As we remember the nation's veterans, I thought readers might be interested in an event that happened in Washington several years before the establishment of Armistice Day in 1919. Armistice Day was originally intended to honor the veterans of the First World War. It was not until 1954 that Armistice Day became Veterans Day to commemorate the sacrifices of those who had served in all of the nation's wars. By then, nearly all veterans of the Civil War were long gone.
The veterans of the Union and Confederate Armies had formed their own fraternal organizations after the Civil War. These groups promoted events to remember those who had fought and died during the conflict. The Grand Army of the Republic ("GAR"), established in 1866, was the primary group of Union veterans. One of the GAR's commanders, former Major General John Logan, established the first Memorial Day in 1868 (then known as "Decoration Day").
The GAR held an official encampment, or national convention, each year in a different city. In 1892, the organization chose Washington, D.C. as the site of its twenty-sixth encampment. Nearly 350,000 descended on the nation's capital that September to participate in the gathering. The New York Times described public and private buildings as decorated to welcome the veterans. The State, War, and Navy Department Building was "almost completely covered with flags and streamers," while the Post Office Department Building was decked out with "portraits, in heroic size" of President Lincoln and Generals Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and other Union military leaders. The patriotic decorations on the White House and Treasury were "conspicuously elaborate and beautiful." Red, white, and blue were everywhere in the streets and avenues around Washington. The Ellipse south of the White House, known then as the "White Lot," was transformed into an encampment, with tents and stands representing the various Union Armies at the time of the Civil War. Unfortunately, President Benjamin Harrison was tending to his sick wife, who was dying from tuberculosis, and was away from Washington in Loon Lake, New York, until after the opening of ceremonies.
On September 20, 1892, around 80,000 veterans marched down Pennsylvania Avenue along the same route that the victorious Union Armies had taken in the Grand Review of May 23-24, 1865. African-American soldiers, who were excluded from the 1865 review, marched alongside their white comrades. The event was a fitting tribute to the aging Union veterans of the war, held long before the establishment of Veterans Day in this country.
|Sedgwick Post of the GAR in the GAR Parade of September 1892. Photo taken at the corner of 11th Street, N.W. and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. (Library of Congress)|
|Print of the September 1892 GAR Parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. (courtesy of From Soliders' Home to Medical Center)|
|Grand Review of the Armies down Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. May 1865 (courtesy of Wikipedia)|