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The Second Mass and Its Fighting Californians

A Reference site of images, articles, artifacts of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry including the Cal 100 and the Cal Battalion.

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From San Rafael to the Civil War and back again

The Marin Kin Tracer, volume 16 No.3 Summer 1993  
A Century Ago
by Lionel Ashcroft
Originally printed in the News Pointer Nov. 13-19, 1991.

First in a two part series.

          Since the acclaimed Civil War television series was produced there has been fresh interest in the men and the companies who fought in it. This is a story of one such man, a former Town Marshall of San Rafael, who fought in those historic battles and was at Appomattox Courthouse when lee finally surrendered.

            This account of James Watson and his experiences comes from personal papers and military records. The family history was made available by Eugenie Watson Grady, James’ granddaughter.

            James often claimed during his lifetime that he was the only native-born Californian ever to participate in the Civil War battles against Lee. Though there were 15,000 Californian troops in the Union Army, nearly all served exclusively in California and far Western States, fighting Indians and protecting the West against Confederate invasion or takeover.

            However, there were about 500 volunteers who went back east, paying their own way, and who fought the Confederate Army under Lee. James was part of the first group who volunteered for what was called the California 100 in December 1862 under Captain J. Sewall Reed. Later, in March the following year, another 400 men were called the California Battalion were recruited.

            His father was Edward Watson, an English carpenter who came to California in 1828 and settled in Monterey. He soon became a naturalized Mexican and converted to the Catholic faith, an essential if you wanted to marry and own land. In 1835 Edward married Maria Guadalupe Castillo, a handsome and assertive beauty with whom he had a stormy relationship.

            James was born in 1840 and a couple years after that, Maria obtained a legal separation from her husband. Edward owned two small saw mills in the area but gave it up and went up to the Consumnes River in 1848 to pan for gold. Edward, unfortunately, died at a place known as Dry Creek, on his very first trip.

            During those early years of James’ life many historic events happened at Monterey and in later life he recalled being present with his mother at the raising of the American flag in 1846 by Commander Sloat when he was six years old. He would have seen many of the early historic figures of California and indeed his father had borrowed money from Thomas Larkin, the first U.S. Consul.

            After Edwards’ death, Maria remarried a Mr. James Crane from Massachusetts, and later moved to San Francisco with her family. San Francisco in Gold Rush days was no place for children and the Cranes began to look around for an alternate place to live.

            Since Maria had some connections in Bolinas, a busy little port shipping redwood logs to San Francisco for wharf pilings, they decided to relocate there. James, a gambler, went into the saloon business. The Cranes built a house facing the lagoon and from the porch they could see the costal hills, now cut clear of redwoods, sloping down into the water.

            When he was 21 James Watson married Mary Ann Foley, an Irish girl in Bolinas.It was an arrangement kept secret from his friends and family. Who Mary was or why they got married is not known. But from the time of his marriage James began to think of leaving Bolinas. He was always down at the wharf picking up news from the lumber schooners just in from San Francisco. Then in 1862 James heard that under a special arrangement volunteers wanting to fight in the east for the Union Army would be recruited in San Francisco.

            The closing day for enlistment was Dec. 10, 1862. James was aware of the deadline and couldn’t make up his mind if he wanted to go. By the first week of December, time was running out and finally, on the last night before the deadline, he saddled his horse and rode off.

            There is no way of knowing if Mary knew or cared her husband was leaving, or if he said anything to her. When James came back from the war, they were divorced, and he never spoke of her again, even to his later wife and family.

            James enlisted on the very last day of their recruitment. Over 400 men had applied, from which the 100 men required to form the company had already been selected. Watson somehow persuaded the Captain Reed to accept him and the records show he was No. 101, the last accepted.

            He was a good choice, since he had blacksmith skills and a good knowledge of horses. At 22, he was a compact man, with big hands and a large boned face he had inherited from his mother.

            Following his successful enrollment he was mustered on December 11, 1862. There was a parade with borrowed sabers and the company was presented a set of colors by the Mayor of San Francisco featuring the California Bear Flag as its motif.

            The whole company was treated to a night out at the American Theater and the next day they were on board the side wheeler “Golden Age” steaming out through the Golden Gate. Christmas was spent crossing the steamy climate of the Panama Isthmus, then up to Boston on the steamer “Ocean Queen” arriving January 5, 1863.

