Although Napa County residents were thousands of miles from the battlefields of the Civil War, they deeply cared about those involved in and the course of the conflict. Locals also eagerly demonstrated their allegiance and patriotism by participating in Napa County military companies, relief societies and more.
During the Civil War, communities throughout the country showed their national pride by hoisting the American flag atop massive flag staffs known as “Liberty Poles.” Napa’s immense and towering mast was located at the northeast corner of Main and Second Streets.
Besides proudly displaying “Old Glory,” many Napans volunteered with auxiliaries such as the Napa Ladies Benevolent Society and its two subcommittees, the Sanitary Commission and the Soldiers’ Relief.
These women made and collected donated medical and hygiene supplies as well as personal care and comfort articles for Union medical units and soldiers, which the Society shipped back east. These women also organized benefit fund-raisers, including the Christmas Eve fair and festival in 1864. They raised $656 in gold coin — an equivalent of $840 in cash.
Some Napa County residents who served in the military did go back East to join in the fight, however, most of the men, and boys, served in the local guard companies.
One of these guards was Frank Leach, a longtime Napan. In his recollections, written years later, Leach detailed his experiences as a Civil War era Napa Guard and more.
He began, “In Napa County, the sympathizers with the North and South were thought at first to be about equally divided in numbers, but as the war went on and the towns increased in population, a decided majority for the Union side developed.”
“Before the war closed, there were three military organizations formed in the town of Napa.” These were an infantry, a cavalry “and an artillery company with two field guns.” The latter, in 1864, was the only artillery company in California besides the San Francisco unit.
These three Napa companies and the other California units were expected to be ready to defend the state at a moment’s notice. Leach added, “But, fortunately, no occasion arose demanding service of that kind, although there were times when it appeared as though a conflict was not only possible but probable.”
He expanded on this point. “Government agents were keeping close watch of the doings of all prominent Southern sympathizers, and some of their reports were quite alarming as to what the Southerners were organizing to do.”
One such report stated that an Upvalley rebel band, known as the “Copperheads,” planned to storm the Napa armory to steal weapons in order to invade and capture the Mare Island navy yard.
Prior to receiving that report, the armory was only guarded at night by a few men, but that quickly changed. Leach continued, “The guard was increased with a sufficient number of men to patrol nightly the roads leading into town from the north. I was a member of the infantry company — in fact, the youngest of the 80 members — and stood my share of this night work.”
He candidly disclosed his personal impressions. “Heretofore, I had not regarded it as a very serious matter, but now it seemed to be taking on a very realistic form, and I was not so sure I was enjoying it. The lonely vigil of sentry duty was creepy business at night at the best for a 16-year-old boy, but when things became so threatening I could have given Sherman’s definition of war my unqualified endorsement.”
Leach continued, “On one occasion while all were tuned up with excitement, expectation and anxiety, a man rode into town in great haste, bringing the information that in the vicinity of Yountville ... he had seen some mounted men maneuvering with a field gun of large size.”
“As that section of the valley at this time was almost exclusively settled with Southern sympathizers, the statement of what the man saw, coupled with the information furnished by the federal authorities, caused the military of Napa to be placed on war footing in short order, at least for one night...all night.”
Leach wrote, “Our scouts, sent into the enemy’s country, however, brought back information, which raised a big laugh at the expense of the ‘Home Guard,’ as we were frequently dubbed by Southerners. They found the gun, but it was only a rough imitation...”
He added, “While the joke was on us, all hands were pleased with the outcome of our nearest approach to a conflict.”