Grand Army

It was an event like no other for a small Midwestern capital city.  

For a couple of weeks in September 1888, Columbus played host to the largest assembly of Union Army veterans in one place at one time since the end of the Civil War.

Subsequent reunions would become smaller as the old soldiers got older. 

Most of the veterans who came to Columbus were members of the Grand Army of the Republic. The organization was for members of the Union Army who had been honorably discharged after their service. It was founded shortly after the end of the war to aid veterans and to lobby for government benefits for them. 

There were a lot of veterans. Several million men had joined the struggle to defeat a seceded South. And thousands more had served to complete the conquest of the Great West. Many men had been disabled by wounds, disease or traumatic stress. They sought government help. 

And they got a lot of help. In Ohio, the state had built a Soldiers' and Sailors' Home and a Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home. At the federal level, a long lobbying effort had led to federal homes like the Soldiers' Home in Dayton and the provision of direct benefits through a federal office of Soldiers Claims. 

All this help was provided partly in recognition of the service and sacrifice of these soldiers.

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But there were other reasons in play, as well. With the election of 1860, the recently formed Republican Party had produced Abraham Lincoln as president. The election of a Republican who endorsed his party’s opposition to the extension of slavery led dismayed Southerners to begin seceding from the Union. 

What followed was a long, deadly conflict. In the wake of the war, Union troops occupied much of the deep South and would stay until 1877. To stay in office, politicians sought the support of Union veterans.

And the easiest place to find them was at the local chapter meetings of the Grand Army of the Republic. Assisting with voter persuasion and financial support, local GAR chapters often became the ground troops of local political campaigns. The Grand Army of the Republic became an organization of renown and respect.

Each year a national convention called an Encampment was held.  

In 1888, the Encampment was in Columbus. Local political and veterans groups had worked to convince the GAR to come to Columbus for the prestige and profit the meeting would bring. The meeting would do this because it would bring an immense number of people to the city.

By the time the meeting was held, more than 100,000 veterans and another 100,000 family and friends would be in the city. At this time, Columbus was a city of about 85,000 people. One might wonder how an overnight tripling of a population is possible. 

The problem of placing the people was solved by creating a series of four tent cities at the edge of the city limits that held more than 50,000 people. The planners sought the support of local police and firefighters and obtained permission to use school buildings for meetings and social gatherings.

A series of wooden arches with natural-gas lights were placed along High Street near the Capitol. Erected to discourage thievery and assault, the arches became popular and were retained. Columbus became known as the Arch City after the convention left town. 

The Encampment came to town with a flourish. On Sept. 9, 1888, more than 50,000 Union veterans in uniform marched past a reviewing stand facing Broad Street from the south lawn of the Statehouse. The parade lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes and was observed by a street-corner audience of more of more than 100,000. One observer later noted that he saw as many men in uniform standing along the street watching the parade.  

The veterans stayed in town for a week with meetings, social “campfires” and diverse entertainments. As the Encampment ended, a local paper observed that “the people of Columbus entertained all comers with a generous, far-reaching hospitality that left nothing to be wished for. They comprehended in advance the magnitude of the occasion and made their provisions with wise liberality.”

It seems a very good time was had by visitors and residents alike. 

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News. 

Source : https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/local/communities/2021/07/13/as-it-were-grand-army-of-the-republics-encampment-brought-out-best-in-columbus/7950494002/

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