Redwood City’s Civil War Cavalry Unit answered the bell

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Civil War reenactors converged on Half Moon Bay last November to stage pitched battles from America’s bloodiest war, offering an opportunity to recall the Jefferson Cavalry of Redwood City, even though the horse soldiers never saw action and are remembered more for having a good time than for their military skills.

A good example of the antics of the 100-member militia group took place Oct. 15, 1863, when the unit rode to a party celebrating the coming of the railroad to Menlo Park.

John Edmonds, author of “The Civil War, Northern California’s Unrecognized Valor,” wrote that the horses feasted on fruit sold by a vendor and trampled his wagon. To their credit, the men passed the hat and provided the vendor with twice the value of his loss. “The Jefferson Calvary had become a very well-known fighting unit that never fired their weapons” in anger, Edmonds said.

According to documents in the California Military Museum, the outfit—the only recognized Civil War militia in San Mateo County—was formed on Jan. 1, 1864, and mustered out on Aug. 8, 1866. The soldiers received pistols, swords, saddles and uniforms from the states, but they provided their own horses. The museum’s brief history noted the Jeffersons had to forfeit $111.83 for “loss of equipment.”

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“The truth is that they had a very good time and their antics were quite hilarious,” Edmonds said, adding that the troopers took their task seriously, even though they often ended up looking like something out of a comic opera. For instance, there was the night the Jeffersons won the Battle of the Burro, which came as a rumor circulated that the Confederates were going to charge up the Peninsula and capture San Francisco. A soldier stood guard near the bell at the fire station on Marshall Street with orders to ring the bell if he thought Redwood City was being attacked, which is what he did when he heard unusual noises coming from nearby bushes.

He rang the bell and the cavalry responded, quickly forming a line as its members were supposed to. On command, they attacked in the direction of the noise. “They were somewhat embarrassed when a burro walked out,” Edmonds said. By the way, the bell is still there in front of the firehouse.

Despite a few such Keystone Cops episodes, the unit was organized to defend against a real threat. It made a number of appearances in the Redwood City area “without the comical incidents that made the records,” Edmonds insisted. “One must remember that all these men worked full time” at their civilian jobs. The Jefferson Cavalry’s ranks included some of Redwood City’s leading citizens. George Fox and Andrew Teague were destined to become district attorneys. It was Teague who rang the bell to warn the town about the impending attack by what turned out to be a burro.

The unit’s first public appearance was in a parade in Redwood City that set the tone for its legacy. The soldiers, resplendent in their uniforms, rode smartly down the street when the order was given to draw sabers, a command that scared some horses who bolted in every direction, some not stopping until they reached home.

The men and horses were better trained when the Jeffersons took part in the Fourth of July Parade in San Francisco in 1865. As they left Redwood City, the unit went by the office of the San Mateo County Gazette with brightly polished sabers glistening in the morning sunlight. “We thought they never looked so well, and that they were well worthy of and deserved the appellation of The Pride of San Mateo,” the Gazette’s editor wrote.