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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.  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 flat 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 planed 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 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 ensured they receive a proper military headstone, and present rededication ceremonies, replicating how it 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 use din the Civil War. 

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

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 site,  (Perhaps you’re an “S.O.B.” – son of both sides.)

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My 88-year-old great-aunt doesn’t want anyone to know she was pregnant when she got married.  She even had her son lie about his birth year growing up. She doesn’t want to be considered one of “those kind of girls.”  I look at this incredible shrinking woman, hunched over as she crosses the room in her walker.  The birth of her first child occurred over 65 years ago.  She and my great-uncle welcomed two additional children.  Yet, she still feels ashamed.  It’s her little secret and she wants it kept that way.

Some families have secrets on a larger scale.  I met a woman who, in researching her family tree, discovered an aunt she didn’t know existed.

She asked her mother, “Did you have a sister?”

“Oh, yes,” she shrugged.

“Well, you’ve never mentioned her,” she accused. 

She stared her mother down until she supplied an explanation.  “Sis” was a “Madam” who had Mob connections, angered the wrong person, and was gunned down in bed with a client.  The resulting scandal was such that the family erased her from existence. 

After an exhausting emotional discussion, it was agreed that her aunt be included in the family history book.  Her mother had struggled with years of inner conflict between family honor and loyalty to her sister, and the opportunity to discuss it with her daughter was cathartic and healing.  Their relationship has become much closer.

How do you decide what secrets should be revealed and what should not?  Discuss with the individual the potential results of revealing a secret:

  • Will it adversely affect someone still living?
  • Could it open communications within the family; offer a greater understanding of an individual’s subsequent life choices? 

“The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great-grandfather was a pirate.”

Have you learned about a family secret?  Do you think it should remain a secret or is appropriate to be included in a family history book?

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