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“Before the war, it was always the United States are.  After the war, it was the United States is.  It made us an is.” 

Shelby Foote


The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  While many of the obvious states will memorialize the event, many would be surprised that California played a part in the war as well. 

  • Gold from California helped keep the Union solvent during the Civil War
  • California had more volunteers per capita in the Union Army than any other state
  • Nearly 17,000 Californians enlisted to fight
  • By war’s end, California volunteers in the West occupied more territory than did the Union Army in the east
  • The efforts of California men were not only critical in keeping California part of the Union and in keeping the flow of gold to Washington uninterrupted, but also in keeping the Far West federal territory 

Sacramento organized a voluntary military defense force due to the possibility of invasion by forces stationed in Confederate Texas.  In Sacramento’s July 4, 1861 parade, Major J.P. Gillis proudly waved his version of the Confederate flag, which was promptly “captured” by J.W. Biderman.  (The flag is on display at the California State Capitol Museum and is referred to as the “Biderman flag.”  I’m curious as to why it isn’t named after the man who actually created it.)

After war’s end, many Civil War veterans remained in California, including the Sacramento area.  In 1897, a Civil War Memorial Grove was planted in Capitol Park (10th and L Streets) with saplings from 40 famous Civil War battlefields, including Manassas, Harpers Ferry, Savannah, Five Forks, Yellow Tavern and Vicksburg.  At the center stood a “tree of peace,” transplanted from Appomattox, where the Confederate Army surrendered.  In the Sacramento City Cemetery, you’ll find the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, allegedly the first Civil War memorial in California.  To this day, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUV) continue the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic. 

Deceased Civil War veterans often only received a wooden plaque with their name written or carved into it or a headstone without information indicating their military service. SUV, therefore, locates and identifies Civil War soldiers, the units and companies in which they served, infantry, artillery, etc., and what state they were from.  SUV then ensures they receive a proper military headstone, and present rededication ceremonies, replicating how it would have would have looked during that time period, with attendees in full Union blue uniforms and sometimes a 21-gun salute, with muzzle loaders similar to those used in the Civil War.   

Army vet Jim Montéton, age 67, is an active member of SUV.  “One of the graves they just located was in a cemetery in Ione.  It was a flat marker on the ground and it had been covered over with weeds.  When they cleared it away, it was discovered that the deceased was not only a Civil War vet, but he was a medal of honor recipient.”

“In Lockeford, we had a rededication ceremony for a Confederate solider.  About 50 people from Lockeford showed up.  Didn’t even know him, but they just thought it was an interesting thing to do to see this re-dedication.  All of the women in the historical society came out in full dress, with big hoop skirts, like they just stepped out of the 1860’s, and us in our uniforms.  It’s living history, and it’s a good feeling. “ 

Sometimes, inaccuracies will be discovered and corrected, such as the recent case in Vallejo.  A Civil War cannon had been stolen from the cemetery, and when a member of SUV visited the scene, a gravestone was pointed out to him by the groundskeeper, who believed there was an error.  “This guy here, they got him marked as a Confederate soldier, but I don’t think he was,” said the groundskeeper.  “I think he was a Union soldier.”  The veteran had enlisted at a certain point in the war when the Union troops had moved all the way down into Georgia.  So, he enlisted in Georgia.  That’s why they thought he was Confederate and placed it on his gravestone, but he wasn’t, so SUV corrected the records, and discovered he had over 300 descendants living in the Bay Area.  One hundred and fifty of them attended the rededication ceremony. 

“The oldest person there was his 77-year-old granddaughter “says Montéton.  “It was very emotional.  We had Union soldiers from all over the Bay Area, including here from Sacramento.  We had a pretty good detachment, almost enough to start a war.  We were all turned out in our blue uniforms, the weather cooperated; not one of those scorcher days when those uniforms are really hot.  We had about 7 or 10 guns when we fired them all in the air and it was impressive and the full color guard came in.” 

Grave sites of Civil War veterans can be found throughout Sacramento County, including the suburbs of Citrus Heights and Fair Oaks.    

“The cemetery in Fair Oaks, I think there’s four Union Civil War vets, and one Confederate,” says Montéton.  “When we had the ceremony there for Memorial Day, you could follow your eye along the edge of the cemetery and see all of the American flags, one after another, and all of a sudden, there’s one flag that sticks out.  It’s got a red top, a white center and a red bottom and blue field with 13 stars.  That is the flag of the Confederacy.”  (Interesting side note:  Civil War General Charles Henry Howard, one of the original Fair Oaks landowners, named Howard Street after himself.) 

If you believe you have an ancestor who served in the Civil War, SUV is a national organization who can be contacted at their web site  (Perhaps you’re an “S.O.B.” – son of both sides). 

What state(s) did your ancestor(s) enlist?

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