California's first troops to fight in Civil War weren't Californians

Confederate re-enactors, standing on the ramparts of Fort Moultrie, mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on April 12, 2011, in Charleston, S.C. The first shot that began the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, in Charleston harbor.
Confederate re-enactors, standing on the ramparts of Fort Moultrie, mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on April 12, 2011, in Charleston, S.C. The first shot that began the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, in Charleston harbor. Richard Ellis/Getty Images

The U.S. is marking the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Nearly 17,000 Californians fought for the Union Army, but the members of California’s first regiment weren’t from California.

With Pony Express riders needed to fill the gaps between telegraph lines, it took 10 days for California to learn that Fort Sumter had fallen and the Civil War had begun.

When the news finally arrived, thousands of Californians volunteered to fight for the Union. But U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says the Union Army needed troops as soon as possible. And in 1861, there was no transcontinental railroad.

"They couldn’t ship soldiers all the way from California to the East Coast," says Ritchie. "It would take forever to get them there. So the state of California raised the funds to raise an army, but the regiment had to be raised on the East Coast."

A senator from Oregon, Edward Baker, used California dollars to buy uniforms and guns for soldiers he recruited mostly from Pennsylvania. Baker was killed in the battle of Ball’s Bluff, just outside of Washington, D.C.

The California Regiment was renamed the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry and fought at both Antietam and Gettysburg.

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