By February 1863, the “quick war” to put down the states in rebellion was ending its second full year of battle. The 500,000 volunteers President Lincoln called for in 1861 were not enough to end the rebellion. General McClelland’s Peninsular Campaign of June 1862 did not achieve the promised victory to capture Richmond, thereby ending the war. In July of 1862, President Lincoln called for an additional 300,000 volunteers, from all the states left in the Union, to unify the nation once again. California however was exempt from fulfilling the state’s quota of volunteers to fight in the east due to the prohibitive cost of “moving the men to the East Coast.” (1)
Even though California was exempt from sending volunteers, there were men who believed California should send troops. In October of 1862, James Swell Reed a transplanted Massachusetts business man living in San Francisco proposed a plan to raise a volunteer company of cavalry for the Union cause. The men would be credited to the Massachusetts quota of volunteers.
On December 11, 1862, 0ne hundred and three men departed San Francisco, California enroute to Boston, Massachusetts. They were called the California 100, Cal 100 for short. These men volunteered to serve in a Massachusetts Cavalry regiment for“three years or the war. Shortly after the departure of the Cal 100 a call went out for four more cavalry companies to be formed of California men to also go off to war in a Massachusetts cavalry regiment.
The Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper, ran this ad on Friday December 19th 1862: “LIGHT CAVALRY WANTED…. Four companies of Cavalry for active service in the war at the East… very (sic) man joining these companies must be in good health, intelligent, active, an (sic) capable of preforming the hardest light cavalry service.” This ad would run continuously until the four companies were full. (2)
Merrill Beal a thirty year old shoemaker turned butcher, transplanted from Natick, Massachusetts, answered the call. On January 30 1863, Merrill Beal walked into Platt’s Music Hall on Montgomery Street and signed his enlistment papers. (3) On Tuesday February 5, 1863, after putting his affairs in order, Merrill reported to Platt’s Hall and was mustered in to the California Battalion, along with 99 other volunteers. Thus began and adventure that would forever link Merrill to a famed and glorious battalion. An Adventure which would bring him back home to become a member of the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry.
The story of how Merrill came to be in California is a little vague. In early 1860, the shoemakers of Massachusetts went on strike. Merrill along with his ten brothers, all shoemakers, went out on strike. By early spring of 1860, the shoe manufactures succeeded in breaking the strike and forcing the shoemakers back to work. The shoemakers of New England were devastated after the strike. The lack of work and the low pay forced many shoemakers to find other forms of employment. Merrill’s older brother George Beal became a photographer. This event was probably the reason Merrill went west.
The trip west was most likely done overland. Merrill would have had to take the overland route to California because it was the least expensive way to get to California. To take a steamship down to Panama, than a train across the isthmus, then another steamer to California would have been far beyond Merrill’s means. Plus, the long journey across the continent would explain why he was not on any of the census record of the 1860’s. If Merrill had gone west right after the shoemaker strike ended, he would have been somewhere on the Plains during the 1860 decennial census. All of Merrill’s family was counted in the 1860’s census all that is except Merrill. A check of the census records in California show no record of any Merrill Beal residing anywhere in California during the 1860 census. So there was a good chance that he was crossing the country in a wagon train when the census of 1860 was being tabulated.
Once he reached the west coast, Merrill settled in San Francisco and began what he thought would be a new life. A life the rest of his family would gradually lose track of; if Merrill’s life had played out normally. However, the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency would drastically change the course of Merrill’s life; as well as the lives of over three million other men in America at that time.
Guidon Company M
Mike Sorenson Collection
When the Civil War began, Union Army General in Chief Winfield Scott believed “one to two years to be the minimum time needed to train cavalrymen and cavalry horses.” (4) The Army did not believe that city boys and farm boys could be turned into cavalry troops in less time than that; the prevailing belief at the time was the rebellion would be crushed before the volunteers could be properly trained as cavalry troopers. By the end of 1861, Scott had resigned and President Lincoln realized by July of 1862 that the rebellion would actually be a long war. As with all of America’s wars, the citizen soldier stepped up to the task. The ranks of the volunteer Union cavalry would swell with city boys and farm boys.
