By Trish Ridgeway
They wanted to fight in the East for the Union as a California Regiment. They fought in the Shenandoah Valley but not under their state’s flag. And at least one of their men was a guest in Winchester ’s Frederick County Court House.
In late summer of 1862 Californians were petitioning the federal War Office for permission to form a California regiment to fight in the war in the East. Since Fort Sumter , both existing and newly formed California units were posted in the West. But Californians wanted to fight and represent their state in the East as an editorial in a San Francisco paper stated, “We cannot doubt that body of troops will be sent to the field of battle from California which will show to the world that although residents of a State far removed from the scene of strife, they represent one whose every pulsation is in unison with that of the undivided Union .” (Alta California, September 17, 1861)
But the War Department rejected offers of a California regiment to fight in the East. However, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts indicated that the War Department had given approval for a company of Californiasoldiers to form as part of Massachusetts ’ quota of soldiers. The 100 men who would make up Company A of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment left San Francisco Dec. 11, 1862.
When the company arrived in the East from their voyage, they were welcomed with receptions, dinners and entertainment. After training
they were placed on active duty at Gloucester Point , Virginia on February 22, 1863. Four more companies of troops would follow the California 100, and they became Companies E, F, L, and M also of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. These four companies were assigned to Centreville to protectWashington and to counter raids by Col. John Mosby, commander of the 43rd Battalion, Partisan Rangers of the 1st Virginia Cavalry.
On July 11,1863 the four California companies were ordered to go with the Battalion from picket duty in Maryland to Ashby’s and Snicker’s Gaps to see if these two passes through the Blue Ridge Mountains were in Confederate hands. The next day as they neared Ashby’s Gap, they were fired upon. Lt. John C. Norcross, Company M, of Placer County , California , took the lead to charge the enemy, who then started firing from all directions and then retreating. The federals eventually cleared Confederate forces from the Gap with a loss of two killed, four wounded, and six taken prisoner. Lt. Norcross was one of those captured.
Norcross’s name is one of those on the walls of the Frederick County County Courthouse in a list of Union officer captured in the many engagement after Gettysburg . With the other officers he was first sent to Libby Prison in Richmond and then to the Confederate prison yard in Columbia , S.C. , known to the prisoners as Camp Sorghum . Norcross escaped from Columbia sometime in the early spring of 1865 with Lt. James H. Kellogg. Kellogg was captured at Falling Waters, July 14, 1863, and his name is also on the courthouse wall. After the war, Norcross returned to California and died in 1912.
In September of 1864 the California troops were assigned to Sheridan ’s Army of the Shenandoah and participated in battles of 3rd Winchester , Luray, and Cedar Creek. They marched from the Valley to Petersburg and later fought in the battles of Dinwiddie Court House, Five Fords, and Sailors Creek. They were present at the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House and mustered out July 20, 1865.
Article published: “Crossroads to History”