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Sunday, May 07, 2000

Town not untouched by war

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Vacaville residents during the 1850s and 1860s largely were supporters of the Democratic Party. With their strong agricultural background, voters found the Democratic platform more to their liking than the business-oriented one of the Republican Party. Hand in hand with this party affiliation went a sympathetic leaning toward supporting the South during the Civil War years. Thus the turmoil of those years also touched Vacaville.

The presidential election of 1860 occurred in an atmosphere of great tension. Hester Harbison recalled the uneasy feelings that ran through the population at the time: “My father often told me about the election of 1860. He and Mason Wilson were two of four men in Vacaville who had the moral courage to vote for Abraham Lincoln. There was no such thing as a secret ballot then. The men stood in line and literally shouted to the clerk their choice of candidates. The town was seething with Southern sympathizers and my father and the other three men didn’t really know what to expect from the crowd. The feeling was running high.”

Those who opposed the Lincoln administration were known as “copperheads,” a term first used by the New York Tribune on July 20, 1861, and quickly picked up throughout the country. But the language used was quite strong in both camps, as a note in the Solano Herald of Feb. 7, 1863, announcing a new newspaper, illustrates: “NEW PAPER - A correspondent writes us from Silveyville that a Secesh paper is about to start in that place, designed to edify that Union-loving portion of our population, and squelch the Black Republican, Amalgamation, Abolition, Free-Love papers, which now flood the country with their undemocratic trash. ... “

The same strong sentiments also were present in the Fairfield area. Like the Pacific College in Vacaville, here the Rockville Stone Chapel belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church. While at first an uneasy truce held, at the Christmas service in 1863, Northern sympathizers predominated and decided to sing “Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Glory to the Republic.” When the congregation met for the next church service, the Southern faction retaliated by placing a plaque over the chapel entrance which read “Methodist Episcopal Church South 1856.” The ensuing uproar was considerable, and finally the Northern group marched out of the church in unison to start their own Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Fairfield.

Another clash between Northern and Southern sympathizers occurred in Vacaville in 1864. On May 24, 1864, the Semi-Weekly Solano Herald wrote: “FLAG RISING - It is reported that as a Company of U.S. Cavalry was passing Vacaville one day last week, the lady of the President of the Pacific Methodist College displayed the Stars and Stripes from a window of the college building, which act the soldiers acknowledged by a salute and cheers, greatly to the disgust of the copperhead students in that institution. To appease their wrath, it is said that the President apologized for the indiscretion of his wife; but, not satisfied with that, the students aforesaid procured material for a Confederate rag, with the intention of raising it on the college. But this patriotic purpose was thwarted by significant hint that if they perpetrated the foul deed, the building wouldn’t stand twelve hours.”

But only a few days later, a retraction ran, whereas the soldiers “... were in front of the residence, (when) his youngest son, a little boy of five years of age, who was in the yard, came to the window where his mother was sitting and asked for his flag - a toy consisting only of strips of ribbons sewn together, not in imitation of any known flag - and she passed it to him through the open window, and the three or four soldiers cheered ...” Whichever version of the event was closer to the truth, this second article seems to have appeased the heated emotions again.

A year later, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14 came as a shock to the community, leading to the most severe incident yet. On April 21, the Weekly Solano Herald set its columns in black, condemning copperheads and secessionists. And on May 5, 1865, the Weekly Solano Herald reported: “INCENDIARISM - At about 3 o’clock last Friday morning (April 28), a fire was discovered in the roof of the wooden portion of the College at Vacaville, which entirely destroyed that building and greatly endangered the boarding-house near by. By dint of great extortion (sic), however, and the application of wet blankets, that portion of the property was saved. As there had been no fire in the building for two weeks past, and as no part of it was occupied at night, the conclusion is irresistible that the fire was the work of some dastardly wretch who sought thus to vent his spite against those having charge of the institution, whether prompted by personal feeling or partisan animosity; though we are slow to believe that anyone who has shared the grief which has so recently overwhelmed the nation, caused by democratic lawlessness, would resort to kindred measures to express his disapproval of the stand taken by the President and Faculty of the College.”

While the culprit never was found, it always was believed that the college was burned because it belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and thus to the opponents of Lincoln’s policy.