            The bare wooden barracks and field tents at Camp Meigs, Readville, that was going to be their home for the next few weeks looked as inhospitable and raw as the weather. For the next month they learned the cavalry drill, practicing the charge and slashing straw sacks with their sabers. They were all issued carbines and learned to shoot mounted and dismounted. After six weeks, the company was ordered out to the front.

            By March 1863, the California 100 started picket duty and made excursions up towards the Richmond from their base at Gloucester Point, Virginia. But as Union soldiers put it “ they never saw the Elephant.”

            Then, as summer began, the Company was sent out to attack the crucial South Anna Bridge that provided a main route into Richmond. The 44th North Carolina infantry was dug in around the bridge and were fully prepared to defend it. After scouting around the area, the Californians lined up as if fully prepared for a charge. The full company came charging down the road, then at a bugle blast they suddenly stopped, dismounted, changed direction and charged the earthworks on foot using their carbines.

            The ruse was just as they had practiced at Readville. One cavalry trooper was killed and two seriously wounded. The surprised Confederate Infantry were caught facing the wrong way and surrendered. Company “A” captured 123 officers and men, making it a stunning first victory.

            While James was getting his first good look at the Rebels, elsewhere the massive forces of the two Armies were headed towards collision at Gettysburg. As the company moved back to Yorktown with its prisoners, stories were filtering down of the great battle. Gettysburg proved to be the decisive battle of the war but as far as James Watson was concerned, his war was just starting.

            James Watson and the other troopers were issued with Army Colt Revolvers, the standard sidearm of the Union Cavalry, also favored by Confederates. They were big, heavy, six shot, single action weapons that fired a .44 bullet. The revolvers were only useful at short range, making the action of combat a very dangerous and often fatal encounter.

            The second group who had enlisted in San Francisco in March, 1863 were designated the “California Battalion” and were given a great send off by the people of San Francisco. Back in Washington the two groups were united and attached to the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry regiment. The California 100 still kept itself as Company A.

Several times the Battalion carried out raids into Virginia looking for Mosby’s Raiders, a Confederate group that operated to stage quick attacks and sabotage Union railroad lines and communications.

            The second clash for James came on August 24th, 1863 when a 30 man detail from Company A were assigned to escort 100 horses from Alexandria to their base at Centerville. They had stopped to water the stock. Mosby supported by 30 Rangers was out scouting when he saw the Union group. He decided to attack front and rear without warning.

            The Rangers charged with a rebel yell and Watson and the other troopers quickly ran for cover. They grouped, turned and fired back with their carbines. Two of the Rangers, one only 17, were killed and two wounded. One of the wounded was Mosby, who was shot in the thigh and groin by two bullets. Mosby in spite of his wounds was saddled up and managed to escape to his home where he was out of action for more than a month. James and his company had given a good account of themselves but the look of the young rebel who lay dying was hard for him to forget. 

End part one.

Part Two

        James Watson was a young man from Marin County who enlisted at age 22 to go back East and become part of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment in the Civil War.  He was part of a group of Californians who volunteered to go and fight for the Union against the Confederate Army in Virginia.  When James was mustered out of the Army in 1865 he received his bounty money (minus 5 dollars he owed the Sutler) which he spent on a return passage home.

            Just as many Civil War veterans did he initially found home life confining.  Years of tough campaigning in the saddle and living outdoors had made him restless.  It was difficult to sleep inside the small house he had left.  Often he went outside and slept on a blanket on the ground near the stable.  His body seemed to ache as if all the knocks he had taken over the last three years had caught up with him.  The sounds and action of fighting filled his dreams and it was hard to wake up knowing he was home in Bolinas.  Many of his former comrades felt the same.

            He found it difficult to talk to his wife Mary and avoided contact with her.  He had known her for a year before he went off to war and now nearly 3 years later they felt like strangers.  He spent time with his many half brothers, some very young.  His mother now called herself Guadaloupa Crane, dropping the Watson name.  Her second husband Jim Crane ran the local saloon and restaurant as he had done before in Monterey.  James helped him, serving the locals who made their living shipping thousands of cords of firewood to San Francisco.  He was so used to being surrounded by men that he found mixed company difficult and spent most of his time at the saloon.

            In 1868 he and Mary got divorced.  It was an unhappy marriage in which they hardly got to know one another and a short time later Mary died.  It must have been a painful experience as James never in his life spoke of her to anyone.  The following year his mother died and James saw her buried at the Briones cemetery.  (Now unmarked.)

