The Button Hole, Part 1: 1862

This summer, students in SBTHP’s archaeological field school excavated a Civil War-era button at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park.  Below is Wayne Sherman’s account of how that button might have found its way into the earth behind the Presidio Chapel.

Four-button sack coat, part of a Cavalry-style uniform of the type worn by Company C, California Native Cavalry Battalion from Santa Barbara, during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Wayne Sherman.

There’s no telling when he lost it exactly. Most likely, somewhere between 1862 and 1867. That’s when that style was worn in Santa Barbara. Dashing young gentlemen with sky blue pants would parade through town, footwear polished bright and gilt buttons gleaming. They wore their hats rakishly and quickened the pulse of many a local senorita when they smartly marched past glancing, a quick and furtive “Eyes right!”

They enjoyed fandangos when allowed and performed their newly learned skills in front of the local citizenry, bringing a sense of security to the town. That’s why they were sent; Santa Barbara was rumored to be in trouble.  California was in trouble as was the whole United States. The Enemy was in the foothills and gaining strength every minute. Santa Barbara could use some protection or, at the very least, someone to visit and spend some Yankee dollars.

The first arrived in town on January 2 of 1862 to what must have been a real spectacle for the citizens of quiet Santa Barbara. In those days it would have been very hard to miss noticing when two hundred new souls show up in town all at once. Many of these men were from the San Francisco area with many of the others from Placerville and the gold country.  But, as it was the town’s request that these men should come, they were welcomed with open arms and warm tortillas. However, it did not take long to realize there was no enemy in the hills and none along the coast for that matter and, four months after arrival, they left town. One of these fine fellows could have lost the button.

In January of 1864 another hundred men arrived in town. This group was from Auburn and Marysville and performed the same duty as the first, wearing the same eye catching dress. But, unlike the first two hundred, these men stayed almost a whole year before leaving, quickly as the others, in November of 1864. So, I would guess, there is an even better chance that one of these boys left town with an unsecured button hole.

Then again, the local boys saw the flush in the senoritas cheeks as these out of town fops paraded about in their fancy dress. So, before the last group left town, one hundred Santa Barbara men took the sacred oath to wear the blue coat with gilded buttons.  This group, after having performed similar service on the Arizona border, returned home in 1866 to a grand fiesta at Casa de la Guerra. Maybe one of these native sons visited the Presidio that festive night to assure himself he was home. The next morning he awoke to fold his coat of gilded buttons and put it away to return to the life he once knew, never noticing the vacant hole.

To be continued soon in The Button Hole, Part II: 2011

Wayne Sherman is SBTHP’s Santa Inés Mission Mills Steward and a Civil War re-enactor with the Fort Tejon Historical Association’s Civil War program. He portrays a Cavalry Trooper with Company a 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry aka “The California Hundred.”

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