G.A.R. encampment records tell story

-A A +A
By The Staff

For my article last week on Thomas C. Grandfield, I depended on the family history to tell his story, although it was the reunion ribbons from encampments, or reunions, of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) pinned to his coat that first piqued my interest.

The G.A.R., an organization of Union Civil War veterans, was founded in 1876. From that year, they hosted annual reunions, called encampments.

The 45th annual encampment, "Along the Rivers," was held at Joliet on June 13-15, 1911, and the following is an excerpt from an account by a person who was there.

“At these reunions, the men who had served in [the] Civil War met to visit and recount episodes. They also nibbled once more at hardtack and drank steaming coffee from large kettles arranged above fires like in the war.

“Later, they became commercialized. With the passing of time and thinning of veterans, they became more commercial, less reunion.

“Various liniments and lotions sold, also Jayne’s electric belts ('guaranteed to cure rheumatism or money back'). Stands offered refreshments and novelties. All the pink lemonade you can drink for 5 cents (drunk from dipper or cup).

“Hokey Pokey Jersey Ice Cream in slabs. Delicious milk shakes, flavored with vanilla, and ice cream cones. Sandwiches or full meal could be bought at Young’s Dining Room, one continuous table arranged about a hollow square and covered by an awning.

“Try strength at maul racks. Also shooting gallery. Fling eggs at cleverly dodging victim. Those present could see a two-headed calf, Bosco the snake eater, 'Half Boy, Half Ape,' eat them alive, steam swing, carousel or merry-go-round (a pony running around in circle was its steam). Always a speaker's stand and speaker.”

The highlight of the 1911 encampment in Joliet was a balloon ascension, from which the balloonist made a parachute jump.

Five G.A.R. posts organized in Fayette County: Post No. 273 – McIlwain Post, Vandalia, organized on June 11, 1883; No. 313 – G.W. Bolt Post, Ramsey, organized on July 24, 1883; Lucien Greathouse Post No. 426, Farina, organized on May 26, 1884; No. 673 – McKane Smyth Post, Brownstown, organized on May 19, 1889 and No. 688 – George Ralston Post, St. Elmo, organized on Dec. 17, 1889.

Vandalia veterans were the first to organize McIlwain Post, named for Major John McIlwain, field staff, 35th Illinois Infantry, who was killed in a skirmish near Kenesaw Mountain on June 22, 1864. Veteran records indicate that Major McIlwain is buried in the Old State Cemetery in Vandalia, but he does not have a veteran marker.

Ramsey followed on July 24, 1883, with G.W. Bolt Post No. 313. George Washington Bolt was lst Lt. of Co. F, 97th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He did not die during the Civil War, but died at the fairly young age of 44 on March 9, 1878. He is buried in Ramsey Cemetery. G.W. Bolt owned mills on Lots 6, 7, 10 and 11 in the village of Ramsey, and had formerly operated under the name, Bolt & Thiele. He married Sarah James, whose father had the first mill in Ramsey Township. George and Sarah were parents of three children: Ina Frances, who died on Oct. 4, 1879, at the age of 7 years; Martha C. and George Frank Bolt.

The Lucien Greathouse Post. No. 426 of Farina was organized on May 26, 1884, and named in honor of Col. Lucien Philip Greathouse, commander of the 123rd Infantry, who was struck down on July 22, 1864, near Atlanta. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman said of Greathouse, “His example was worth 1,000 men.” Gen. John A. Logan called him “The bravest man in the Army of the Tennessee.” These words make up part of the epitaph on Col. Greathouse’s monument in the Old State Cemetery in Vandalia.

Brownstown organized Post No. 673 on May 19, 1889, honoring McKane Smyth. The 1911 proceedings of the G.A.R. encampment in Joliet on June 13-15, 1911, noted that two of their members had died since the last reunion: S.E. Rode, Pvt., Co. H, 35th Illinois Infantry, died on March 28, 1910; and Thomas Root, Pvt., Co. A, 134th Indiana Infantry, died on Oct. 18, 1910. I have been unable to identify the man (or men) for whom this post is named.

The George Ralston Post No. 688 in St. Elmo was organized on Dec. 17, 1889, and is named for Pvt. George Washington Ralston, who was killed at Chickamauga on Sept. 20, 1863. He was with Co. G, 35th Illinois Infantry. Ralston was born in 1839 in Ohio, the son of Joseph and Mary Ann Kiser Ralston.

This post had lost three members since the 1910 meeting: Capt. W.P. Smythe, Co. G, 35th Illinois Infantry, died on Feb. 23, 1910; Sgt. W.H. Howard, Co. D, 27th Illinois Infantry, died on April 28, 1910; and Pvt. John Barthlon, (Barthlow), Co. A, 5th Illinois Cavalry, died on March 23, 1910.

The records of the Grand Army of the Republic were never saved in a consistent manner, if at all, so we are fortunate that the "Proceedings of the 45th annual Encampment" were preserved by publication in the fall 1991 issue of the Central Illinois Genealogical Society quarterly.

And, who knows – Thomas C. Grandfield was probably in Joliet tasting hardtack once more, and paying 5 cents for all the pink lemonade he could drink.