California and the Civil War
The Biderman Flag
The J. P. Gillis Flag, or the “Biderman” Flag of California (California State Capitol Museum)

On 4 July 1861, at Sacramento, California, Major J. P. Gillis decided to celebrate not only America’s independence from Britain, but also that of the South from the North.

At about 10 p.m., after an exhibition of fireworks, he unfurled a Confederate flag that had been wrapped around his walking stick, and marched up the boardwalk before the St. George Hotel at the corner of 4th and J Streets; most of those present appeared to be Southern sympathizers, pleased with the display of the flag.

Not all those viewing this scene approved of it, however: J. W. Biderman and Curtis Clark watchedwith anger. After Major Gillis had demonstrated his feelings, Biderman and Clark followed him; Biderman approached Gillis, caught him by the throat with his left hand, and, with his right, tore the flag from the stick, and put it in his pocket.

The account of the incident in the Sacramento Daily Union did not reveal the relative sizes or ages of the two antagonists; the Major was apparently a fighter, and called out to the crowd for a knife, but, no one proffering a weapon, Biderman’s assault was successful. He cried out that “no such flag as that could be carried in this town” in his presence, and left the scene, taking the flag with him.

Biderman subsequently brought a large number of friends to the St. George; they waved the flag and invited any “secessionists” to come and take it. No one tried. Major Gillis later “earnestly pled for the flag’s return,” but to no avail.

There seems to be no record of how or when, but the flag became the property of the California State Capitol Museum. The flag is made of silk, and is a variant of the first national flag, the Stars and Bars, of the Confederacy. The difference is, in place of the original seven stars in the canton, there are 17 white 5-pointed stars. Inscribed on the white bar in the middle is “Rebel Flag. Captured 4 July 1861. By Jack Biderman.”

The display at the museum states that this is “the only known Confederate flag captured in California during the Civil War.” It is truly a Californian flag, of unique design. Designated the “Biderman Flag,” it might better be named for Major J. P. Gills, its owner.

The incident that occurred on the streets of California’s capitol city on July 4, 1861, and the flag that brought it about, are prophetic and symbolic of the secessionist movement in the state: open advocation and defence of the cause, defeat by a more powerful adversary, and all of this forgotten by history with only a battered memento remaining.

-- Laurence Talbott, California in the War for Southern Independence, xi-xii,
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Updated 23 June 2017