Thursday, May 3, 2012

Folsom museum unveils California's role in Civil War

By Eileen Wilson, Telegraph Correspondent

(photo) Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the US Army on the Pacific Coast in 1861. He was a Southerner, with strong ties to the State of Texas. He later fought for the Confederacy and was killed leading troops into battle.

When you think about the United States Civil War, California might not be the first state that comes to mind.

But that’s what Richard Hurley and T.J. Meekins, curators of Folsom History Museum’s “California and the Civil War Exhibit,” want to change.

“I knew that California backed the Union, and that California gold backed the war effort, but I didn’t realize that Abraham Lincoln only had a total of 32 percent of the vote in California. It was only because it was a four-way race that Lincoln got enough Electoral Votes. He only won because the Democrats couldn’t get united,” Hurley said.

Back up a decade, and you’ll learn that California’s state constitution was drafted establishing the states’ borders and banning slavery. While banning slavery may have been a boon for humanity, the California Constitutional Convention voted unanimously against slavery, not to give blacks freedom, but to keep out slave-powered mining companies.

“Politics in California were so bitter that California’s Chief Justice at the time — a Southern Democrat, challenged our U.S. Senator, a ‘Free Soil’ or Northern Democrat, to a duel. And the plot thickens because the pistols weren’t evenly matched,” Hurley said. “The senator was shot in the lung and died three days later — the event really called attention to the rift in our state.”

According to the exhibit, no one knew if California was going to stay in the Union. A lot hung on the 1860 presidential election that put the 16th president in office.

History buffs are flocking to the small museum, and students who are studying California history should, too.

“We have a steady stream of visitors, and even more people would come if they understood more about California’s role in the Civil War,” said museum Director Mary Mast. “People don’t know that California almost became part of the Confederacy.”

From California’s transition from a sleepy colonial outpost, to the treatment of her Indigenous People, to the Gold Rush and beyond, the exhibit shares a narrative history of the great state, and its involvement in the Civil War.

Californians were sharply divided on which way the state should vote. A group of Secessionists, the Knights of the Golden Circle, organized rebellions, while a Union-loving battalion fought and served in the Massachusetts Cavalry. Californians played their part in the deadly war that killed 600,000 men and decimated the South’s economy for over a century.

“California had very interesting regiments. California had the only militia from a free state that went to fight for a slave state,” Hurley said.

With the somber sounds of Taps or the optimistic When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again playing in the background, it’s easy to imagine a Union soldier with his weapon, or an officer contemplating strategy in his quarters — all are on display in the exhibit.

The extensive artifacts on hand focus on California’s Indigenous People — a favorite subject of co-curator, T.J. Meekins, the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and a final piece that no war exhibit would be complete without – widows’ mourning garb.

Meekins and Hurley appreciate the Sacramento Living History Society, the Native Daughters of the Golden West, and the Sons of Union Veterans for their expertise and help with the exhibit, as well as museum staff and volunteers.

The husband and wife team recently finished a book, Queen of the Northern Mines: A Novel of the Civil War in California, which required years of research and led Meekins to study with, and learn the language of the last of the Mountain Maidu native speakers.

The exhibit will run through Sunday, May 13, and Queen of the Northern Mines is available for purchase at the museum, or at