William McCleave, Civil War hero,
established a military dynasty

Daniella Thompson

William A. McCleave with officers of the California Cavalry
(Bancroft Library, University of California)

21 July 2008

On 4 February 1904, the San Francisco Call published the following obituary:


Captain McCleave, Major of California’s First Cavalry, Expires.

BERKELEY, Feb 3.—Captain William McCleave, U.S.A., retired, passed away to-night at his home, 1515 Walnut street, at the ripe age of 81 years.

Captain McCleave was born in the north of Ireland of Scotch-Irish parents, came to the United States to make his future and to California during the gold days to make his fortune. When the war between the States broke out he remained true to his adopted country and was the organizer of the First California Volunteer Cavalry. That cavalry regiment was not a complete organization and he took it into the war with a major’s commission. Later the contingent became a complete regiment and he was made its colonel and served in Texas with it.

When the Civil War closed he entered the regular army and was in the Eighth Cavalry as a captain, in which organization Lieutenant General S.B.M. Young and Lieutenant General Adna R. Chaffee were both captains with him. He served on the frontier with General Miles and the famous Kit Carson and made an honorable reputation for himself. He was wounded in several Indian campaigns and in 1879 retired with the rank of captain.

The deceased leaves a family, every male member of which except one is in the United States army, the one exception being Dr. Thomas McCleave of Berkeley. The others are Captain Robert McCleave, Lieutenant Edward McCleave and Private William McCleave. His widow, Mary Cook [Crooke] McCleave, and one daughter, Annie McCleave, also survive him. The funeral will take place on Friday morning at 11 o’clock from the home under the auspices of Berkeley Lodge of Masons, Lookout Mountain Post G.A.R. and the Loyal Legion, of all of which he was a member. Interment will be in the national cemetery at the Presidio.

The early years of William A. McCleave’s life are shrouded in mystery, since the old soldier steadfastly refused to divulge details of his youth in Ireland. McCleave’s great-granddaughter, Judy Laws, relates that William immigrated alone to America in 1850, after having lost his wife and child to the great Irish famine. He disembarked at South Pier, Manhattan, and never looked back. When asked by his children and grandchildren why he had left Ireland, he always replied, “For good and sufficient reason,” snapping his mouth shut.

Having crossed the continent to southern California, in October 1850 McCleave enlisted in Company K, First Dragoons, under the command of Captain James H. Carleton. In those early army days, his conduct could be unruly. In his book Kit Carson and the Indians, Thomas W. Dunlay relates that in 1853, McCleave and another dragoon “got seriously drunk at Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the Irishman defied the captain’s orders, saber in hand. Subdued, he was forced to walk to Fort Union tied behind a wagon.” Early insubordination notwithstanding, by 1860, after ten years of service, McCleave had proven his worth and was promoted to the rank of first sergeant.

In June 1861, now a former dragoon, McCleave was entrusted with delivering 31 Mediterranean camels from Fort Tejon to the Los Angeles Quartermaster Depot. The camels were part of a herd of 75 imported in the mid-1850s with the idea of providing cheap transportation in arid regions. They were never properly handled, and the experiment proved a fiasco. Three years later, the government would auction them off at a loss in Benicia, but for close to two months in the summer of 1861, McCleave was their chief herder in Los Angeles.

A U.S. Army camel at a government depot near Banning’s Wharf (Fort Tejon Historical Association)

While he was minding the camels, the Civil War broke out. Immediately after the first battle of Bull Run on 24 July 1861, the U.S. War Department authorized the formation of one regiment of California infantry and five companies of cavalry to guard the Overland Mail Route from Carson Valley to Salt Lake City and Fort Laramie. In early August, James Carleton—about to become Colonel of the First California Infantry—talked McCleave into accepting a commission as Captain of Company A in the First California Volunteer Cavalry.

McCleave’s exploits in the Civil War are widely documented. In the fall of 1861, he established Camp Carleton near San Bernardino. The First California Cavalry was the first unit to advance into Arizona, and McCleave’s company led the advance. On 6 March 1862, McCleave and a detachment of 9 men were searching for Carleton’s dispatcher at the Pima Villages, west of Tucson. Having left most of the escort at a water hole, McCleave and two of his men knocked on the door of Ammi White, a Union sympathizer who operated a mill and trading post there. Unbeknown to McCleave, Captain Sherod Hunter of the Texas Mounted Rifles and his company had got there first and taken White prisoner. They now surprised and captured McCleave and his party. According to the Records of California Men in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 to 1867, published by the State Office in 1890, “After his capture, Captain McCleave proposed to Captain Hunter that he should be released, and allowed to fight his whole company with his nine men, which offer Hunter declined.”

