Traverse City Record-Eagle


April 11, 2011

In 1899, city welcomes veteran encampment

TRAVERSE CITY -- How different Traverse City was in August 1899, when 400 Civil War area veterans streamed into town for a three-day Grand Army of the Republic encampment.

During the 34 years since the Civil War ended, Traverse City grew from a small pioneer sawmill town along the shoreline of West Bay into what city promoters liked to call the "Queen City of the North."

Three railroads and two Opera Houses served the population of about 9,400 and outlying towns.

The three-story, brick Hannah, Lay "Big Store," built in 1883, stretched a half-block along Front Street, the largest mercantile north of Grand Rapids.

Telephone service and electric downtown lights had been in place since 1885.

Dams constructed a few years before on the Boardman River powered the city's businesses and factories.

The growing Northern Michigan Asylum, opened in 1885, already housed more than 1,000 patients.

More changes were coming, too, though not many people might have suspected that when R.B. Cobb of Charlevoix drove his "horseless carriage" into town just three weeks before the encampment.

By 1899, life was beginning to wind down for some of the older "Boys in Blue." Local historian and one-time doctor Morgan Leach, who had served as an assistant surgeon with the 9th Michigan Cavalry, was 78. Any 20-year-old soldier who enlisted in 1861 was already in his late 50s.

Bruce Catton, the prolific 20th century Civil War history author who grew up in Benzonia, was four months away from birth that August. But the G.A.R. "graybeards" of his town and the stories they told would have a dramatic effect on his life. In fact, he would write more than 20 books about the "The War of the Rebellion," as it was often called in the North, or the "War of Northern Aggression," as the South referred to it.

"They were a men set apart," Catton wrote in his 1972 memoir, "Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood."

"Years ago they had marched thousands of miles to legendary battlefields," he wrote. "They had once gone to the ends of the earth and seen beyond the farthest horizon."

He described them as pillars of community life, keepers of patriotic traditions and the "living embodiment" of a deep belief in the greatness of the nation and its "high destiny."

The Traverse City encampment was a big deal that August 1899 weekend, and so was the Grand Army of the Republic. It was the first national Civil War veterans association and advocate for veterans. Formed in 1866, it lobbied for pensions, relief and legislation. It also was a powerful lobby for the Republican Party. By the late 1800s, it was said, a Republican could not be nominated for president without G.A.R. backing.

"Traverse City throws her gates wide open for the old soldiers and sailors who fought in the war of the rebellion," the daily Morning Record reported in an Aug. 17 story that also pointed out Civil War window displays in some downtown storefronts.

They came by trains from Kingsley, Frankfort, Kalkaska, East Jordan, Cadillac, Bellaire and Eastport. They arrived by steamers and bay boats from Northport and Charlevoix.

Members of the local McPherson Post No. 18 and a band met each delegation and escorted it to their McPherson Post campground, believed today to be somewhere along Railroad Street.

"It was well into evening before the last were in," the Grand Traverse Herald reported. "All the old boys were given a glad hand."

Taps was played at 10 p.m. that first night and the "Sunrise Gun" awoke them at 5:45 a.m. on Saturday. Over the next two days, they marched through town with their individual G.A.R. and bands. The local Spanish-American War veterans of Company M and the Traverse City Crescent Band and Boys Band also marched.

They listened to speeches at the City Opera House, met old friends and told war stories. More than 1,200 lunch rations were served on Saturday.

Though neither the Herald nor the Morning Record reported it, some veterans may have taken a thoughtful walk over to the courthouse to look at the Civil War Soldier monument erected in 1890 to honor them -- and their old comrades who never came marching home again.

Tuesday: Company K Indian sharpshooters.

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