Earlier this week I went desert camping with my youngest brother during his spring break. As we drove out to Anza-Borrego State Park, we closely followed the path of the Overland Butterfield Stage Route. In many places along the twisting Highway 79, little has changed in the topography and landscape since the 1860s. I tried to imagine what it might have been like for the Southern sympathizers who used this route to head for the Confederacy in 1861. And how the Federal soldiers sent to guard the trail might have felt in this wilderness of scrubby oaks, sagebrush, rock piles, and open meadows.
If you’re ever in San Diego County or south Riverside County in Southern California and in need of a Sunday afternoon drive, this is a good one with Civil War history along the way. If that type of trek isn’t in your plans, then let me take you on the drive through some photos and share about the Civil War happenings along this back country road in California.
Albert S. Johnston and a few comrades were the first recorded Southerners to make an escape via the Butterfield Trail. General Johnston – then a U.S. officer – had arrived in California with his family in the early weeks of 1861, assuming command of the Department of the Pacific. However, when Texas seceded, he offered his resignation which the War Department approved on May 6, 1861.
Prior to his resignation and the arrival of Edwin Sumner, rumors swirled that Johnston was involved in conspiracy theories to hand the Pacific Department to the Confederacy, but Johnston specifically told Governor Downey he never planned anything like that.
Following the end of his Federal military duties, Johnston moved his family from San Francisco to Los Angeles and they lived with his brother-in-law, Dr. John S. Griffin. After making his brother-in-law promise to look after the family, Johnston made plans to escape to the Confederacy with a group of Southern sympathizers. He left Los Angeles on June 16, 1861, heading for Warner’s Ranch via the Butterfield Stage Route. The stagecoach trail took him through Temecula (my current hometown!) and into the rolling, then steeper hills of southern California. Johnston passed through Oak Grove and passed Warner’s Ranch before descending into the desert.
After adventures in the southwest, Johnston arrived in Confederacy, and on September 10, 1861, Jeff Davis appointed him to command the Confederate Military Department 2 which spanned from Appalachia to Indian Territory.
Following Johnston’s successful departure from California, another group decided to give it a try via the Butterfield Trail. Dan Showalter – a former California assembly man with a violent reputation – and about fifteen other men headed for the Confederacy in November 1861. This time, though, Federal authorities and military were alerted to planned escape. Soldiers at Fort Yuma, Camp Wright, and San Bernardino hunted for the Showalter Party, alerted to their plans and approximate locations by Union sympathizers in the area – including J.J. Warner who owned Warner’s Ranch along the trail.
By November 28, 1861, Lieutenant Chauncey R. Wellman and his patrol got decisive word that Showalter had spent the night in Temecula and had headed southeast, somewhat following the trail. Wellman and his cavalrymen pursued, found the pro-Southerners’ trail, and caught up with them on the morning November 29th. Eighteen Federals pointed carbines at sixteen suspicious characters who claimed they were merely peaceable miners. When another cavalry patrol arrived on the scene, Showalter and his confederates surrendered.
Dan Showalter made a valiant effort to convince Captain Hugh A. Gorley – temporary commander at Camp Wright – that he and his friends were just going to mine in the desert area. Gorley didn’t buy the story and, following orders from General Wright, kept the “peaceable miners” under guard. Rumors flew that Knights of the Golden Circle were coming to rescue Showalter, but nothing came of the pro-Confederate story.
Showalter and his buddies offered to take a loyalty oath to the Union (just to get released), but the officers let them swear the oath and still kept them under guard. In December, the detained men transferred from Camp Wright to Fort Yuma. Finally, in April 1862 – after signing another loyalty oath – Showalter and his fifteen men obtained their freedom and headed into the southwest deserts. The next time the slippery leader appeared he commanded Texas cavalry and held the rank of colonel.
Ultimately, records point to approximately 250 soldiers joining the Confederate military from Los Angeles County alone, and the vast majority of those men slipped east over the Butterfield Stage Trail.
To counter these rebels, Federal authorities and the military commanders on the Pacific coast strengthened the garrison at Fort Yuma and added a temporary outpost at Oak Grove. Named Camp Wright, this military establishment existed only for the duration of the Civil War. It opened in autumn 1861 and closed in 1866, existing for the purpose of keeping Confederate sympathizers from heading east. California volunteers held the post, helping to ensure the Union stronghold on the state.
Start in Temecula, California. Take the exit off Interstate 15 for Temecula Parkway/Lower Highway 79 and head east.
Stop at Vail Ranch Headquarters (32127 Temecula Pkwy, Temecula, CA 92592) and explore the 19th Century wood and adobe buildings that have been preserved by the local historical society. Historical plaques explain the history of the structures and a few pre-date the Civil War. The main dirt pathway leading through the central area is part of the Old Butterfield Trail! It’s quiet possible that Johnston and Showalter stopped at some of these buildings, though they were not at this exact location in 1861. (In an ambitious and successful preservation effort, the historical society relocated old buildings to this central site and has done preservation and interpretive work.)
Continue east on Temecula Parkway which becomes Highway 79. In about 21 miles, you’ll reach Oak Grove. A historical marker will be on the right, commemorating Camp Wright and its Civil War era history.
If you wish to continue to Warner’s Ranch, continue east. In about 18 miles, make a left turn on San Felipe Road and in couple miles, the old ranch buildings will be on your left, along with a historical marker.