            Once the logging boom had used up most of the available timber, things slowed down at Bolinas.  There were sad memories for James and he felt that he couldn’t settle down there, it was small and tempers flared too easily.  He moved to San Rafael and started working on grading roads in the expanding town using Chinese crews.  After working on the roads for a while, his war injuries began to affect him and he began to look out for some other opportunity.  A new and impressive Courthouse had just been built in San Rafael that had begun to draw a steady flow of out of town visitors.  Hotels and saloons along 4th Street did well and would do better when the narrow gauge railroad now under construction was completed.  James waited for an opportunity while trying his hand at a little restaurant.

            In 1876 Archie McAllister who owned the Express saloon on the corner of 4th and C Street became ill and quit the saloon business.  James, who was a regular customer and a friend, bought the place and ran it as Watson’s Saloon.  He offered his patrons two billiard tables for their amusement.  There in the bar he enjoyed the company of many friends and acquaintances and continued the male companionship he preferred.

            That year he met and married pretty Mary O’Connor who was just 21 and settled down to family life.  He bought one of Isaac Shaver’s houses on 4th Street (its location was opposite the Mayflower today).  Each evening he would spend some time at the bar sharing the stories of his years at war and the battles at Opequan Creek and Five Forks.  Stories such as the Cavalry charge at Cedar Creek, directly at the Confederate infantry, till his commander Colonel Lowell, could whack their muskets with his saber.  He described how he was at the surrender of General Lee’s army at Appommatox and witnessed the General himself riding away, looking neither right nor left at the weeping Confederate soldiers.

            There was rarely trouble at his saloon.  He kept a navy Colt on the back bar and a double-barreled shotgun fully loaded behind the counter.  He never used them in the bar, but would buy rounds for the Colt from Grosjeans Grocery every so often to practice.  Even as an old man he could grip and handle the gun as if it were an extension of his hands.

            He ran the Saloon for several years and then moved up the street closer to the Courthouse, between A and B Streets (there is a copy center there today).  His son Edward was the bartender and Jim Watson took care of the back room where he catered to private parties of the local worthies on special occasions.  Jim became well known for these feasts which grew into all-day picnics for special groups at which the main event was a Bull’s Head Breakfast.

            Up to 2,000 people would come over to Marin for these picnics and spend the day drinking wine, eating chicken and beans, trying the fun of tasting and picking at the Bull’s Head.  This dish was a favorite from Jim’s Spanish Monterey days as a boy.  It required a deep hole to be dug the night before in which red-hot coals were dropped with stones on top.  The heads were wrapped in layers of cloth, placed over the stones and the rest of the hole filled with loose dirt.  This was allowed to cook all night and next day the heads were dug out and the various delicacies removed to taste.  These huge picnic breakfasts were very popular and the local papers commented on their success several times.

            In 1885 James became the Town constable and in 1889 was elected Town Marshall.  He had a small office and was also the Tax Collector, a job that required quite a lot of patience.  He served warrants for the Justice of the Peace, brought prisoners to trial, and quieted disturbances inside San Rafael limits.  James was well respected and had gained a quiet strength through his experiences.  There were very few who would cross him and he had a reputation for fairness.

            James was an active participant in the Grand Army of the Republic as well as the July 4th parades.  The last part of his life he spent partly at his saloon but mostly with his wife enjoying the progress of their five children.  His war injuries slowed him down but he would still take a walk as far as San Anselmo and back.

            The other members of the California 100 went their different ways, including Hugh Armstrong, from Marin, who rose in the ranks to become Captain of the California 100 and later became Major.  When Jim was opening his saloon, Major Armstrong was getting into the newspaper delivery business in Petaluma.  There was 2nd Lt. Fletcher who came from Vallejo and became the last survivor, who died in 1927.  Quite a number of Volunteers came from the North Bay counties and saw each other each year at social gatherings and swapped remembrances.

            James confirmed at these reunions that he was the only member of the Volunteers that was born in California and realized that he was a unique participant in the Civil War.  Of the 15,000 men California supplied to support the Union, he claimed to be the only native Californian to see combat against Lee’s Army.  While this seems hard to prove, research into available records indicates that it is probably true.  To the point, no other veteran at the gatherings challenged his claim.

            He died in June 1910 and was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in San Rafael.  His son Edward ran Watson’s Saloon until Prohibition.  James Watson was a rare man whose life had placed him at some of the most significant events in the history of the United States and California.

            This article is the only account of his accomplishments.