Twilight of the Grand Army of the Republic

I’ve done very little blogging lately because  I spent 11 weeks editing D-Day, 75th Anniversary – A Millennials Guide, compiled by Jay Wertz and published by Monroe Publications. (I also authored one chapter and four subchapters for the book.) Many of the articles include quotes and anecdotes from veterans, and as I read them I thought about how few of the generation that took part in the Second World War—in military service or on the Home Front—are still with us. Before many years pass the last of their voices will be stilled.

Click to enlarge.

About the time I finished the editing I was looking through my files of newspaper clippings and one caught my eye because it reminded me that as my generation, the post–World War II “baby boomers,” was being born and enjoying its childhood the generation that had fought another of America’s wars was fading into history. My generation’s dawn was twilight for the veterans of our nation’s Civil War.

The clipping I saw was from The Charleston Gazette in my home state of West Virginia, June 1, 1939 (which, coincidentally was exactly three months before Nazi Germany would invade Poland, generally considered to be the day World War II began as a global conflict).

The Gazette reported that on May 31, “Three very tired old men decided today the Grand Army of the Republic could just as well close its 57th convention a day early.” The GAR was an organization for Union veterans formed in Springfield, Illinois, in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended.

On January 31, 1939, national GAR membership was only 4,150; 165 members had died in that month alone, according to State of Iowa Official Register No. 38, 1939-1940 (State of Iowa).

The three “tired old men,” who met in Grafton (a few miles from Philippi where what is often called the First Inland Battle of the Civil War or simply First Land Battle of the Civil War was fought on June 3, 1861) were one-third of the Union veterans still known to be living in West Virginia. Of the three—93-year-old Thompson McMurray and 91-year-old William Satow, both from Parkersburg, and 93-year-old Lorenzo D. Ullom of Wheeling—only McMurray was able to climb the speaker’s platform, but all said they intended to be in nearby Fairmont the following year for the 58th GAR encampment.

Whether they were able to make that encampment I do not know, but the last Union veteran in West Virginia died eight years after the meeting in Grafton, according to The Last Civil War Veterans: The Lives of Survivors State By State, by Frank L. Grzyb (McFarland & Co., 2016). Uriah Talmage “Uncle Duck” Alley died October 26, 1947, thirty-eight days shy of his 100th birthday. Born in Pine Grove just a few miles south of the base of the state’s northern panhandle, his family moved to Cameron, a few miles into that panhandle, when he was a boy, and he enlisted in Company C, 6th Regiment, West Virginia Infantry in September 1864. At the end of November he was captured during the affair at New Creek and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. Afterward he returned to Cameron and became a livestock dealer.

Nationally, the GAR held its last encampment in 1949; only six of 16 remaining veterans who had worn the blue were able to attend. Though that event was “Taps” for the organization it did not officially dissolve until its last member, Albert Woolson, died in Duluth, Minnesota, on August 2, 1956. At its peak around 1890 it boasted over 400,000 members and for many years was a powerful force in national and state politics.

Determining last surviving Confederate veterans is more problematic. Many records were destroyed during the war, and claims by some men who said they were the last surviving Confederate have been found to be false. What can be verified is that the last Confederate general to die was Brigadier General “Tiger John” McCausland. In 1927, at the age of 90, he suffered a heart attack while sleeping at his home near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, some 150 miles southwest of Grafton where the “Three very tired old men” met for a GAR reunion 12 years later.

A generation passing into history always brings a time to pause, reflect and wonder how many thousands of untold stories died with it. While writing this blog I found myself wondering what stories about the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Youth Counterculture, and the rest of what defined the baby boomer generation will be lost when the last of us goes down that long trail into the west.

The photograph above shows a portrait of Union veteran identified as Alexander Buchanan playing fife with unidentified veteran playing drums and unidentified Boy Scout, taken around 1919. LOC LC-DIG-ppmsca-57076; LOT 14043-2, no. 871 [P&P]

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