LIMA — By 1908 the men newspapers called “the gallant boys in blue,” who had marched off to war full of youthful bravado in 1861, had grown gray.
Late that spring the men, veterans of the Union Army, most well into their 60s with their ranks thinned by time, gathered for the annual state encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The Lima chapter of the G.A.R., known as Mart Armstrong Post 202, was host of the event that year.
The encampment drew an estimated 25,000, including veterans as well as their families and friends from throughout Ohio, and culminated with a parade on June 18, 1908. “Perhaps a thousand veterans kept step to the tones of their various drum corps and as the bands would play patriotic airs, cheers from the crowd would inspire the aged soldiers to quicken their step and not notice the beating sun pouring down on their gray locks,” the Lima Daily News wrote June 19, 1908.
“Many of them were bent with age and marched with difficulty even by the aid of a cane,” the newspaper added, “yet off came the hats and reverently were they placed over the breast until after the colors were left in the rear.”
The G.A.R. was founded on April 6, 1866, to provide the veterans with political influence and opportunities to meet socially. The organization lobbied Congress for pensions for veterans and provided financial assistance and retirement homes for disabled or destitute veterans. Five U.S. Presidents were members of the G.A.R., which was very strong in Ohio. It was responsible for making Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was known for the practice of decorating veterans’ graves, a national holiday.
At its peak, the G.A.R. counted more than 400,000 members. According to the website for Ohio History Central the G.A.R. continued to operate until 1959, when the final member died at the age of 109.
Lima’s chapter of the G.A.R. was organized on April 18, 1882, and named in honor of Capt. Mart Armstrong, who was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in western Tennessee April of 1862. He was the first Allen County resident to die in the Civil War.
From its beginning the Mart Armstrong post was involved in local Memorial Day plans, and adamant that the day be observed properly. “In compliance with a resolution passed by Mart Armstrong Post, No. 202, Department of Ohio G.A.R., all citizens of Allen County are earnestly requested to meet in the City Hall at Lima, on Saturday evening, May 12, at 7:30 o’clock sharp, for the purpose of making arrangements to celebrate Memorial Day, on Wednesday, May 30, 1883, in a becoming manner,” Lima’s Daily Democratic Times reported May 10, 1883.
Apparently, by 1894, the local observance was coming up short of a “becoming celebration.” On April 10, 1895, in a letter published in the Lima Times-Democrat, the organization declared: “Mart Armstrong Post G.A.R. of this city is arranging for an elaborate and proper observance of Decoration Day, as established by this organization many years ago, and adopted as a legal holiday by the government and various states. Last year no public demonstration was possible, by reason of the day being monopolized by amusements better fitted to the Fourth of July than to a day that should be held sacred to the memory of the men who sacrificed their lives for the cause of their country. It is a mistaken idea that Decoration Day is intended for sport and frolic, and thoughtful people should discourage its desecration.”
When not decorating graves or discouraging desecration, the members of the Mart Armstrong post found time for less serious pursuits. “The members of Mart Armstrong Post, G.A.R., gave a very pleasant campfire in their headquarters last night,” the Times-Democrat noted November 9, 1893, “The entertainment was the first of a series arranged for the winter. About two hundred persons were present, among them several members of the W.R.C. (Women’s Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the G.A.R.) and the G.A.R. of Westminster, also a choir from that place. The early part of the evening was devoted to a very pleasing musical and literary entertainment, after which a supper consisting of beans and coffee, was served.”
Members also got together to attend the annual state and national encampments, often traveling as a group. For the 1897 national encampment in Buffalo, New York, the Times-Democrat advised on Aug. 20, 1897, that veterans would travel “via the Detroit & Lima Northern and Grand Trunk systems Monday, Aug. 23,under the auspices of Mart Armstrong Post No. 202, G.A.R. Special train leaves Wayne Street depot at 6:30 a.m., running through without change, arriving at Buffalo at 7:00 p.m. Members of the G.A.R. and their friends are requested to go via the Detroit & Lima Northern and Grand Trunk systems, the only official route to Buffalo.”
As early as April 1885 Lima’s Daily Democratic-Times realized there was money to be made if all those veterans could be lured to Lima for an encampment, which the newspaper described as a “general grand reunion and love feast of all ex-soldiers and a general good time.” The newspaper added that “as a matter of dollars and cents, it will therefore be a good investment. And as a matter of pride it will give Lima a boom and add another laurel to the well-known hospitality and patriotism of our citizens.” The encampment would not come to Lima for another 23 years, although the city did receive a boom of another sort the following month when oil was discovered.
In 1907, Lima was more than ready to host an encampment. Noting that Lima had yet to be chosen to host as a host city, the Times-Democrat wrote on May 16, 1907, “The list of cities that would be proud of the honor is far from exhausted, but there are few left in Lima’s class that have not had the opportunity of welcoming the fleeting remnant of that heroic body of men who saved the greatest country in the world from splitting asunder on the rock of rebellion.”
Lima had another card to play in its bid for the 1908 encampment. By the time of the 1908 encampment, the Times-Democrat wrote, “Lima will have erected a Memorial building in commemoration of the soldiers and pioneers of Allen County at a cost of $130,000. Lima is the third city in the state to erect such a monument, following on the heels of Cincinnati and Columbus, and the fact that the taxpayers of Allen County have shown their loyalty to the Civil War veterans to such a degree should appeal to them on this occasion.”
Delegates at the 1907 encampment in Canton awarded the 1908 event to Lima, and members of the post began preparations. On May 22, 1908, the Daily News noted that “the drum corps of Mart Armstrong Post, G.A.R., was out on the streets last evening for practice drill. The old veterans put the same life into their music as during those ‘unpleasant days’ of the early sixties.”
Memorial Hall, which was the focal point of the 1908 encampment and would serve as headquarters for veterans’ organizations for nearly a century, was dedicated on June 12, 1908. Four days later the state G.A.R. encampment began in Lima with a two-mile long parade, followed with musical performances, speeches and campfires.
But the days of parades and campfires was dwindling. “It was another sad meeting,” according to the notes of a July 1933 meeting of the Mart Armstrong post, “comrade Ernest Elfland having joined Commander Leis in the great beyond.”
At Lima’s Memorial Day parade the following year only one member of the Mart Armstrong post appeared. “Being handicapped by blindness did not prevent 86-year-old William Rathburn, 715 E. Flanders Ave., one of seven surviving Lima Civil War veterans who are members of Mart Armstrong Post, No. 202, from participating in the Memorial Day Parade,” the Lima News wrote May 30, 1934.
In December 1943, Jacob Ream, the last member of the post and the city’s last Civil War veteran, died at the age of 100.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.