Advertisement placed in San Francisco Newspapers Dec. 1862
On Tuesday February 5, 1863, citizen Merrill C. Beal became Private Merrill C. Beal of the California Battalion. His first exposer to military life was when he was standing in a room with the other volunteers waiting his turn to be examined. As George Towle, of the Cal 100, recollected in his diary, “I stood behind a curtain waiting to be examined.” (5) Merrill stood there waiting to be called, he must have been wondering if he would pass the physical exam. At thirty years old he was a bit older than most recruits. The first test was to vault over a table followed by “all the exercises and test that the medical officer required.” (6) After examining the volunteers, one hundred men were selected. Merrill and his ninety-nine comrades were given a meal and assigned quarters in the “upper story” of Platt’s Music Hall. Once the Men had been fed, their names were entered into the muster book and they were sworn into service in the California Battalion. (7)
Company M's Discriptive Book Listing Merrill Beal
Company M's Discriptive Book Listing Merrill Beal
Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Now that Merrill and the other men were officially sworn into service, they were assigned to companies and issued their uniforms, sabers and blankets. The rest of their gear would be issued once they arrived at Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts. Merrill was assigned to company C (which would later be re-designated company M ) under the command of Lieutenant Stone. Merrill’s uniform consisted of “an overcoat with cape light blue in color; jacket reaching to the hip dark blue in color; fatigue blouse, dark blue in color; trousers light blue color and dark blue cap with sloping visor.” The dark blue jacket was “profusely ornamented with yellow worsted braid,” yellow was the color for cavalry, “around the collar and cuffs and down each seam at the back and front of the jacket.” (8)
Once the men had been outfitted with their uniforms and sabers they were drilled in basic saber exercises and company maneuvers. Residents of San Francisco could stroll into Platt’s Hall and “watch the men drill from atop the gallery which surrounded the main hall.” (9) This undoubtedly gave the men an individual sense of pride and the beginning of their identity as the California Battalion.
Merrill and his comrades were quickly introduced to the jargon of the U.S. Army and in particular the phraseology of the U.S. Cavalry. Alien words and phrases such as; double quick march, tack, forage, rank, file, march by flank, riding in the snaffle, curb and sundry other words became part of Merrill’s daily working vocabulary. One of the first new words Merrill and the men learned was moulinet.
In order to do saber exercises, the men were separated into squads of “6 to 8 men, armed only with sabers; they are placed in one rank, 9 feet from each other.” (10) The first drill Merrill and the rest of the men learned was the moulinet. This drill was designed to loosen the men’s joints and build muscles in the wrists, arms and shoulders. The moulinet also built their confidence and dexterity with the saber. No matter how experienced a trooper was with his saber, when saber exercises were order, they “commenced and ended with the moulinet.” But first the men had to learn how to draw their sabers in a smart military manner. (11)
Merrill’s first drill with the saber began with the “instructor explaining what is meant by right and left sides of the gripe; by tierce, and by quarte .” (12) Once the instructor was satisfied that each man under stood each part of the saber, he would demonstrate the maneuver to the men. This would have been done smartly and proficiently due to the fact that the men were being drill by “Captain Van Voast a West Point graduate.” (13) Once the maneuver was completed by Captain Van Voast, it was the men’s turn.
Merrill and his comrades awaited the order from Van Voast.
Each man brought his left hand up to the hook holding the saber in its scabbard. Unhooking the saber, the “hilt was turned to the front” Each man then ran his “right wrist through the sword-knot” and wrapped his hand around the gripe while pressing the scabbard, at the “upper ring” with his left hand, against his thigh. The men were then expected to draw their sabre out of its scabbard exactly six inches. (14)
At this point Merrill and the other men were probably nervously waiting for the next command. This was their first time doing this drill. The instructor meanwhile was keenly aware of who had executed the first part of the command correctly and who had not. Looking down the line of men and observing the unevenly exposed sabers the instructor waited then shouted out.
