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L.A. Civil War site could be a casualty of budget battle

Friends of Wilmington's Drum Barracks Civil War Museum are concerned about the fate of the facility's artifacts if the sole curator is laid off as the city grapples with its deficit.

March 24, 2010|By Jeff Gottlieb

Talk about Civil War action in Southern California, and people might think you're arguing about the annual UCLA-USC football clash. But in Wilmington, not far from the Port of Los Angeles, stands a piece of the real war between the states.

The white two-story Greek revival in the middle of a residential tract is the last remaining Civil War-era military facility in Southern California, a remnant of what was once a bustling 60-acre compound.

Now home to the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum, the building was Army headquarters for Southern California and the Arizona Territory from 1862 through 1871. Though the Drum Barracks was mainly a supply depot for forts throughout the area, it grew to a 22-building base, with a two-story hospital, stables and barracks. From there, soldiers fought Indians, guarded the port and kept a watch for Southern sympathizers.

According to Susan Ogle, the museum's curator, soldiers from the Drum Barracks fought the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

In 1862, a small force of Confederate soldiers from Texas marched into present-day New Mexico and Arizona. Col James H. Carlton, the Drum Barracks' first commander, formed the 2,350-man California Column and headed east to take back the territory. They fought the Texans at the Battle of Picacho Pass, south of Tucson, and made their way to the Texas border before returning home.

Now, a different kind of battle is being waged out of the Drum Barracks.

Operated by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the museum could lose its curator -- its lone full-time employee -- as the city looks to slash 4,000 jobs to help cut its budget deficit. The potential layoff list calls for the elimination of a single curator from one of three historical sites: the Drum Barracks, the nearby Banning Residence Museum and Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.

The curator at Point Fermin Lighthouse in San Pedro was notified earlier this month that she was going to be laid off, but the notice was rescinded when the parks agency realized that the Port of Los Angeles pays her salary and benefits. "It was a technical difficulty. Let's leave it at that," said Vicki Israel, assistant general manager for the department.

Since last summer, the curators at all of the museums have been forced to take two furlough days a month.

Kathy Ralston, president of the Drum Barracks support group, said that since Ogle took over as director in 2000, attendance has jumped from 1,800 to 12,000 a year. In a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other elected officials, Ralston wrote, "With the removal of a full-time employee supervising the day-to-day operations of the museum, the Drum Barracks Garrison and Society is concerned with the safety of the artifacts on display in the museum."

She also said that because the city leases the grounds and building from the state and must run it as a "historic museum," a full-time director is required.

The museum, which once housed the junior officers quarters, sits among the homes that sprung up on what was once the military compound. A tabebuia tree blooms with lavender flowers near the building entrance, and white Lady Bansia roses, which Ogle said were planted in 1876, climb over a trellis on one side of the building.

The museum is closed until April 10 as a new roof, paid for through a property tax assessment for city park improvements, is installed.

The Drum Barracks is not named for the musical instrument, but rather for Richard Coulter Drum, the assistant adjutant general of the Army's Department of the Pacific during the Civil War. He was a career Army officer and the fact that his wife was from Louisiana made the looming war personal. He didn't want to fight her family, so he asked for a transfer to the West Coast, Ogle said.

For 18 months during the Civil War, the Drum Barracks was home to 36 camels that the Army shipped from Egypt and Syria to use in the desert. The museum has one of the only two known photos of the camels, taken at Drum by a French photographer, which officials bought on EBay for $4,600 in 2006.

Among the Civil War rifles and bullets, an exhibit about Abraham Lincoln that includes a scale-model of a 1952 Lincoln Capri and the band Linkin Park, there is also the fake leg of Moses De Marce, who lost the limb when he was wounded at Bentonville, N.C. Even without the leg, he lived to be 92.

There is also what Ogle considers the museum's two treasures. One is the Dunbar Autograph Book, a wallet-sized volume that contains the signatures of 50 union generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, and a number of celebrities, politicians and writers, including Buffalo Bill, Rutherford B. Hayes and Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln's assassin.

And then there is an 1864 refurbished Steinway Box grand piano, which visitors are allowed to play. The instrument was donated by a retired engineer from Raytheon who visits the museum each year to tune it.

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