Frank A. Leach and the Napa Guards

1861 - 1866
His Reminiscences
(transcribed by Dean A. Enderlin, 2010)

   Frank A. Leach provided at least two accounts of his recollections of service in the Napa Guard (a militia unit organized in 1861 in Napa City, Napa County, California).  Both of his essays are lengthy, and are reproduced here in full.  For the student of Napa history and California military history, his accounts provide a rare contemporary perspective into life as a militiaman in California during the American Civil War.

   The first account is extracted from his autobiographical book, Reminiscences of a Newspaper Man, published in 1917.  The second account was published in The Weekly Calistogian newspaper (Calistoga, CA) in 1921.  It was a reprinted rebuttal that originally appeared in an issue of the Napa Register newspaper (Napa, CA).  Although both accounts are similar, each offers a few unique points not covered in the other.

Dean A. Enderlin
Calistoga, California

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Reminiscences of a Newspaper Man.
by Frank A. Leach
(1917, San Francisco: Samuel Levinson, publisher, pp. 81- 86.)

   War feeling was running high in California, and for a while there was fear some effort would be made to take the state out of the Union, as there were so many Southerners and Southern sympathizers here, prominent in office and in politics.  There was an attempt made to fit out a small schooner called the Chapman as a privateer, and rumors were thick of organization to seize the government arsenal at Benicia and the navy yard at Mare Island, but government authorities seized the Chapman and acted so promptly and firmly on other matters that no serious conflict occurred in the state.

   In Napa County the sympathizers with the North and South were thought at first to be about equally divided in numbers, but as the war went on and the town increased in population, a decided majority for the Union side developed.  Before the war closed there were three military organizations formed in the town of Napa – a company of infantry, a company of cavalry, and an artillery company with two field guns.  They were all mustered in as state troops.  The companies were frequently called out for drill, parade, and encampments, and were prepared to promptly answer any call for service in defense of the state or government.  But, fortunately, no occasion arose demanding service of that kind, although there were times when it appeared as though a conflict was not only possible but probable.  Government agents were keeping close watch of the doings of all prominent Southern sympathizers, and some of their reports were quite alarming as to what the Southerners were organizing to do.  On one occasion the military of Napa was notified by the federal authorities that a number of rebels would assemble in the upper part of the valley with the intention of swooping down on the armory in the town and capturing the field guns and the equipment of the other companies; then, thus armed, they would make a rush for the navy yard and attempt to capture that place.  For months previous a small guard had been on duty at the armory during the night hours, and the ringing of the courthouse bell was to be the signal of trouble when the members of the companies were expected to assemble.  When the report above mentioned was received the guard was increased with a sufficient number of men to nightly patrol the roads leading into town from the north.  I was a member of the infantry company – in fact, the youngest of the eighty members – and stood my share of this night work.  Heretofore I had not regarded it as a very serious matter, but now it seemed to be taking on a very realistic form, and I was not so sure I was enjoying it.  The lonely vigil of sentry duty was creepy business at night at the best for a sixteen-year-old boy, but when things became so threatening I could have given Sherman's definition of war my unqualified indorsement [sic].

   On one occasion while all were tuned up with excitement, expectation, and anxiety, a man rode into town in great haste, bringing the information that in the vicinity of Yountville, out in the fields about a half mile from the county road, he had seen some mounted men manœuvering with a field gun of large size.  The horses would be attached to the gun.  It was rushed to position, unlimbered, and so on, giving the impression that the artillerymen were being drilled in handling the gun.  As that section of the valley was at this time almost exclusively settled with Southern sympathizers, the statement of what the man saw, coupled with the information furnished by the federal authorities, caused the military of Napa to be placed on war footing in short order, at least for one night.  The whole force was called out and remained on duty all night.  Our scouts, sent into the enemy's country, however, brought back information which raised a big laugh at the expense of the "Home Guards," as we were frequently dubbed by Southerners.  They found the gun, but it was only a rough imitation – a couple of sections of 6-inch stove pipe laid across the axle of a pair of front wheels of a wagon.  While the joke was on us, all hands were pleased with the outcome of our nearest approach to a conflict.

   So numerous were the friends of the South in this section that the flying of rebel flags was quite commonly indulged in, but I do not recall that any serious disturbance arose over flaunting the colors of the South.  This was possibly due to the fact that the town was so small that, aside from politics, the inhabitants were all friends and neighbors.

