The monument to Reuel Colt Gridley in Stockton's Rural Cemetery, summer 2015
The rural cemetery in Stockton, California, lies near the heart of that Central Valley California city. Opened on the eve of the Civil War, the property is the eternal home of several "illustrious residents," as its website calls them, including many city and state pioneers.
One of these residents, celebrated by one of the park's finest monuments, is Reuel Colt Gridley, an unsung hero of the Civil War whose financial support of the Union effort, which all began with a political wager and a sack of flour, became the definitive act of his life. In recognition of his tireless efforts, the Reuel Colt Gridley Monument has been designated as California State Historical Landmark #801.
Reuel Colt Gridley
Reuel Colt Gridley was born on January 23, 1829, in Hannibal, Missouri, a hometown he shares with Mark Twain. He served in the U.S. military during the Mexican-American War, the same conflict in which the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron was commanded by Commodore Robert Stockton, the namesake of the city where Gridely is buried.
His war service completed, a still young Reuel set off for California in the later years of the Gold Rush, coming to the Golden State overland. A year later, his wife joined him, coming by way of Panama. The pair moved from mining town to mining town, starting in Yreka at the Oregon state line and proceeding south to Oroville in Butte County, and then Austin, Nevada, before finally setting in Paradise, just south of Stockton in Stanislaus County. Reuel became the Postmaster of the town and a prominent merchant. He was also a member of local fraternal organizations, including the Knights Templar and Odd Fellows, and, along with his wife, a devout Methodist.
In 1870, the Southern Pacific railroad company built a new line through the town of Modesto, granting it almost instant status as the county's commercial center and, therefore, its principal city. Modesto remains the seat of Stanislaus County to this day. The Gridleys were preparing to move their home and business from Paradise to a newly purchased plot in Modesto when Reuel tragically died at age 40.
He was taken a bit north and laid to rest in Stockton, which was, at the time, a much larger city.
The Sack of Flour
Despite his strong ties to California, Reuel is best known for his actions during his brief period living in Nevada. The events in Austin have been recorded in history books and immortalized by the author Mark Twain in a chapter of his seminal book "Roughing It." As previously mentioned, Twain and Gridley share the hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, and they appear to have known each other there, for in the book, Twain identifies Gridley as "a former schoolmate of mine."
Gridley had become active in local politics in the town of Austin, where a mayoral election was being held. He bet a Republican county official a sack of flour that the Democrat candidate (who Twain identifies as Gridley himself) would win. The deal was that if the Democrat did, in fact, win the race, the county official would carry the sack of flour a mile and a half while singing "Dixie," the Southern anthem during the Civil War.
If Gridley lost the bet, though, he would have to carry the sack the same distance to the tune of "John Brown's Body," a song which would later be adapted into the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the Union anthem during the Civil War.
Nevada had remained with the Union during the war and was brought to statehood amid the conflict to supply the North with valuable silver. The Republican candidate won the race, and Gridley held up his end of the bargain, marching the full distance carrying the sack, now decorated with red, white, and blue ribbons, while the town band followed behind him, playing the tune and the other citizens sang its famous "Glory, glory Hallelujah" refrain.
Once Gridley had made the requisite journey, the issue became what to do with the sack of flour itself. It is unclear whether Gridley himself or another bystander came up with the idea of auctioning off the sack for the benefit of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was operating hospitals for wounded Union troops, but it is known that Gridley was the one who conducted the auction.
The sack sold for some $250, according to Twain, but the buyer refused to take possession of his item and instead insisted that it be auctioned again for the same cause. The next buyer made the same gesture, as did the next and the next, and by the end of the day, in the small town of Austin alone, the sack had been sold to 300 different people and generated $8,000 in donations for the Sanitary Commission, according to Twain.
Recognizing the success of this method in helping the cause, Gridley took his "show" on the road, traveling some 15,000 miles over at least three months and doing it all at what Twain says was Gridley's own expense. He brought the sack to the larger mining community of Virginia City, where the ensuing auction raised some $40,000 and caused such a stir that Twain called it "the greatest day Virginia ever saw, perhaps."
Gridley did not stop there, however. He repeated the process in the state capital Carson City, then went on to Sacramento and San Francisco, and then even crossed the continent to the East Coast before arriving in St. Louis, where a large gathering of Sanitary Commission supporters was being held. There, Gridley finally emptied the flour, baking it into cakes which he also sold for the benefit of the Commission.
By the time he was finished, Gridley had raised some $275,000 by selling and reselling his famous sack of flour, the equivalent of several million 2019 dollars. His generosity was not forgotten.
Atop his monument, Gridley's hand rests on a sculpture of the sack that made him a hero. Below, the relief sculpture of a wheat stalk symbolizes the flour in the sack.
Gridley's actions were so well remembered for so long that some 16 years after he had passed, the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, the preeminent organization representing Union veterans of the Civil War, erected an impressive monument in his honor at his gravesite.
Rising ten feet high, the monument tapers from a blocky granite base to a marble column topped by a statue of the man himself and the sack that made him famous. A touching dedication is carved into the face of the column. It reads:
The Soldiers Friend
Ruel C. Gridley.
Born Jan. 23 1829
Died Nov. 24 1870
Erected by Rawlins Post No. 23 Grand Army of the Republic, and the citizens of Stockton, Sept 19, 1887 in gratitude for services rendered, Union soldiers, during the War of the Rebellion in collecting $275,000 dollars for the Sanitary Commission, by selling and reselling a sack of flour
California Historical Landmark
In 1965, the monument was officially designated as a California State Historical Landmark. A small private plaque identifying this status is attached to the monument's granite base.
The private plaque marking the Monument as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 801
The citation in the official Landmarks Guidebook and webpage is similar to the inscription on the monument itself and recounts the story of the famous sack:
"Erected in honor of the solider's friend Reuel Colt Gridley, by Rawlins Post, Grand Army of the Republic, and the citizens of Stockton in gratitude for services rendered Union soldiers during the War of Rebellion, when he collected $275,000 for the Sanitary Commission by selling and reselling a sack of flour."
Though his story is not widely known, Reuel Colt Gridley remains, for those willing to find it, an inspirational expression of the most selfless ideals of the American Spirit, a reminder that anyone with drive and determination can make a difference and that in times of national struggle, each American is called to serve in whichever way he can.
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