Cedar Hill Cemetery (Part I): Californians in Frankford

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[CALIFORNIA BRIGADE MONUMENT, FRANKFORD]


Acid rain had ravaged the old memorial sitting at the apex of Bustleton and Frankford Avenues such that the side facing Frankford with its gnarled El and well worn houses was barely legible. At first sight in the strong sunlight of early afternoon winter the letters appeared as “Caledonian”, a good guess considering the Celtic roots of the Quaker City. It was, to be sure, a Civil War monument—the battles “Siege of Yorktown”, “Siege of Richmond”, “Oaks Swamp”, “Chancellorsville” telling indisputably of its origin. But its popular label as a generic “Civil War Monument” is both a testament to its physical illegibility as it is to its physical disconnection to the great city that erected it.

The monument sits on an elevated plateau at a rond point at the ceremonial entrance of Cedar Hill Cemetery. Entering the gates off of Frankford, devotees of the dead would have encountered a stern wall of mausalea and the vertical plinth of the Civil War memorial. Heading left or right along upwardly graded entrance roads, one would approach the level of the memorial and be able to inspect its marble plinth topped by an eagle fiercely protecting the Star Spangled Banner.

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[MAUSOLEA, CEDAR HILL CEMETERY]

In the days when visitors sauntered in off of streetcar and elevated to commune with the spirit and memory of the dead, the presence of memory would have made viewing the memorial a supremely prideful experience. Now the gates are closed, no doubt the response to the ways in which trouble bleeds into open, unregulated spaces. Today, the only permanent access point to the original Cedar Hill Cemetery (there are satellite campuses north of Cheltenham Ave. and east of Frankford) is by a gate off of Cheltenham. Before acid raid, weathering, and our repressed security-conscious environment, entering off of Frankford all would have been made clear. This was not some memorial to a murky Civil War victorious past. This was a memorial to the Californians.

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[LOOKING SOUTHWEST, CALIFORNIA BRIGADE MEMORIAL]

At the cusp of the Civil War, one time Philadelphian and Quaker Edward Dickinson Baker was beginning his service as a United States Senator from Oregon. A transplanted easterner who migrated from Philadelphia to the utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana to Illinois to California and then to Oregon in 1860, Baker was knew the country, its biases and fractured politics. Gazing over the Oregon/California border Baker saw a tiny microcosm of the country: a California north that tended Republican and a depopulated south that resented the least vestige of Federal restraint as intolerable. Although California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850, the situation was precarious with only 32 percent of California’s 98,000 population voting for Lincoln in the election of 1860.

To Baker, the picture grew bleaker still with the reality that the commander of the Army’s Department of the Pacific, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnson was being courted to serve the south’s loyalty to forge a pro-South separatist district in California tentatively named the Pacific Republic. Though Johnson, a Kentuckian who later went on to lead all of the Confederate armies declined, California still remained in the balance. With the fall of Fort Sumter, Californians felt particularly affected by the national instability. In the midst of this contentious environment, Baker was approached by prominent northern Californians to represent the state’s Union affections in the coming war. Using his office, Baker took up the call and was authorized by the Secretary of War to form a regiment in May, 1861.

To form his California regiment, Baker left the vast hollow lands of the west and headed east, east to the growing urban behemoth where his father and mother first set foot in America—to Philadelphia. By early Summer 1861, bills with bombastic type announcing the formation of the regiment appeared throughout the city. And thus Philadelphia birthed the California Brigade: the only Federal brigade ever to be formed from a single city.

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[BILL ANNOUNCING REGIMENT’S FORMATION]

Like many urban regiments filled with militantly independent tradesmen and mechanics, the 1st California suffered in the first years of war. The rote discipline of the army and the wooded terrain of northern Virginia were both equally foreign to the men drawn from Moyamensing, Southwark, Frankford, and Kensington. And though Baker was passionately pro-union, it had been 14 years since Baker commanded troops in the Mexican War. As the Californians settled into tedious camp detail in the fall of 1861 in Maryland and Virginia, opportunities abounded for morale-sapping misfortunes. On picket duty, their gray uniforms made troops of the 1st California especially susceptible to friendly fire while night actions the Californians showed their skittishness and lack of good officers.

Undoubtedly their darkest hour came at the Battle of Balls Bluff on October 21, 1861 when companies of the 1st California were ordered to cross the Potomac and reinforce a small reconnaissance party on the Virginia side. Due to lack of boats the crossing was torturously slow, and existing Federal troops on the Virginia side did not situate themselves well around the landing spot. By 3:00, Colonel Baker had crossed his men but found Federal lines collapsing in increasingly ferocious fighting. Edward Dickinson Baker, the sitting Senator from Oregon and commander of the California Brigade was shot and a killed at around 4:30. The rout then became general.  Charles Banes, the 1st California’s chronicler and member of the regiment, recalled that many of the boats were sunk in crossing the river–forcing enlisted men and officers into the river pell mell.  The hastiness of the retreat is best summarized in the conduct of the color sergeant of the 1st California:  “The color sergeant of the Seventy First seeing that all was lost stripped his colors from the staff and winding them around his person plunged into the river. He clung to them until nearly exhausted and to save his life he cast the flag away never to be recovered.”  It was a flag freighted with great hope.  The offending regimental flag had been donated by the citizens of Philadelphia.