   The assassination of President Lincoln at the close of the war was an event causing intense excitement in Napa as well as everywhere else.  All interest in business or other matters ceased upon publication of the telegram announcing the tragedy.  For several days people would gather in groups on the streets or public places discussing the details of the awful affair.  There was much bitterness expressed in these meetings, and it was feared that the feeling might take some form of vengeance on those sympathizing with the South.  It would have taken but little to have stared the Unionists in some kind of mob action.  In San Francisco such a mob did destroy one or two newspaper offices and commit some other offenses against persons who had been outspoken in their attitude against the Union side, but in the course of a few days things quieted down and citizens began preparations to honor the dead President.  Public and private buildings, business houses, and private residences were festooned in mourning drapery.  Mock funerals were held in almost every community of any size.  At Napa a most creditable display was made.  A procession with an imposing catalfalque, followed by the military, civic societies, and civilians, was an impressive sight.  A funeral oration was delivered by Henry Edgerton, one of the ablest and best known orators in the state.  Every one felt the solemnity of the occasion and was moved by sincere grief at the loss of the great President.  I participated in the parade as acting orderly sergeant of our company.  I know I felt quite set up at being taken from the ranks for the position, and I do not believe the grand marshal felt his responsibilities more than I did mine.  It, moreover, pleased me as an appreciation of my efforts to thoroughly acquaint myself with the duties of a soldier and the drill.  I had studied tactics and sought information and instruction from every source.  In fact, all through life I never entered upon an undertaking without making myself thoroughly acquainted with all its details, that I might be master of it.  To this, coupled with determination and persistence, and with no room for discouragement, I owe what success I have made.  Thus equipped, I know I have succeeded in fields where others have failed.

   Our company made a practice of going out for target shooting about twice a year.  As a rule I won the first prize, but there was one very marked exception.  I was not conscious of any superior ability as a marksman; it seemed so easy for me to hit the target, I could not understand why everybody else could not do as well.  On the occasion of the exception, the detail who had the handling of the ammunition were practical jokers, and when they dealt out to me my three cartridges I noticed they were considerably shorter than usual.  We were using muzzle-loading Springfield rifles, and the powder wrapped in paper fastened to a conical ball with a hollow base constituted the cartridge.  The procedure of loading was to tear the end of paper open, pour the powder into the muzzle of the rifle barrel, then ram home the ball with the paper attached, as a wad over the powder.  I loaded my gun with one of the cartridges, and, when it came my turn to shoot, there was a weak report, and the bullet was seen to plow the dirt very short of the target.

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(Weekly Calistogian newspaper, 13 May 1921, pg. 1)

Frank A. Leach, Now Resident of Oakland, in Reminiscent Mood, Describes "War Experiences" in Napa in 1861-66

By Frank A. Leach in Napa Register.

   It happened that a few weeks ago my attention was called to a communication appearing in the Napa Register, written by E. A. Mount, in which he expressed the opinion that of all the members of the old military company known as the Napa Guards, that he and one other person, Robert West, were all that were still living.  As I turned out with the company on the occasion of its first appearance on the streets of Napa and remained a member for all of five years thereafter, or until my ambitions in business took me elsewhere to live, and "am still in the flesh," and as Alf. Robinson, now of Santa Cruz was another "high private in the ranks," and is still alive, there are at least two more left to answer roll call.

   However, whether two or four, an immaterial increase in the number does not detract from the value of the communication or the purpose of its publication.  As the organization arose from a spirit of loyalty to the government in the time of need and a patriotic desire to render service to our country and was one of which the community was justly proud, it is more than probable that a sketch of the history of the company will prove a matter of interest to the readers of the Register of today, and we can thank Mr. Mount for it.

   When the Civil War of the United States began in 1861, the town of Napa had a population of about 1,500, and the remainder of the county had a proportionately small number.  About one-third of the people in the town and county were sympathizers with the confederate side.  There were radical minded men on both sides, and much bitterness in feeling was frequently manifested.  It was more commonly displayed upon receipt of the news of a victory or defeat in battle of one side or the other, and the intensity was gauged by the importance of the engagement or result.

   Clashes and personal encounters between citizens of the highest standing in town were not uncommon, but fortunately, none resulted seriously, although every body was in common dread of bloodshed on such occasions.

   The activities of the southern sympathizers in aiding and securing recruits for the Confederate army, caused the Unionists to fear possibilities of more serious action on their part.

