Monday, November 2, 2015

Prezelski: "CALIFORNIO LANCERS: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863 - 1866"

[Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863 - 1866 by Tom Prezelski (Arthur H. Clark, 2015). Hardcover, maps, photos, roster, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:152/245. ISBN:978-0-87062-436-0 $32.95]

Of California's contribution of 16,000 soldiers to the Union cause, the four-company battalion of "native" lancers recruited in 1863 was surely the most unique group of volunteers. Primarily recruited from ranching counties located in the central and southern regions of the state, the 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry consisted mostly of Spanish speaking "Californios" as well as many immigrants from Central and South America. In the tradition of their military forbears the troopers were armed with lances, while being also issued with sabers, pistols, and carbines at various times during their service. The history of this unit during the Civil War and beyond is the subject of Tom Prezelski's groundbreaking study Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863 - 1866.

As Prezelski notes, the general illiteracy of the rank and file makes exploring their personal motivations difficult. During 1863-64, the state experienced a severe drought that devastated the cattle herds that represented the local economies of the counties from which most of the battalion were recruited. Regular food and pay must have appealed to many newly unemployed vaqueros. With the old country in mind, some felt that the U.S. government was the side best suited to resist the kind of imperial European aggression that was then raging south of the border. With Californios now a distinct minority in their home state after massive emigration from the rest of the United States, concerns regarding full citizenship, including perhaps greater legal consideration over claims involving decades old land grant disputes, may also have been a motivating factor. What does seem clear is that ideological concerns related to the great schism between North and South did not rank highly among reasons for enlistment.

As the battalion did not operate together as a single unit during the Civil War years, the first two-thirds of the book is comprised of functionally independent company histories for the period 1863-65. Company A was organized in San Jose, California with Jose Ramon Pico as its captain. As would become a disturbing pattern in at least three of the four battalion companies, officer infighting, malfeasance, and dereliction of duty would make recruitment, organization, and training a long, drawn out process additionally hampered by mass desertion. When Company A was finally fit to take the field in December 1863 the men were directed to the isolated northern counties to fight hostile tribes. Unfortunately, discipline and desertion problems persisted during active service. The company also dealt with isolated incidents of civil unrest before marching south to join the rest of the battalion in the spring of 1865.

Organized in the Bay Area and posted at the Presidio for the balance of 1864, Company B led by Captain Ernest H. Legross stood out from the other companies in that only a handful of its troopers had Spanish surnames. The majority of its soldiers were French speakers, though heavy desertion and subsequent refilling of the ranks would significantly alter the ethnic balance. In January 1865 the company moved 100 miles south to San Juan Batista, a supposedly "Copperhead" town where a vicious band of bandits were operating with impunity. Though the gang wasn't destroyed its members were driven south and in March the company would also move in that direction, to Drum Barracks near Los Angeles. There, it would join up with the rest of the battalion, the whole soon to be bound for Arizona.

Captain Antonio Maria de la Guerra's Company C was raised in Santa Barbara and formally mustered into service in July 1864. It was the only company in the battalion to have the minimum number of privates from the start. Ordered to Drum Barracks in August, Company C arrived there on September 2.

Company D, led by Captain Jose Antonio Sanchez, was recruited from the Los Angeles area in early 1864 and was immediately posted to Drum Barracks, where the men were mostly employed as laborers on the San Gabriel Ditch project. In spite of this questionable diversion from military duties, morale seems not to have suffered and the unit had far fewer discipline problems and desertions than either of Companies A and B. With the canal completed in August, Company D conducted wide ranging patrols to show the flag and protect pro-administration voters (while also intimidating the opposition) during the 1864 elections. During this time, their reach extended all the way east to the California-Arizona border and south to the U.S.-Mexico national boundary.

As regular readers of Civil War military history know, lancers were an anomaly among the cavalry forces of both sides. According to author Tom Prezelski, the 1st Battalion's lances were not merely ceremonial in nature and did accompany the men on active campaign. Unfortunately, the book does not include any firsthand accounts that specifically point to their use in the field.

With the war concluded, the now reunited battalion crossed the southern desert to Arizona's Fort Mason, a lonely post located near the international border with Mexico. During the journey the companies continued to suffer from heavy desertion and malarial sickness raged after the battalion reached Fort Mason. Those few well enough for duty patrolled the national border, at one point warning off a sizable incursion into the U.S. by a sizable Imperialist-allied force. During the ensuing winter, the native cavalry joined other units in a mountain campaign against the Apache, a punitive operation that entirely failed. Replaced by the returning Regular Army in 1866, the battalion rode back to California and was mustered out of service.

In addition to his battalion history narrative, Prezelski also compiled a number of useful appendices, the most significant being the company rosters. Another appendix item of interest is the author's desertion analysis, which linked desertion rates with the quality of officers. A and B had the most abysmal leadership of the four companies by far and each suffered desertion rates of well over fifty percent.

While the 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry did not fight in any great Civil War battles or distinguish themselves in any particular way, they did their part handling internal and external threats to loyal citizens and represented the U.S. flag over vast expanses of the remote West. Like many other California units did, the native cavalry also confronted hostile tribes to the best of their ability in the absence of the Regular Army. The first full length history of the men and operations associated with this unique and little studied military unit, Tom Prezelski's Californio Lancers significantly enhances our knowledge and understanding of the Civil War in the Far West.

More CWBA reviews of OU Press and imprint titles:
* Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit
* The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861
* Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives
* The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State (PB edition)
* Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865


  1. The reviewer's criticism that I did not provide firsthand accounts of the use of lances in the field is well taken. In retrospect, I should have been more explicit about this.

    Truth to tell, there is almost no direct evidence concerning how lances were used, and only a little indirect evidence. Major O'Brien at San Juan Bautista, for example, refers to the Native Cavalry as "Spanish lanceros" (pgs. 68-70) in reference to their patrols against bandits, and Major Cremony questioned the usefulness of lances against the Apaches (pg. 130), all of which implies that the weapon was carried in the field. Additionally, the Native troopers were specifically ordered to carry lances on their patrols of Los Angeles County in advance of the 1864 elections (pg. 95).

    I had considered writing an appendix which specifically discussed the lances, but ultimately decided that this was redundant. The reviewer is right in pointing out that I should have done more to clear up the ambiguity that is mentioned here.

    Thank you for the review.

    1. Hi Tom,
      It was really an observation rather than a criticism. I figured the information wasn't in there because you either didn't find it or it doesn't exist. I wanted to mention it in the review because some readers will specifically be looking for such evidence given how uncommon the use of lances were during the war. It's a fine book. I applaud your efforts in traversing untrodden ground as I am not aware of any other modern Civil War studies of California units.



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