I may presently be embarked upon an undertaking that could be correctly regarded as a wild fish chase along Ballona Creek in Culver City, and though I didn’t catch sight of a pioneering pair of steelhead trout previously seen swimming last week in those waters, I did hook a surprise bit of history today in the form of a previously unseen plaque (at right; click to biggify) installed a block south of that channel identifying the corner of Virginia and Overland Avenue as part of the site of a Union Army installation known as Camp Latham that existed in 1861-62, as in during the Civil War.
I’m not saying that such a sleepy creekside encampment is anything but an almost-forgotten asterisk far removed from the monumental battlefields whose sacred grounds make up the war’s epic and blood-soaked landscape, but it’s still remarkable to me knowing that as the horrible conflict waged on the other side of the country, the Union Army’s leaders and planners didn’t turn a blind eye to the the risks of secessionists and their sympathizers in the wild west, and that there’s a piece of greater Los Angeles real estate under all the concrete and pavement that’s remembered and recognized for being trod upon by the boots of Billy Yank.
More information and factoids about Camp Latham after the jump.
• With rising concern that California might fall to “Southern sentiment,” Camp Latham was established at Ballona Creek in September 1861 as headquarters for the First California Infantry, under Col. James H. Carleton and the First California Cavalry, under Lt. Col. Benjamin F. Davis who’d arrived at San Pedro from San Francisco and marched inland the 18 miles to the south bank of the creek. The camp served as the troop center for a year, and it appears that more than 1,500 soldiers were stationed there. Frequent details were dispatched to arrest secessionists in the area.
• The camp was named for U.S. Sen. Milton Latham, who as the sixth governor of California had the distinction of serving only five days before resigning in January 1860 to take the seat of Sen. David Broderick who had been killed the previous September in a pistol duel. From a Civil War perspective it’s interesting to note that Latham was a pro-southern democrat, and his election to the office of governor was opposed by those who feared that he would make California a pro-slavery state. He was succeeded by Lt. Gov. John Downey (and another pro-southern democrat), who became the state’s first foreign-born governor (Ireland) and for whom the SoCal city of Downey is named.
• Camp Latham’s existence was short-lived. In decline due to over-crowding and low moral, by early 1862, the troops stationed at Camp Latham began to be transferred to the larger Camp Drum in Wilmington, whose barracks still stands and is the only the only major Civil War landmark in California. It is California Historical Landmark No. 169, and also listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
• By this time the main enemy of Union soldiers garrisoned Camp Latham was no longer southern sympathizers, but rather local whiskey dealers doing business in violation of a prohibition against being within three miles of the camp. It’s reported that one ingenious vendor was doing big business in watermelons until the post commander learned the melons were filled with whiskey. Inspected in 1862, Latham’s tents were found to be worn out, soldiers’ uniforms shoddy, and almost all 100 horses present unfit for use. By mid-March of that year only about a company of soldiers was left to observe the Los Angeles area.