   In fact, numerous reports as to the organizations and intentions of the Southerners were being constantly brought to the leading men of the other side.  Very soon after the war began, a number of the Napa Unionists organized what they called a Union League, of which Chancellor Hartson, Dr. Stillwagon, Nathan Coombs, Louis Bruck, Dr. Boynton, C. H. Allen, E. S. Chesebro and Fran Vaslit were among the leading spirits.  It was through the action of this association that the Napa Guards were organized.  As I recollect the circumstance it was incited by reports or rumors that the "Rebels" were secretly arming to assist in whatever emergency might arise to aid the Confederacy.

   A full company was enrolled on a short notice, largely from among the farm sections, adjacent to Napa.  Frank Vaslit, who was a drug clerk with E. V. Boynton, was chosen as the Captain.  He had had military training and was "every inch a soldier."  The organization was effected in the Fall of 1861, or not later than in the Spring of 1862.  Vaslit was a fine officer and was not long in whipping his raw recruits into a company equal to any of the militia in appearance and drill.

   Being an independent company the members had to supply their uniforms.  Alex McKay, a Napa tailor, made the greater part, if not all, of the suits, doing a great deal of the work himself.  The style of uniform adopted was not showy or for display – but was serviceable and neat.  I am not positive, but I think the old-fashioned, smooth-bored muskets altered from flint-locks, with which the company was first equipped, were obtained from the United States arsenal at Benicia.  It was some time before the company obtained even these.  At the time they were not regarded as much of a gun, but now they would be looked upon as a joke.

   A year or so later the clumsy and obsolete weapons were exchanged for Springfield rifles.  These were of modern make at that date and quite accurate in shooting up to two or three hundred yards, though they had a range for a thousand yards.

  The company kept its equipment in what was called Armory hall, a large room in the second story of a brick building on the site now occupied by the Connor Hotel.  Drills were held there regularly, once a week and very frequently on moonlight nights they were extended to the streets.

  The first formal parade of the company was the occasion of a barbecue on the commons, which was then the open space of ground extending west from Franklin street, now occupied by the school buildings and built-up blocks of private homes.  It was a general holiday for the town and country, and the large assemblage was entertained in the forenoon and afternoon by the drilling and maneuvers of the Guards.  There were not a few people present to whom soldiering was a novel sight.

   Captain Vaslit, after a few months of command, resigned as he had changed his residence from Napa to Sonoma.  Chancellor Hartson was elected to fill the position.  He commanded the company on its first trip to San Francisco, where the Guards participated in a grand military display.  The streets of the city were paved with cobble stones, which made the long march a painful operation to the boys from the country, whose feet were unaccustomed to that kind of pavement.  Shortly after this, the company took part in the first State Encampment of Militia, which was held at Alameda.  The Encampment was continued for about a week and was attended by about 3,000 State troops and soldiers of independent organizations.  It closed with a sham battle, which lasted for a good part of an afternoon and became quite realistic at times, as the participants became quite excited.  Our company brought home with them as souvenirs three or four powder-stained and bent iron ramrods picked up on "the field of battle."  It appeared that some very green soldiers in a regiment from San Francisco, who had little or no experience with firearms, after loading their guns with blank cartridges, forgot in their excitement to return their ramrods to their proper place, consequently when they fired their pieces, the ramrods went humming through the air.  Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

   There was great complaint over the food supply, which was of the coarsest kind with the crudest service.  The cause was attributed to a contract made with a party to furnish the food at $1 per day per man.  However, the majority of the Napa boys, as well as many others, accepted the situation as an experience to be expected in a soldier's life, and made no fuss.

   C. H. Allen, who was then one of the most prominent citizens of Napa, as well as an enthusiastic and earnest Unionist, was chosen Captain of the Guards, to succeed Hartson, who had resigned. This was in the latter part of 1863.  It was during his command of the company, that things occurred sooner or later, would be involved in serious work.  Ammunition or "ball-cartridges," as styled in those days, were distributed to the men, who were instructed to take their guns home with them and be prepared to assemble at the armory at any time upon a signal sounded by the Court House bell.  A number of men were detailed to stand guard at the Armory.  One night upon receipt of a report from a considered reliable source, that a small force of men were seen drilling in a field near Yountville, with other statements that seemed to fit in with the report that the Armory at Napa was to be raided, the entire company was out guarding the highways leading into town.  In after days, when peace found its way over the land once more, these activities were discussed as amusing incidents in "war experiences," but they seemed serious at the time.

   The gist of the report above alluded to was that the Confederates had a plan to capture Mare Island Navy Yard by invasion from the north end, where there had been little or no preparation made for defense, and that the raid would be made by the way of Napa, where a capture of the equipment of the military was to be first made.  If the scheme were contemplated, no attempt was ever made to put it into execution.

