California's only Civil War battle was fought by Camp Wright troopers, but the honor is somewhat minimized because no shots were exchanged and the rebels were civilians. The affair bore a considerable resemblance to other secessionist disturbances in the state except that Confederate agents were involved and Dixie was their destination.
Hardly a week after Camp Wright was founded on October 18, 1861, Major Edwin A. Rigg, commanding, was alerted that 40 rebel sympathizers were heading his way. Their leader was former State Assemblyman Dan Showalter, admitted secessionist who recently had, killed a fellow assemblyman in a duel over politics. His disappearance after the duel was explained by common gossip that he held a Confederate commission and was on his way to Dixie.
On October 27 Rigg dispatched an 11-man patrol to intercept "someone passing out through here," but no one was found. Faced with the possibility of attack, Rigg decided to test the alertness of his new garrison. He was not disappointed.
"At one o'clock this morning I had an alarm," he wrote Colonel James H. Carleton at Los Angeles; "the long roll was beat, and with every soul in camp, ignorant of such an intention, the companies were under arms in good order in eight minutes . . . I was very much pleased with their conduct, and am satisfied that they are ready at a moment's warning for service."
After dusk on October 28, Rigg was told that a party of 16 to 20 men was nearby. A 50-man detail was sent "to hem them in" while a 20-man contingent "crossed above them to close in on them and capture them." The opponents turned out to be several stray horses.
When Rigg was informed that two Confederate groups already had made their way out of California, he knew that it was vital to capture Showalter for both political and morale purposes. The previous parties had included Albert Sidney Johnston, former commander of the Pacific Department, and judge David S. Terry. The surviving half of the 1859 Broderick-Terry duel, Terry had gathered recruits for Dixie as he made his way into Arizona.
"If any party . . . attempt to pass you," Rigg was directed, "stop it, search the persons and baggage if you suspect them of being enemies of our country, and cause them to take the oath of allegiance to our Government. If you find upon them evidence of their being disloyal, bold them in confinement . . . We have had enough of the bullying and treason of such men . . . Keep your own counsel; act with great circumspection, but with great firmness."
A month of observing Carleton's directive to "keep a sleepless vigilance," was rewarded on the morning of November 27. A civilian brought in a letter that he had been asked to deliver but, as the recipient was missing, he had read instead. Reference to a group of 18 at Temucla, 20 miles away, left little doubt that the waiting was almost over.
Several detachments were sent out. A cavalry patrol under Lieutenant C. R. Wellman learned that the Confederates were hiding at the ranch of John Minter.
Taken by surprise early on November 29, Showalter and company knew it was too late to fight. They tried to bluff, as Carleton predicted they would. Showalter, in particular, refused to be taken to Camp Wright, preferring instead to "take the consequences." He agreed to go without a fight after Wellman promised that the party would be freed if no evidence of disloyalty could be found.
Rigg questioned each of the 18 prisoners and received from each a statement of pro-Union sentiments and a sworn oath of allegiance. Despite this, Rigg told Carleton, "there is no doubt but every one of them is a rank secessionist, and are on their way to lend aid and comfort to the enemy."
"They now regret that they did not resist," Rigg added. "If they had, they would have given us a hard fight . . . They have pack-mules and are well fitted out, and a desperate set of men."
The papers found on the party convinced Rigg that they planned to do more than just head south into Mexico. All were arrested while Rigg awaited instructions from Carleton.
It was not until December 13 that orders were issued for the prisoners to be marched to Fort Yuma. By this time, Rigg also had been transferred to Yuma. The new Camp Wright commander was complaining that his 118-man garrison was "rather a small force for our situation, having 20 secession prisoners to guard." His concern was increased by a reliable report from San Bernardino that a party of 75, "armed with shotguns and revolvers . . . intend to attack your camp at night . . . in order to release Showalter and party."
The rescue plot was abandoned. The Showalter party was taken to Fort Yuma by soldiers whose instructions from Carleton included: "You must be on your guard against attempts to rescue these prisoners, and against their rising on and overpowering them men set to guard them. There must be no escape and no rescue."
The prisoners spent six months at Yuma fairly quietly, except for two men who had to be chained after trying to escape. When their release was directed, the party was given back their property and the loan of transportation. In this fashion, and on his promise not to steal the borrowed horses and equipment, Showalter once again passed Camp Wright. His destination was the same as before, Dixie, but this time Showalter made it in time to serve as a Confederate regimental commander.
This page was
reprinted with permission from Pioneer Forts of the Far West,
published in 1965