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“To A Distant And Perilous Service”
Westward with the course of empire Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson took his way in 1846. With him went the denizens of New York’s Tammany wards, oyster cellars, and gin mills—the future leaders of California.
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
The Russes were hard-working, frugal Lutherans from Saxony, accustomed to breakfasting on a quart apiece of home-brewed lager and making do on a family income of three dollars a day. If the colonel had been able to find more like them, it is possible that San Francisco would have turned out quite differently—more like Cleveland, say, or Minneapolis. Instead, in his desperate haste, Stevenson was compelled to accept virtually any man who wanted to make the trip. His volunteer officers included bankrupt lawyers from small towns in upstate New York, unemployed cadets from Philadelphia, newspaper editors, job printers, and doctors without formal education; and entirely too many of the men in the ranks were restless young bucks from the bloody sixth ward, sprung from the oyster cellars of Howard Street, the minstrel theaters of Chatham Street, and the gin mills of lower Broadway. Soon everyone was calling the regiment “Stevenson’s Lambs” or “Stevenson’s California B’hoys,” which was not at all the effect Polk wanted; and the colonel had to make a hasty tour of the city, giving propitiatory speeches about the splendid character and moral purposes of the volunteers, none of which mitigated the incessant sneering of Horace Greeley’s Tribune and other papers of Whig inclination.
On mustering day, August 1, only a few companies were filled. One or two were wafting downriver on the night steamer from Albany; another was trudging over from the seventh-ward Democratic headquarters on the East River. Seymour Steele’s A Company lined up on Nassau Street in the muggy morning haze, a rabble with the smell of whisky on them, and trailed off, single file, through Fulton Street and Broadway to the Battery. It was a Saturday, and nobody came outside to cheer.
How the colonel hated this! Unkempt men, straggling through town, drifting out to Governors Island, setting up their brand new white canvas tents every which way on the lawns of Fort Columbus, wolfing sweet crackers and warm beer, complaining about the heat, the sunburn, the half-cooked pork, the brackish coffee. What was needed was discipline! A firm, military schedule, clearly set forth in the order book. Rise to drumbeats at 4:30 A.M. and drill from five to seven. Breakfast and cleanup, then drill again from ten to twelve. Dinner at two, drills five to seven, then supper. Final roll call at nine, with every private soldier to enter his tent, douse the lights, and keep quiet.
First thing Monday, the colonel called together the full regiment, such as it was—two long lines of men in motley, facing the choppy harbor in a pearl-pink summer dawn, mouths crumpled shut in sleepy discontent, stretching, hands clasped on buttocks, eyes roving back to the beloved city. The colonel spoke with eloquence about the friendly, gentlemanly attitudes that would prevail, the bounteous new home awaiting them, the courage and sacrifice of battle. California was in a state of “armed insurrection.” They must be prepared to fight and die. An impressionable corporal caught the gist of it in his diary: “Roast beef and two dollars a day, plenty of whiskey, golden Jesuses, pretty Mexican girls, safe investments, quick returns.”
Muskets were issued, bayonets passed out. The daily drills began, and the hectic purchase of supplies: 1,606 barrels of salt pork, pickles, sugar, vinegar, pickled onions and sauerkraut; tons of coffee; bushels of beans; thousands of pounds of soap and candles; hundreds of crates of muskets, rifles, cartridges, primers, fuses, quick matches, slow matches, cannon balls, canisters, shells. There were four 6-pound field guns, two 12-pound howitzers, four 10-inch mortars, twenty 32-pound iron guns, and all the wagons, tools, and portable forges that Captain Joseph Folsom, the assistant quartermaster, could lay his hands on.
A regimental uniform was designed: light trousers with scarlet piping along the outer seam; a dark blue, single-breasted frock coat with a stand-up collar and scarlet cuffs; and a conical blue cloth cap with a black patent-leather visor in the newest French army style—“very becoming,” said the New York Herald , which approved of everything about the war. At $9.50, however, it struck the volunteers as an extravagant fancy: they got only $12.00 a year for clothing, and $12.00 a month in pay.