   It was in this year the first target excursion was had by the Napa Guards.  The spot chosen was back of the Smith-Brown place, east of town, or just north of the cemetery.  No on in the company knew anything about regulation targets, so on this occasion, a figure of a man was painted on a board four feet long and one and a half feet wide with a spot on the breast, which was styled the "bull's eye."  Three shots were taken by each member at one hundred yards distance, and one at three hundred yards.  The shooting at a hundred yards was good, but the target was only hit twice at the longer distance.  William Imrie won the first prize, and Charles Kather the second, in the shooting at the first position, and A. Muller, the first prize for the best shot at the second.
   At the annual election of officers in 1864, E. S. Chesebro was elected Captain; A. Blumer, first lieutenant; Ned Kimball, second lieutenant; L. B. Kister, brev. second lieutenant; J. G. Norton, orderly sergeant; A Muller, second sergeant; Joseph Elliott, third sergeant; William Imrie, fourth sergeant; Dave Fairfield, fifth sergeant; C. B. Walker, first corporal; T. J. Dewoody, second corporal; W. R. Cooper, third corporal; O. Steinbach, fourth corporal.

   Soon after the State supplied the company with a new uniform of the style adopted for State's troops, dark blue coats and light blue pants, and regular army caps.

   The company celebrated the 22nd of February by a target shoot at the same place mentioned for the first excursion.  The prize winners in order were:  Frank A. Leach, J. Blumer, George Platt and Ira Fancher.  The shooting was at a hundred yards, regulation target, three shots for each man.  The company returned to town by noon, stacked arms in the Court House square for lunch, after which they marched out to the "commons" and drilled for a couple of hours for the entertainment of a large assemblage of citizens.

   One of the "biggest days" in the history of the company was the celebration of May Day, 1864.  When the Guards had occasion to go to San Francisco in the previous year, they were invited to use the armory of the Washington Guards and became the guests of that company.  They were so courteously treated that the Napa company, in return for the kindness, invited the San Francisco organization to come up to their town and participate in the May Day celebration mentioned.  The invitation being accepted, the Napa people made elaborate preparations for the reception and entertainment of their guests.  One of the features of interest was that the visitors should not be allowed to pay for rooms or meals, or for anything they might seek to purchase or desire at any of the stores, stands or saloons.

   The Guards from the city, under the command of Captain Stover and H. S. Loveland, first lieutenant, came up on a steamer on the evening before May Day.  The greater part of the inhabitants of Napa, including the local military, assembled at the steamboat landing to receive the visitors.  A formal reception was held at the armory when refreshments were served and speeches made.
   The next morning, the two companies, headed by the fine band of the Washington Guards, paraded the streets, then led an informal procession of citizens, in marching out to the picnic grounds back of the Smith-Brown place east of town.  A jolly time was had here, and it was late in the afternoon when the picknickers returned to town.  That night a grand ball was given in honor of the visitors, and special efforts were made for their enjoyment of it.

   The next afternoon was the time set for the departure of the guests.  A lunch was given in the armory, where there were many exchanges of expressions of friendship and good will.  The ladies of Napa prepared a lot of small bouquets of flowers, one for the muzzle of each rifle of the visitors, as well as many large floral collections, which were informally presented.

   As small as the town of Napa was in those days, two other military companies were perfected in organization and equipment in 1864.  One was the Washington Light Artillery, the second company of the kind in the State.  Nathan Coombs, Captain; N. A. Green, first lieutenant; W. H. Montgomery, second lieutenant; J. H. Waterson, brev. second lieutenant.  The equipment consisted of two light brass field pieces, with side arms for officers and men.  Upon the night of the day the cannon were received in Napa, the company took them to a place near the home of their Captain, a mile or so northwest of town and fired a salute in his honor that awakened the lower end of the valley.

   The other company was known as the Napa Rangers.  The officers first chosen were: J. F. Lamdin, Captain; Lyman Chapman, first lieutenant; J. F. Carter, second lieutenant; -- Towner, junior second lieutenant; C. Seaver, orderly sergeant; Dan Gridley, second sergeant; Paris Kilburn, third sergeant; William Clayton, fourth sergeant; L. Backus, fifth sergeant; -- Poe, first corporal; G. W. Manuel, second corporal; Mont Rose, third corporal; Henry Chapman, fourth corporal; E. W. Leach, bugler; H. J. Clark, farrier [sic]; William Smith, treasurer and J. M. Clark, secretary.  The State furnished the uniforms, arms and other equipment, while the members furnished their own horses.  The company was unable to make an appearance fully equipped until September by reason of a long delay in receiving their outfit.

