Greetings from Camp Cady, California! Armistice Day (later to be named Veterans Day) is still about 60 years away, but here we are, taking you back in time to the loneliest, meanest U.S. Army outpost in the United States, a year before the Civil War went hot.
It is a day in 1860, and we’re watching a military column of horses and soldiers, heading west through the mouth of a canyon. The soldier near the front, Major James H. Carleton, mounted on a fine horse, calls for a halt, and Company K of the 1st United States Dragoons assumes a military posture. They have no idea that so much U.S. history will include mention of this place.
They are few, less than a hundred, and the small patch of territory on the Mojave River where Major Carleton halts his column is surrounded by a local population of Piute, Shoshone and Mohave Native Americans who are not pleased with his intrusion.
The fact is, Company K is here to confront what the growing nation sees as a menace. The feeling is mutual.
Some things never change in the military, as any combat soldier, sailor or Marine can tell you. Long hours of boredom punctuated by wild outbursts of violence are often the rule and not the exception. All the truer when you’re in front, and help is nowhere to be found. You and your comrades are it, and it’s hard to call in the mounted infantry when that’s you.
The major and the men of Company K rest, and the horses and mules drink from the small vein of water that shows itself nearby.
Side Note: The 1st U.S. Dragoons are today’s 1st Cavalry Regiment. They often train at nearby Fort Irwin. Small world.
In short order, Major Carleton and the troopers build a fortress. Not like the ones we see in cowboy movies, with massive walls made from felled trees. This is the desert, and there are no trees. Camp Cady is made from mud and twigs. The men grumble and complain, which is the right of every trooper in the field to this very day. It’s a military tradition, in fact. Still, they do their job.
Not all, of course. in the few short years that Camp Cady existed, desertion was a problem. One notable instance had two soldiers deserting their post, followed by the patrol that went out to find them. The patrol deserted as well and were never heard from again. In 1860, the Mojave was not a choice assignment.
Side note-2: This is true even today. Of all the U.S. Army and Marine posts in the USA, the least desirable among troops are noted as Fort Irwin, north of Barstow, the Marine Logistics Base at Yermo, and the USMC Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.
So, lets get back to 1860. By the end of the year, Camp Cady is up and running. The 1st Dragoons mount regular patrols and provide protection for travelers on the Government Road.
Battles are few, and when they happen, the enemy disappears into the desert. This is their home, and they know the territory far better than the privates and corporals from the East Coast.
On April 12, 1861, almost a year to the day that Camp Cady was established, a small skirmish takes place at a small fort in South Carolina. Fort Sumpter.
Suddenly, guerilla attacks by a few Shoshones and Mohaves in the desert becomes the least of the U.S. Army’s problems. Welcome to the War of Succession. The Civil War.
Before the famous shots were fired at Fort Sumter, the Commander of all U.S. in the southwest, based in San Francisco, was a rising star, destined for greater things than overseeing a few beleaguered outposts in the Mojave Desert.
Anyway, right now it’s 1860 and brevet Brigadier General Albert S. Johnston only knows that it’s hard to supply Camp Cady, and morale is a big issue. He relies on his quartermaster to see to daily issues, and Captain Winfield Scott Hancock is an able soldier for the task.
Captain Hancock lives in Los Angeles before the Civil War, and often associates with his life-long friend, Lewis Armistead, who is also a Captain, stationed in San Diego.
Captain Armistead has been in the west for a few years, including combat action with the Mohaves, and it is Lewis “Lo” Armistead that gives name to Fort Mohave, at the head of the Government Road.
When word reaches Los Angeles of the action at Fort Sumter, events were already moving fast. South Carolina has succeeded, followed by the rest of the newly formed Confederate States of America. Texas joins the confederacy, and General Hancock is a loyal Texan.
Trouble is brewing on the West Coast.
On a pleasant summer evening in 1861, Mrs. Almira Hancock organized a party in Los Angeles. A social function where her friends said goodbye. Albert Johnston has resigned his commission and joined the confederacy, and Lewis Armistead follows suit. Winfield Scott Hancock remains a steadfast Union man.
Two years later, the two good friends almost meet again in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
CSA General Lewis Armistead, following orders of his superior officer General George Pickett, takes the center of the charge towards the aptly named Cemetery Ridge and is shot three times–Mortally wounded. At the top of Cemetery Hill is his lifelong friend, Winfield Hancock. It is General Hancock’s troops who have succeeded in routing Armistead’s troops, along with the rest of Pickett’s division. “Pickett’s Charge” becomes emblazoned in history.
Okay, back in California.
The absence of the U.S. Army during the Civil War is felt in the desert, and Camp Cady is manned by volunteers. The original California State Militia.
The battles with Native American’s have subsided, and the troops are watching for rebel activity in the desert. While California was firmly in the Union, the desert was a hotbed of confederate sentiment. Still, nothing is seen at Cady.
Fast forward to 1868.
Camp Cady has moved a half mile to the west and become a real fort, including a marching field. Most every veteran can relate to marching. It’s traditional, after all.
By 1869, the fort is in civilian hands, and within a few years has disappeared altogether. Floods washed away the last remnants of Cady in 1963.
Today, Camp Cady lives in written word only. The land has reverted to the Mojave Desert, and only ghosts of the past exist. Still, it’s a place where veterans served.
For a more complete story of Camp Cady, I recommend Dennis Casebier’s book, “The Battle at Camp Cady,” 1972. It can be ordered from the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association.
To all veterans, past and present, thank you for serving this great nation.