According to Scharf and Wescott, Baker’s body was borne to Philadelphia, where:

On reaching Independence Hall, which had been tendered for the purpose by special resolution of City Councils, the remains were placed on a bier. The face was then uncovered, and citizens admitted to view it. The remains had been embalmed, and the face retained much of its natural appearance.  A constant stream of people passed into the hall up to nine o’clock in the evening, when the doors were closed and the remains left in charge of a military guard. On the following morning the doors were reopened, and the remains were viewed by thousands during the day.

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[REGIMENTAL COLORS OF THE 1ST CALIFORNIA, 71ST PA. VOLS.]

In truth, things did not get better for the 1st California, renamed the 71st Pennsylvania in the wake of Baker’s death.  The California or Philadelphia Brigade, comprised of the 69th, 71st, 72nd, and 106th Pennsylvania suffered under poor general leadership.  The Brigade was trounced at Antietam and before Gettysburg its commander Joshua Owens was relieved of command, presumably for some degree of incompetence.  To say that the Philadelphians felt disconnected to their dashing, spit-and-polish New York brigadier, Alexander Webb, was an understatement.  George Stewart in his Pickett’s Charge, A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 argued that though for no discernable reason, “one senses some faint suggestion as of inward rotteness” on the morning of the last day.  At the most pivotal moment on that ultimate day in July the Philadelphia Brigade found itself at the focus of Pickett’s advance, the Angle.  Pushed back, the 71st reformed with the rest of the brigade.  Webb implored the 72nd and 106th to advance is support of the 71st and 69th but the Philadelphians didn’t budge.  An exasperated Webb was forced to rally more motivated New Yorkers to push the Confederates back.

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[MEN OF THE THE 71ST PENNSYLVANIA]

While all of the Philadelphia regiments suffered horribly–most losing 60-65 percent of their original number–one questions whether the infantrymen sustained an interest in the cause over time.  Most likely, members of the regiment were Democrats unswayed by any emancipatory or egalitarian rhetoric who brought their suspicions of mill bosses, landlords, and county sheriffs to the rote hierarchies of the army.  A revolving door of leadership and high command’s proclivity to wantonly spend the lives of the Brigade further corroded morale.  Yet despite their reluctance to fight, they continued to die and for the magnitude of their sacrifice and citizens of Frankford erected a monument in Cedar Hill in 1866.

While much of Philadelphia’s affiliation to the Civil War is jerry-built by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, memorials to soldiers’ true presence in combat stand largely neglected.  So suffers the California memorial in Cedar Hill–far from a proscribed heritage tourism district and not enjoying the popular appeal of a Laurel Hill, it has been relegated to a piece of Civil War generica–interesting like a Lee Friedlander photo (more about the context in flux than the memorial).  But while some continue to reconfigure Philadelphia’s built environment of memory in order to elevate renovated Civil War heroes and demote others, there in Cedar Hill, the link doesn’t need to be manufactured–the connection of memorialized spirit and place is very close.  As Frankford was a small town, it remembered its dead with the intimacy of any small town.

But, the inverse of a memorial’s prominence is not lack of meaning.  Although there is a certain quality in universally recognized sacrifice–in neat VFW ceremonies and bunting-clad monuments–there is humanity, too, in how a monument’s illegibility grows.  There is humanity in change and forgetfulness: how illegibility, physical inaccessibility and a changing neighborhood create a kind of aphasia that cripples remembrance.  And there is something natural about this process that turns memorials into sphinxes and elongates the increment between now and then.  If a memorial can initiate this conversation about memory, it shows that we, its context, have evolved.

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[INDEPENDENCE HALL, PRESENTATION OF REGIMENTAL COLORS]

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4 thoughts on “Cedar Hill Cemetery (Part I): Californians in Frankford

    1. Georgia: I noticed this too. This picture is of Charles Kochersperger, the officer in the center taken in August 1861 in Washington D.C. Kochersperger rose the the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the 71st Pennsylvania and was grievously wounded during the Wilderness campaign. Historians of photography would be better able to tell whether the black man in the background personified the cause, whether he was an officer’s manservant, or ex-slave who befriended the regiment. By all accounts the 71st was not an integrated unit. If I could conjecture even further, Kochersperger and the men surrounding him may have been cut from a different cloth than most of the Philadelphians in the brigade. They may have been abolitionists before the war who were animated by a different cause altogether. An interesting photograph nevertheless.

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