   In the celebration of the 4th of July in '64, the military of Napa were in great feature.  The drilling and maneuvers and barbecue attracted a large assemblage.  During the feasting, John Coghlan, afterwards Congressman from this district, auctioned off a cake for the benefit of the war sanitary fund, which was similar to the Red Cross fund of the present time.  The sum of $107 50 was realized and $300 more were added from the grand ball held that night in Captain Phillip's warehouse.

   In the following month at the annual election of officers of the Artillery company, N. A. Green was elected Captain; A. W. Norton, first lieutenant; G. N. Tuthill, second lieutenant; John M. Coghlan, brev. second lieutenant.  The meeting was made a festive occasion and was presided over by Captain Chesebro of the Napa Guards.  A bottle of wine was auctioned for the benefit of the sanitary fund, bring $133, when other contributions were made, increasing the amount to $150.

   A month or so later a military encampment was held in Green valley, which was attended only by cavalry and the Washington Light Artillery of Napa.  The Napa Rangers made an excellent showing.  A sham battle was held on the last day, which was attended with considerable excitement and narrow escapes from injury or worse.  The drill master of the artillery was a man named Gooch, whom the Rangers thought would be a good joke to capture, as an incident of "battle."  As might be surmised, the two companies were on opposite sides in the arrangement of the affair.  In some manner, the artillerymen learned of the plan to make a prisoner of their officer, which was expected to be accomplished in the "charge" that the cavalry were to make upon the battery.  When this "charge" was made, the division of the battery with which Gooch served, immediately sent a detachment with a caisson off with Gooch aboard at full speed.  Four big horses were attached to the caisson.  A driver was mounted on each span; they leashed the horses into a wild and furious pace.  Whether the animals under the goading became unmanageable, or the drivers lost their heads in the excitement, I could not say now.  However it was, the outfit, closely pursued by the Rangers, plunged madly through the middle of the encampment, scattering tents and equipage right and left.  It was an awful scene for the moment, for it was felt that surely everybody in the encampment could not have gotten out of the way of the made racers.  But strange to say, no one was hurt.  The artillerymen prevented the capture of their drill master.  The incident caused a lot of talk and criticism.  I do not remember whether any one was censured or not, but it ended the "battle."

   On one or two occasions the Vallejo Rifles visited Napa and participated in the parades that made quite a show in such a small community as existed here at that time, but the military spirit of the day was raised to the highest pitch by the war conditions prevailing on the other side of the continent.

   It was on September 26, 1864, that the Guards held their third target contest.  William Grigsby won the first prize, William Avery, the second, H. L. Armstutz, the third, and Guy Kilburn, the fourth.

   In the following January at the annual election of officers E. S. Chesebro was re-elected Captain, as was J. Blumer, first lieutenant; L. B. Kister was selected second lieutenant and Robert Parks, brev. second lieutenant.

   On the 12th day of April, 1865, the Washington Artillery Company fired a salute of a hundred guns on confirmation of the news of the downfall of the Confederacy.  It was a day of rejoicing among the Unionists, but the joy was quickly changed to lamentations a few days later, when the details of the assassination of President Lincoln were flashed across the continent.  The town, like all other places on the northern side, went into mourning.  All the business, residential and public buildings were draped in black and white.  The mock funeral held in Napa was an imposing affair.  The three military companies, fraternal organizations and citizens made up the procession.  Henry Edgerton, one of the best orators in the State, delivered a eulogy on the lamented President from the steps of the old Court House, before an immense assemblage of citizens gathered at the Court House square.  Other services appropriate to the occasion were also held there.

   Although the Civil War ended with a collapse of the Confederacy, and the grand armies were disbanded, there was no falling off of interest in the military companies of Napa.  They were useful in parades and celebrations and enlivened the town.

   J. C. Pierson was selected Captain of the Guards in 1866.  Soon after he became Commander, the company was mustered into the State service and became a part of the National Guard of California.

   The 4th of July of that years was celebrated in Napa most enthusiastically.  Of course the military was the predominating feature in the parade, but it was not all, for there were other participants.  The procession was one long remembered as the most pretentious and successful display of the kind ever held in Napa up to that time.

   The companies maintained their organizations at least for three or four years after 1866, but just how long I cannot say, nor am I acquainted with their activities after the Spring of 1867, when I moved away from Napa.  I think I am correct in saying that Captain Pierson remained in command of the Napa Guards until the organization was disbanded.

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