The Button Hole: Part II

by Wayne Sherman

(Did you miss part 1? You can find it here.)

Photo by Mike Imwalle.

This past summer, students in SBTHP’s Presidio Archaeological Field School, a partnership with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, found a Civil War-era button behind the Presidio Chapel. This button is known as a General Service button and is found on uniforms in all three branches of the Union Army. The raised mark in a depressed channel on the back of the button is a dead give away that this is a button manufactured during the war years 1861 to 1865 by the Waterbury Button Co. of Connecticut. It is a coat-sized button, as opposed to the smaller cuff-sized buttons, and most likely came off a frock coat or a sack coat; two styles worn by Infantry and Cavalry troops, respectively.

In terms of value, it can be assumed that Butterfield’ s and Cowan’s auction houses won’t be having a fist fight over it anytime soon, as it is worth about five dollars in dug condition to a Civil War collector. However, in terms of historical value to Santa Barbara’s legacy, it is a real gem. Very few American Civil War artifacts have been unearthed in Santa Barbara to date and this may be the first with definite evidence of dating to the period.

In the first post I alluded to how the button may have been lost, without completely identifying who the groups of men were that may have lost it. Considering there were millions of men wearing these buttons during the war (17,000 in California alone), we are quite lucky that after examining the historical record we can narrow our suspects down to about 400 possibilities.

The first two hundred “possibilities” arrived in January of 1862 in response to requests from local officials. Pablo de la Guerra had asked for a presence back around May of 1861 but was refused, as there weren’t enough troops to go around. In October of the same year, local Anglo officials petitioned for troops as they were concerned about the possibility of Californios and the Mexican population in the area having Southern sympathies. Companies H and I of the 2nd California Volunteer Infantry were sent to check the problem and by April realized that the case had been overstated. In April of 1862, Company H and I were sent north to Fort Humboldt and Fort Gaston to quell Indian insurrection in the area.

In December of 1863, one of the authors of the October 1861 request, District Attorney Charles E. Huse, wrote to General Wright that the native Californios were arming and receiving help from the French who were boasting that a French flag would soon be flying over Santa Barbara. Mr. Huse offered a building owned by himself to house the troops. The response was the posting of Company G of the 4th California Infantry in Santa Barbara from January of 1864 until November 1864.

Anyone of the above 300 men could have dropped that button, but since it was found in what was then considered the Hispanic part of town, I’m betting it came from a member of Company C of the California Native Cavalry Battalion recruited in Santa Barbara by Captain Antonio María de la Guerra in July of 1864. Recent drought had decimated the cattle industry and many a Ranchero was out of work, making it easy for the Captain to find good and able horsemen to fill his company. With names like de la Guerra (3), Pico (3), Cordero (5), Garcia (8), Gutierrez (2), Arellanes (2), Cota, Lara, Moreno, Valenzuela, Soto, and many more recognizable names of local Santa Barbara families on the roll, and living in the Presidio area during that period, it is not hard to believe that one of these native sons lost that button from his blue Union sack coat during, or even post-war.

We will never know who lost this simple little Civil War bauble that most Civil War enthusiasts would brush aside to consider the more rare or valuable item. I, for one, am extremely grateful that the archaeologist’s brush brought it to daylight. Common as it may be, just look at the wonderful tale it has unearthed for us about Santa Barbara’s Civil War history.

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.”

Join us at 10am on Friday November 11 at El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park for SBTHP’s Veteran’s Day ceremony. Wayne will be presenting a very special display of his collection of Civil War objects and archival material. For more information please call (805) 965-0093.

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