Friday, May 13, 2005

To our honored Civil War dead

One of the principal glories of the Chariton square is our Civil War memorial, dedicated to "Our Honored Dead, 1861-1865" during May of 1916 by members of Daniel Iseminger Post No. 18, Grand Army of the Republic. It is so familiar, however, that I'm not sure we really see it any more. Flags fly nearby from a towering pole topped by "G.A.R." and the monument is guarded by a fence erected 5 November 1934 by Mary A. Douglas Tent No. 2, The Daughters of Union Veterans, an organization active in Lucas County until quite recently.

Iowa had a special place in the Civil War, contributing approximately 76,000 soldiers to the Union cause, the highest number per capita of any state in the Union. Of this number, roughly 13,000 died --- a devastating number, more than 150 of them, Lucas Countyans.

The Grand Army of the Republic, organized during the winter of 1865-66 in Chicago, arose out of the aftermath to unite Union veterans of the war, relieved that the wrenching conflict was over but exhausted and in many cases wounded physically and spiritually. G.A.R. Posts were formed rapidly across the North after the first was organized on 6 April 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, and as the years passed these posts provided healing focus for hundreds of thousands of veterans whose lives were altered and colored permanently by war.

The G.A.R. also served many vital purposes during its lifetime. Although Lincoln had promised to care for veterans and the widows and children of those who died, the nation really had no idea how to go about doing so. The G.A.R. became the principal force in ensuring that the nation lived up to its promises, lobbying for pension legislation, building soldiers' homes, conducting relief work.

G.A.R. General Order No. 11, issued 5 May 1868 by G.A.R. Commander-in-chief John A. Logan established what we now call Memorial Day, calling for all departments and posts to set aside the 30th of May as a day for remembering the sacrifices of fallen comrades. Later enshrined by Congress and finally moved to the final Monday in May during 1971 to ensure three-day weekends for federal employees, this day we still observe remains the organization's most universal legacy.

Civil War memorials that grace the town squares and public parks of countless cities, including Chariton, generally are the specific legacies of individual posts.

The Lucas County G.A.R. post was named for a Lucas County hero, Capt. Daniel William Iseminger (born 30 May 1813), captain of Company B, 6th Iowa Infantry, who fell at Shiloh on 6 April 1865, the first day of that vast and bloody battle in Tennessee.

G.A.R. membership peaked at 409,489 during 1890, then began to decline as death diminished the ranks of these old soldiers. By 1916, when the Iseminger Post organized construction of our city square monument as the exclamation point to its work in Lucas County, it would have been challenging to find a member under 70.

The 83rd and final national encampment of the G.A.R. was held 28-31 August 1949 in Indianapolis with 16 members present. The death of Albert Woolson, age 109, on 2 August 1956 in Duluth, Minn., added the final punctuation mark. He was the nation's last surviving Union veteran and the final G.A.R. member.

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