Summer Special #6: Drum Barracks Civil War Museum

I’m ending the summer special posts with one of my smaller adventures: the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington, CA.  This was apparently so long ago that I almost forgot about it.  But as I cleaned out papers, after finals, I came across the info brochures I had picked up at the museum and was reminded of the fun I had there.

The Drum Barracks is a small building smack dab in the middle of a residential area.  You just might miss it if you drove past it.  Or maybe wonder what such a small parking lot could possibly be for.  Well, it may be small, but it has a lot.

Outside of museum.  Image from

Outside of museum. Image from


The building that houses the museum used to be one of 22 on 60 acres of land.  In particular it was a Junior Officer’s Quarters.  The building was set to be torn down in the 1960s but was saved by local citizens and opened as a museum in 1987.  The reason it sits in the middle of a residential area now is that back in the 1860’s the landscape was quite different.  For me, it’s interesting to see the change in land use; how eagerly we build and urbanize as well as how quickly the population can grow in certain areas.

What is more fascinating is the relatively unknown part that California played in the Civil War.  After all, we mainly associate the Civil War with the North and the South, not the West.  But as the Drum Barracks prove, the West played their part.  Sometimes with camels.  (I’ll get to that in a minute).

During the Civil War, 17,000 Californians fought in the west and east and those from the Drum Barracks continued working there afterwards serving the southwest for the Indian Wars.  The Drum Barracks came into being though at the beginning of the 1860s after Phineas Banning (whom the street the museum is located at is named after) and B.D. Wilson sold the land, each for $1 to the U.S. Army.  This location was the southwest headquarters from 1862-1871.

The Drum Barracks was also the location containing the California Column, a group of 2,350 men who in 1862 fought the westernmost battle of the Civil War called the Battle of Picacho Pass.

Now let’s talk about camels.  The majority of the southwest is desert, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that camels were used by the men at the Drum Barracks though it’s still funny to image anyone riding a camel in America.

According to a Drum Barracks pamphlet, camels were brought to the southwest by Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, who thought they would be a good way to transport supplies and such.  The camels came from Tunis (North Africa), Alexandria (Egypt) and Sumeria (Turkey).  The first 34 camels arrived on May 13, 1856, including two born during the trip.  The next 41 camels arrived on February 10, 1857.  Of course learning to work with these animals was not easy at first but eventually the men came to respect the camels’ strength and ability to live in the harsh desert.  In 1858, a thousand more camels were planned to be brought over but the coming Civil War terminated these plans.

On the tour, I was told that the horses and camels didn’t get along at all.  Specifically the horses seemed to be afraid of the camels, so this meant some careful finagling to keep them apart.

So what happened to these camels?  In November 1864, 37 of them were sold at an auction in San Francisco to Samuel McLeneghan, who sold three to a circus and used the rest for freight transport in Nevada.  Others also used camels for a while but once wagon roads were improved and railroads built, they became obsolete and some were turned loose in the desert.


The museum features a courtyard and several rooms, which are the parlor, library, barracks room, officer’s bedroom, model room, armory and technological advances room.

Highlights of each area:

Courtyard – the walkway is made from the original bricks that were used for the foundation, chimneys and fireplaces.  These bricks were removed during the restoration process.

Parlor – Was where the officers would sit and relax.  While it doesn’t contain any original furniture from the building, it does have furniture from that time period as well as other miscellaneous items.

Library – This is an excellent research facility.  Anyone can make an appointment to use it.  It has 159 volumes of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies, and the additional 100 volume Supplement to the Official Records as well as many other resources.

Barracks Room – was were enlisted men slept in “cribs” or bunkbeds.  They were made without nails.  There are other personal items, such as uniforms and newspapers there as well.

Officer’s Bedroom – Again the furniture here is not original to the room but is from the correct time period.  It includes a tall bed and dresser and several personal items.

Model Room – Has a wonderful display of the entire Drum Barracks, showing the original 60 acres with 22 buildings and how it used to look.  This model shows you how extensive the military headquarters was.

Armory – holds pretty much every type of gun, bullet and rifle used during the war.

Technological Advances Room – the highlight of this room is an original Gatling Gun.  On the tour they also talk about ironclad ships and their advantages, such as when USS Monitor met the CSS Virginia in battle.


Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday from 10 am, 11 am, 12 pm and 1 pm.

Saturday and Sunday from 11:30, 12:30, 1:30, and 2:30.

For special tours call 310-548-7509

Closed: Monday and Friday


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