age 75 and after serving in two overseas conflicts,
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Donald E. Mattson is in the midst
of a new battle — this one to make the California
Military Museum financially sound in a time of intense
competition for philanthropic and public service dollars.
Earlier this year, legislation sponsored by Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) formally
designated the military museum as California’s official state military
museum, Mattson said.
On the south side of Old Sacramento, the military museum may not be as well known
to local residents as the historic district’s nearby Discovery and Railroad
“More people need to visit our museum to re-learn how our state, along
with the entire nation, fought the wars that preserved our liberties over the
last two centuries,” said Mattson, who works from a corner third-floor
office in the museum, at 1119 Second St.
Mattson’s own concern with history was honed as a child in the Midwest.
His grandfather passed on family recollections of the Civil War and the bloody
battles between North and South, which the young Donald quickly understood had
saved the nation.
For 20 years during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, Mattson served with the
Army and Marine Corps. After retiring from the service, Mattson and his wife
settled in Folsom, where they now live.
Appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown to a key post with the California National
Guard, Mattson teamed up with former Sen. John Garamendi to organize the California
Military Museum Foundation. The museum was opened in 1991 with the aid of seed
money from a $50,000 bequest left by Gen. Walter P. Storey, who had been commander
of California’s 40th (National Guard) division.
Over the years, the museum has steadily augmented its collection, which now contains
permanent and changing displays to entertain and inform visitors. They include
materials from the nation’s earliest days through the Civil War, World
Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and the current battle against
terrorism in the Middle East and on our own shores.
Museum volunteers help a small paid staff to gather, study and classify materials
One exhibit describes the pre-Civil War career of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman,
who later became Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s top wartime lieutenant. Before
the war broke out, Sherman lived in San Francisco for a time, as did Gen. Albert
Johnston, a Virginian who led the Union army detachment there. But Johnston resisted
demands by Confederate sympathizers to align the new state with the South.
“Johnston saw that duty required that he not do this before he resigned
his command with the Union forces,” Mattson said.
Shortly afterward, when he did resign from the Union army, Johnston joined the
Confederacy and became one of its top commanders. He was killed in 1862 in the
bloody battle of Shiloh.
The museum has long been a popular visiting place for area school children who
have turned out regularly as part of a continuing museum outreach program, Mattson
Changing exhibits also have been popular, including displays that describe the
roles of different ethnic and religious groups in past and present military efforts.
Past shows have focused on Hispanic and Asian American military efforts, among
“Like our entire nation, the military is a melting pot,” Mattson
said. “Here, we need to demonstrate what all elements of our society have
A current exhibit, which will continue through the fall, features Jewish Congressional
Medal of Honor heroes — 13 all told from the Civil War to the present.
The only recipient still living is Capt. Jack Jacobs, now a news analyst for
MSNBC, who was honored for heroism during a Vietnam battle in which his company
faced heavy losses.
One of the newer permanent exhibits at the museum recounts events of the Cold
War and its end in the early 1990s, when the Berlin wall was torn down and the
old USSR toppled, marking the end of its military domination of Eastern Europe.
“I sit here and marvel at how this was done,” Mattson said. “A
lot of credit must go to three people — Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher
and the Pope.”
He added that the war on terrorism is a new conflict that will inevitably be
reflected in the museum’s archives.
“We have won before,” he said. “And now we will go forward
and defeat terrorism in the same way.”
The museum is putting together a “Wall of Honor” featuring the names
of Californians who have died in the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, a smaller
version of the Vietnam memorials in Capitol Park and the national memorial in
Mattson said that a major new fund-raising effort is geared to reach individual
veterans who will be able to record their own military careers on a Web site
established by the museum.
For a $50 donation, a museum leaflet reports, the donor can recount his or her
military record in a 200-word statement that can include medals awarded, duty
stations and a photo, along with brief reminiscences about time spent in the
armed forces. This will be the first on-line veterans’ registry in California,
More information can be obtained by contacting Mattson at email@example.com.