His escort was quickly paroled and transferred to another company, but McCleave was kept prisoner and sent on to Mesilla and later to El Paso. Upon hearing of his capture, Carleton said, “A whole staff could not compensate for the loss of McCleave.” Companies were dispatched to rescue him, but he remained in captivity for four months, until the California column reached the Rio Grande and taken Fort Thorn. On 6 July 1862, McCleave was exchanged for two Confederate lieutenants. He returned $582.50 of back pay, accumulated during his imprisonment, arguing that he hadn’t earned it. Three days later, while en route to Fort Craig for supplies with two wagons, his small party was attacked by 60 or 70 Navajos. They lived to tell about it.

On 12 January 1863, Captain McCleave and a company of 20 confronted a party of Apaches at Piņos Altos Mines, killing eleven. Five days later, McCleave was a major, commanding the three companies of the First California Cavalry, routing an Apache rancheria. In February, he established Fort West, north of Silver City, New Mexico.

In March 1863, a detachment under Major McCleave pursued a band of Gila Apaches who had run off 60 horses of the public herd at Fort West, N.M. Twenty-eight Apaches were killed, and most of the horses were recaptured, along with many Indian horses. In November 1864, McCleave took part in an expedition under Colonel Kit Carson, attacking and destroying a Kiowa village of about 150 lodges. In his report, Carson mentioned McCleave first among the officers deserving the highest praise.

Col. William McCleave in a photograph by William Aloysius Keleher (Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico)

By 1865, McCleave was commander of Fort Sumner, N.M. He was mustered out of the California Volunteers with a brevet to lieutenant colonel on 19 October 1866, already commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry. He was made first lieutenant in 1867 and captain in 1869.

The U.S. census of 1870 listed William McCleave, 47, at Fort Stanton, New Mexico. Two years later, he married Mary Crooke (1844–1923), an Irish immigrant. Before McCleave retired in 1879, the couple produced four children—two born in New Mexico, one in Texas, and one in Missouri. Two more were born in Berkeley, where the family settled in 1879.

William & Mary McCleave’s residence, 1515 Walnut Street
(O.V. Lange, “Beautiful Berkeley,” 1889)

They purchased four lots in the Antisell Villa Lots tract, subdivided five years earlier by Thomas M. Antisell, an attorney and real-estate agent who lived nearby (several years later, he would become a well-known piano manufacturer).

On two of the lots, at 1515 Walnut Street, the McCleaves built a large Italianate house. The retired captain briefly entered into the real estate business with John T. Morrison, but before long he was appointed commandant of the Veterans’ Home of California in Yountville (Mary and the children remained in Berkeley).

The two McCleave rental houses (l to r), 1510 and 1506 Oxford Street (photo: Daniella Thompson)

In 1891, the McCleaves began construction of two rental houses on the remaining vacant lots directly behind their residence. These houses faced Oxford Street, a few doors north of Captain Boudrow’s house. They were constructed in the Queen Anne style that was the fashion of the day by Berkeley contractor and builder George Embury.

Completed in the spring of 1892, the houses were advertised in the Berkeley Advocate on 22 April:

For rent in north Berkeley on Oxford St. near corner of Vine. Two 9-room-and-attic houses. These houses just finished with all modern improvements. Apply to Mr. W.C. McCleave Walnut near Vine.

Thomas Crooke McCleave, the eldest of the McCleave children, attended Cooper Medical College (precursor of the Stanford University School of Medicine), graduating in 1896. Three years later he married Kitty Dobbins, daughter of Presbyterian minister and bookseller Hugh H. Dobbins. The other three McCleave sons went into the Army, while their sister Annie married Augustus F. Dannemiller, another officer, and mothered a second military dynasty. The sixth sibling, Mary, a teacher at Whittier School, died in 1903, six months after her marriage to U.C. astronomer Russell Tracy Crawford.

Thomas & Kitty McCleave’s residence, 2844 Garber Street (photo: Daniella Thompson)

Following the death of William McCleave in 1904, his widow began a peripatetic life, rotating among her children’s far-flung military posts. In 1908, Dr. McCleave, a noted milk sanitarian, built himself a shingled Arts & Crafts house at the top of Garber Street, in an enclave known as Monte Rosa Terrace. His house was one of three designed by his good friend, George Taylor Plowman (1869–1932), who had assisted Daniel H. Burnham with construction for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago before coming to Berkeley to serve as the University’s Superintendent of Architecture under John Galen Howard. Plowman’s own house stood three doors down, at 2830 Garber Street.

These Walnut Street apartment buildings stand on the site of the McCleaves’ first Berkeley home. (photo: Daniella Thompson)

Mary McCleave died on board ship in 1923, returning from a visit to the Dannemillers in Honolulu. By the 1920s, the McCleave home on Walnut Street had given way to an apartment building, but the two rental houses on Oxford St. survived through subdivision. 1510 Oxford St., which served as a boarding house for a number of years, was purchased in 1994 and meticulously restored over the past two years. It was the recipient of a BAHA Preservation Award in 2008.

The grave of William & Mary McCleave and their youngest son William, San Francisco National Cemetery, Presidio (courtesy of Edward McCleave Dannemiller II)

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 24 July 2008.


Copyright © 2008–2019 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.