to 1:00, or on the weekend from 11:30 to 2:30. A $5 donation is requested for adults. The museum is located at 1052 Banning Blvd., just south of Pacific Coast Highway in Wilmington.