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On the Home Front
Local man chronicles history of area Civil War vets
Following the war between the states that began 150 years ago this year, many of those Civil War veterans — both North and South — found their way to southern Tulare County.
Bill Melton of Porterville has compiled an extensive history on the more than 240 men buried in local cemeteries — nearly 100 in Porterville cemeteries — who fought in the deadliest war in American history, including two Porterville men who served the North during the war right here in Tulare County.
A Civil War historian whose family — both mother’s and father’s — had ancestors fight in the war that began in April of 1961, Melton has spent most of his 75 years studying the war between the North and South.
It was in 2002, however, that he began his quest to identify all those Civil War veterans buried in local cemeteries.
Now, Melton just didn’t compile a list of the men — the last who was buried in 1942 — he compiled their life history, especially their military history. He has them catalogued by cemetery and notes that about 30 percent are Confederate veterans. All are white, but one, Harrison White, led a Black Cavalry Unit in the war and is listed on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington DC.
That last local Civil War survivor was John W. Shryer who is buried in the Lindsay-Strathmore Cemetery. He joined the Indian Volunteers in 1863, two days past his 16th birthday, said Melton, was discharged in 1864 and re-enlisted that same year. He was 95 when he died.
None of those buried here died in the Civil War, but there are a couple of men buried in Visalia who did die in the war, including “one assassinated by Confederate sympathizers” in Visalia.
Of the men he has identified, 19 came from California, but the majority came from Illinois and Missouri.
“It’s been incredible. It’s been fun,” said Melton as he showed off the volumes of information he has compiled. A friend has assisted him with the project. “We’ve had a ball.”
California was considered a Union state, but the closest Civil War battled occurred in New Mexico, Melton said. However, Tulare County had a strong leaning to the South.
“They moved here because of farming,” noted Melton of people from Southern states who moved to the county prior to the war. “There was a big concentration of Southern sympathizers.”
So concerned was the North, that it established a military presence in the county — Camp Babbitt in Visalia.
The North established the camp on June 24, 1862 and placed two companies of the 2nd California Cavalry.
In a history of the camp by Col. Herbert M. Hart, USMC (retired) on the California State Military Museum website, he states:
“Secessionists were so active in 1862, ‘It is an everyday occurrence for them to ride through the streets of Visalia and hurrah for Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson, and often give groans for the Stars and Stripes,’” reported Camp Babbitt’s first commander, Lt. Col. George S. Evans.
“He told departmental headquarters, ‘They do and say everything in the presence of soldiers to insult them by calling them Lincoln hirelings, and that they bear Abe Lincoln’s livery, etc., and in one instance have gone so far as to draw a pistol and present it at a soldier, telling that he had a good mind to shoot the buttons off of his coat, just for fun.’”
In Ina Stiner’s history of Porterville, she notes that John Loyd of Porterville joined the Second Cavalry at that time. He wound up a sergeant.
Melton also identified Sgt. Seth Kirby from the Porterville area who served with Company A in the 8th Infantry.
Walk Through History
Speaking with Melton and looking over the pages of information he has compiled is like walking through history. Ask a question, and he quickly grabs a thick binder and turns to the page for the answer. On some men the information is not that extensive, but on others, he has pages.
One that he has documented a lot of history on is White, a captain who served with the 1st Mississippi Cavalry and “commanded a couple of Black units.”
Melton explained that African-Americans were allowed to serve, but not lead. No African-American was allowed to earn a rank of sergeant or higher.
White moved to the Porterville area some time shortly after the war. That is known because he headed up the 1870 Census count in Tulare County.
His tombstone is one of the most distinct and largest in Porterville Cemetery. He died in 1916.
Melton has identified 19 men who were from California that served in the war and are buried in local cemeteries. He says most people underestimate the Golden States contribution to the Civil War.
“California made a tremendous contribution to the war. More than people realize,” he said, adding that in the 1860s California was a very wealthy state with a lot of resources. However, most men who served in California during the Civil War did more to keep an eye on the Indian populations than fight the South.
He noted that while much of the country is observing the 150th anniversary of the start of the war — California has done nothing.
“West Coast has virtually ignored the Civil War. We’ve got within a stone’s throw 240 veterans who lived here,” he said.
“The California Cavalry ranged from Utah to California and Nevada,” noted Melton, adding the main duty of the soldiers was to protect the stage lines running to the West.
From his research, Melton has identified 30 more names of men who served in the Civil War buried in Porterville area cemeteries, who are not included in the list of names on the Civil War Memorials in Porterville Cemetery or at the memorial at the Veterans Memorial Hall on West Olive Avenue. The task of adding those names is something he would like to see get done, but he would need to raise about $5,000 to cover the costs.
While he uncovered several new names early on in his research, that has slowed down.
“I found a new name about a year ago. It’s gotten very thin,” he said.
He noted that one name he found — John Davis Owen, was Helen Trueblood’s great-grandfather.
Most of the men did not reach a high rank, but he identified several captains. The highest ranking officer was Confederate Lt. Col. James Hicks May. He served in the Arkansas 4th Infantry. A reverend in the Union Army — John Graham Eckles — served in Ohio. John Phillip Heren was a 2nd Lt. in the Union army.
Widowed three years ago, Melton has spent thousands of hours on his documentation. He works with both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Union Veterans.
“Oh, my gosh, hours and hours,” he replied when asked how much time he has spent. Melton also restores and replicates old horse-drawn carriages and buggies.
He relies on a number of sources, including the Original Military Atlas of the Civil War and descendants of those who served in the war, but said he has not really found that many living relatives in the area.
“I wish people would come forward,” he said.
It has been a labor of love and an effort he doesn’t plan to let go of.
“I’ll never give up on this because if something else comes forward I’d be there to pick it up,” he vowed.
He also has an extensive collection of information on his family’s Civil War ties. His mother’s dad, Fredrick Eckstein, served with the 59th Infantry in Illinois. His great grandfather on his dad’s side, Jerimiah Elijah Melton, served with the Confederacy in Texas. Several other uncles served. None died in the war.
His work is recognized as an “authorized” burial survey. Copies of his binders are at each cemetery, the Veterans Memorial Building, the Visalia Genealogy Library and Visalia Cemetery. All the men he has identified are listed on the National Civil War Burial Survey.