At this point in the drill, the men would draw their sabers quickly, at a forty-five degree angle, up and completely out of the scabbard pause for an instant then bring the back top of the sabre to rest in the hollow of the right shoulder while keeping the right hand and wrist level with the their waist. How many men completed this maneuver, for the first time, without slicing a finger is unknown, but the odds are pretty good that at least one of the newly minted cavalry troopers drew first blood.
The next lesson was on the return of the saber to its scabbard. The same movements were used only in reverse and the commands were different. Captain Van Voast would have reviewed his men. Once he was satisfied that each man was holding his sabre correctly he shouted out the next order.
Each man quickly reversed his previous movement and placed the tip of his saber at the opening of his scabbard. Once the line of men looked uniform the next order was given.
The men quickly pushed their saber in to the scabbard pulled their right hand out of the sword knot, hooked the sabre into the scabbard and “dropped their left hand.” Captain Van Voast would do this drill over and over until he was satisfied that the men could complete the maneuver in two separate but smooth fluid movements. (15)
When Van Voast was satisfied that the troopers could draw their sabers in a quick, crisp, uniform military manner, the troopers were introduced to the moulinet. Once the sabers were drawn, the order “ GUARD” was given. Van Voast would give the order “ Moulinet.” Merrill and the other men would then “extend their right arm to the front to its full length” bring the hilt of the saber to eye level while the point of the saber was slightly higher. Merrill would then have to “describe a circle around” his hand. (16) The Moulinet was done on the right side, the left side, to the front and to the rear. The troopers were required to do this exercise dismounted and later, once they received their horses, mounted. This is an example of the many steps to just one drill Merrill and his comrades had to master. There would be a hundred more different drills and there intricate steps to learn and perform flawlessly for the men of the Cal Battalion.
This was just the beginning of Merrill’s training. Within forty days Merrill and the California Battalion would set sail for the East. However in those forty days, Merrill would learn the basic use of the saber, be trained in basic field maneuvers by squad, company and battalion.
The Battalion gave its first “public parade and review” on March 8th 1864 just four weeks after the first 100 men enlisted. It was a perfect afternoon “bright and beautiful.” (17) The Battalion marched to the Plaza and then performed “their various evolutions in a prompt, accurate and soldier –like style.” The contemporary account from the Alta California stated the display was a great success for the Battalion and the citizen of San Francisco. (18) Captain Van Voast had drilled Merrill and his comrades well. There would be one more parade and an impromptu musical before the Battalion shipped out to the East. The Citizens of San Francisco were proud of their California Battalion. This pride would be displayed for the Battalion on the day they embarked for War.
1. McLean , James. California Sabers:The 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry in The Civil War . Bloomington : Indiana Unversity Press , 2000. Print; page 10.
2. Rogers , Larry , and Keith Rodgers . Their Horses Climbed Tree: A Chronicle of the California 100 and the BAttalion in the Civil War from San Francisco to Appomattox. Atglen : Schiffer Publishing Ltd. , 2001. Print: page 49.
3. Beal, Merrill; Compiled Military Service Record. National Archive and Record Administration. (CMSR)
4. Starr , Stephen . "Cavalry Tactic in The Civil War ." Cininnati Civil War Round Table . N.p., April 26, 1959 . Web. 24 Jul 2012.
5. Diary: Towle, George W.; Bancroft Library, Manuscript Collection, U.C. Berkeley; On Line: http://www.2mass. .com/articles__references.htm Jul. 24, 2012
6. Diary :Towle
7. Rodgers p.7
8. Rodgers p.7; Diary, Towle
9. Rodgers p. 82
10. St.George Cooke , Philip. Cavalry Tactics: or Regulations for the Instruction, Formation, and Movements of the Cavalry of the Army and Volunteers of The United States . New York : J.W. Fortune , 1864. eBook. <http://books.google.com>. p. 38
11. St. George Cooke, p. 38
12. St. George Cooke, p. 39
13. McLean, p. 10
14. St. George Cooke, p. 39
15. St. George Cooke, p. 40
16. St. George Cooke, p. 42
17. Rodgers, p. 98
18. Rodgers, p. 98