By Valerie J. Nelson
7:15 PM EDT, June 27, 2013
A former Santa Ana mayor turned headstone hunter, Gordon Bricken explored Orange County cemeteries to document how many Civil War veterans were buried there — and then set out to tell their tales.
One astonishing story: The influx of hundreds of soldiers to the region following war's end in 1865 included virtually all of the leaders of a movement that forever changed the local landscape.
"All these Confederate veterans, the story goes, succeeded in getting their secession," Bricken later said, "by getting Orange County to secede from L.A.," in 1889.
He wrote two books on the war's legacy in the region and helped establish the field of Southern California-based Civil War research, according to Susan Ogle, director of the Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington.
Bricken, an engineer and former Santa Ana city councilman who served as mayor from 1981 to 1983, died June 17 at a care facility in Orange of complications from cancer, said his wife, Maureen. He was 76.
"Out here, it didn't matter if you came from the North or South. They were all pioneers who had to work together," Orange County historian Guy Ball told The Times on Tuesday. "Gordon's research was instrumental in documenting this history and the facts behind it."
While driving past Santa Ana Cemetery on Memorial Day in the late 1990s, Bricken stopped to ask why Confederate flags were flapping in the breeze. When he learned that 600 Civil War soldiers were buried in Santa Ana, he became fascinated by the war and its lasting link to the West.
Using lists compiled long ago by veterans groups, Bricken methodically searched Santa Ana Cemetery, trying to match grave markers to names. Eventually he found 348 Union and Confederate veterans buried there and another 278 at Fairhaven Memorial Park, the Orange County Register reported in 2010.
He extended his reach to like-minded brethren, a small group of Civil War buffs who decided to combine their efforts. Calling themselves the Orange County Blue and Gray Project, they used Bricken's research as a starting point and eventually located the graves of more than 800 Civil War veterans in Orange County.
Bricken continued researching the subject until 2009, as he tried to turn names on a ledger into biographies of men and, in one case, a woman — Mary Lingelbach, buried in 1902 beneath a Confederate headstone with no explanation or record of her service.
Among his observations: The first mayor of Seal Beach was a Union sharpshooter, the county's first Superior Court judge lost an eye in battle defending the North, and the area's last known surviving Civil War veteran was a Confederate who died at 104 in 1941.
Most veterans who migrated to the county at first had fought for the South, Bricken's research showed. They included a prominent attorney who penned the bill of secession and the courier who carried it to Sacramento by train.
Such stories made their way into Bricken's two books, "The Civil War Legacy in Santa Ana" (2002) and "Pioneers in Blue and Gray: Civil War Veterans in Orange County" (2009).
"Both books are valuable, covering an area that isn't covered anywhere else," Ogle said. The Wilmington museum, housed in a Civil War-era military outpost, carries the books in its retail shop.
As an amateur historian, Bricken was known as a thoughtful questioner and excellent listener. His intent, he told The Times in 2009, was to make people aware that "Civil War veterans who came here formed the core of the social, political and business life of Santa Ana."
He was buried near the Civil War monument that he helped establish at Santa Ana Cemetery.
The eldest of three siblings, Bricken was born Nov. 1, 1936, in Louisville, Ky. — a state that had been divided during the Civil War.
He attended high school in Santa Monica after his father's job as a Rexall Drug Co. executive brought his family west. At Loyola University, Bricken earned a bachelor's in engineering in 1959 and a master's from UCLA in 1961.
Through the Young Republicans, Bricken met his future wife, who helped run his acoustical engineering firm for more than 35 years. He was known for projects that dealt with noise attention, especially at airports and in motor sports.
From 1964 to 1974 he served on Santa Ana's Planning Commission, which nurtured his interest in local history, his family said. He spent the next decade on the City Council.
As mayor, he oversaw the development of the Orange County World Trade Center, the construction of the Santa Ana train station and the revitalization of the city's civic center area.
At Civil War reenactments Bricken attended in recent years, he wore a Confederate uniform. He had been delighted to discover that two ancestors had fought for the South.
In addition to Maureen, his wife of 50 years, Bricken is survived by four daughters, Barbara Amy, Mary Poprac, Patricia Bricken and Victoria Gephart; seven grandchildren; his sister, Beryl Alfino; and his brother, Gary Bricken.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times