Treasures of the Valley

CV’s Civil War Veterans Who Weren’t Veterans At All

Last week we looked at four CV pioneers who had fought in the Civil War. This week we’ll look at two prominent CV pioneers who didn’t fight in the Civil War … though local legend claims they were veterans. Either they were mistakenly thought of as Civil War veterans, or they lied about their service. We really don’t know. Again, I fall back on the amazing research of local historian Jo Anne Sadler. She’s written two books about the early CV Pioneers: “Frontier Days In Crescenta Valley” and “Crescenta Valley Pioneers.”

We tend to think that everyone in the 1860s fought in the Civil War, but some people did avoid serving. Benjamin Briggs was strongly opposed to the war and moved to California to avoid it. But California was also a place where people could re-invent themselves. In the pre-internet world, it was hard to look up facts. If it was advantageous that people thought you were a veteran, what was the harm in not correcting them?

General John Shields – Shields Street and Canyon are named for John Shields. Two CV pioneers wrote about “General” Shields. One wrote: “How well I remember General Shields, straight as an arrow, riding horseback through the valley.” Another wrote: “He was a retired Confederate Army general and came here for the benefit of his health … General Shields, while living here, always wore a plug hat and carried a gold-headed cane. He drove fast horses…”

Shields was a community leader and was in the newspapers often and almost always referred to as general. For example, from in an article from the LA Herald in 1892: “Gen. John H. Shields of La Crescenta was admitted to practice law. General Shields graduated in the law department of the Cincinnati College.”

The problem is there was no Confederate General Shields. As Jo Anne Sadler pointed out, the Civil War was very well documented and there definitely was no General Shields. There was a Lieutenant Shields, but that was not even the same man who lived in California. According to Sadler’s research, our John Shields lived in Tennessee during the war years, already married and with three kids. He did not enlist. He came west with his family in 1874.

So what was the deal? Was “General” some kind of honorific title? Was it a joke? Where did the Confederate general story come from? There’s no evidence he made up anything himself, and yet everyone called him general. We just don’t know.

Colonel Theodor Pickens – Pickens is considered to be the first permanent American settler in the valley, settling here on Briggs Terrace in 1871. He was referred to as “Colonel” Pickens in the 1950s by Charles Pate. Pate came to the valley in 1893, and so would have overlapped the time Pickens was here. He claimed in his memoirs, written as an old man, that Pickens had been a colonel in the Union Army. He further wrote that Pickens had left Kentucky to fight for the Union, and was wounded in the wrist. This was accepted as fact ever since.

Again, Jo Anne Sadler’s research showed no such person was ever in the Union Army. Our Pickens was indeed from Kentucky, born there in 1842. He would have been the right age for the war, but well-documented records verify that he never joined. By 1870 he had come west.

Unlike General Shields, whom everyone seemed to call general, no one other than Pate ever called Pickens colonel. The use of colonel was a common way to give respect to someone back then to indicate an aristocratic background, usually someone from the south … like Colonel Sanders, for example. Maybe he was introduced to Pate as Colonel Pickens and the story grew from there. Maybe Pate, who had come from England, didn’t understand that.

But whatever the case, these are two CV pioneers who were, and often still are, mistakenly thought to be Civil War veterans. We will probably never know if it was a purposeful lie, a case of mistaken identity or a joke.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical
Society of the Crescenta Valley
and loves local history.
Reach him at