TRAVERSE CITY — They call themselves the “Sons of Union Army Veterans of the Civil War,” but members nationwide today range from great-grandsons to great-great-great-great grandsons.
The SUVCW is the heir to the Grand Army of the Republic, the nation’s first veterans organization formed in 1866. Congress appointed the group to take over the reins in 1956 after the nation’s last Union Civil War veteran died. The Sons’ main purpose is to ensure that Civil War soldiers, sailors and marines always are remembered and honored for preserving the Union in the 1861-1865 national conflict, and that their graves are tended forever.
”A man lives as long as he is remembered,” Dale Aurand said, quoting the title of a poem sometimes found etched on old Civil War gravestones. Aurand is outgoing commander of the SUVCW’s Traverse City-based Robert Finch Camp No. 14 camp and now senior vice commander of the 500-member state SUVCW.
“If somebody isn’t thinking and doing something about it, it’s forgotten,” he added. “The quest to ‘Keep green the memory’ is ongoing.”
Sons in the area Robert Finch Camp No. 14 have mapped out a busy year of honoring the region’s 2,520 Civil War soldiers buried in 11 northern Michigan counties.
Among highlights on the year’s list of events are a formal graveside military re-dedication ceremony in Kalkaska this summer for two Civil War Medal of Honor recipients and an educational and fundraising campaign in Elk Rapids this spring to help raise money to restore Michigan’s aging collection of Civil War battle flags.
A total 509 Civil War soldiers — including one Confederate soldier — are buried in Grand Traverse County cemeteries, said Tom Jenkins, Finch camp grave registration officer.
The men make regular cemetery visits to record the condition of gravestones and order replacements if originals become damaged or worn out. They also order stones for veterans buried as unknown or in pauper graves. In addition they conduct official military graveside dedication and re-dedication ceremonies for new discovered Civil War veterans.
The camp made a $1,100 donation in October to the Michigan Historical Museum’s “Save the Flags” restoration project to help preserve nearly 160 fragile, battle-torn Civil War flags that had been displayed for decades in the Capitol rotunda and now are kept in a climate-controlled room.
The Finch camp is the oldest active camp of the state’s 24 chapters. Formed on March 26, 1914, in Grand Rapids, it moved to Traverse City in 1988 after retired Grand Rapids members living in Traverse City petitioned for its relocation. Finch camp members hail from 11 northern lower Michigan counties, stretching north from Manistee to the Mackinac Straits and east of I-75 to Alpena. One member, lives in England and is direct descendant of two brothers who emigrated from England and served in Michigan regiments during the Civil War. One of the brothers died as a prisoner of war.
The group has three types of membership. Any male 14 or older who can trace his ancestry to an honorably discharged soldier, sailor, marine or revenue cutter serviceman during the Civil War is eligible. The ancestor can be paternal or maternal, direct or indirect lineage — for instance, a brother to great-great-grandfather. Boys age 6-14 can join as a junior member and males who do not have a Civil War ancestor but support the traditions and goals of the Sons may join as an associate member.
The camp’s planned activities this year include a banquet luncheon at the Elks Club in Traverse City to celebrate the camp’s 100th birthday on March 29 and marching in the Elk Rapids Memorial Day parade on May 25.
On July 26, the Sons will conduct a re-dedication service at Evergreen Cemetery in Kalkaska County to honor two Civil War Medal of Honor winners – orderly Sgt. Charles DePuy and Private Charles Thatcher for heroism beyond the call of duty during the July 30, 1864, Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Va. Both served in the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters regiment and moved to Kalkaska County after the war. They are buried just a few feet apart.
Members give a variety of reasons for joining the group. Some attribute their interest to old family letters, pictures, and stories, vacations to national Civil War sites and the nation’s 1961-1965 Civil War centennial celebration. Others trace their fascination to boyhood and seeing the early 1960s Disney movie, “Johnny Shiloh,” about a drummer boy who followed his town’s men into war.
Skip Bryant, 53, the Finch camp’s new commander became a member after his father died in 2006. He had heard family stories about his Civil War great-grandfather and great-uncle while growing up but he never was interested in tracking them down until then.
“I think my father’s passing kind of kicked some of this off,” he said. He describes the SUVCW’s tasks as a form of historical stewardship.
Imagine his surprise when he discovered that his great-grandfather Alison Bryant and Robert Finch knew each other and are buried 50 feet apart in a Grand Rapids cemetery. Ironically, neither grave had a GAR flag holder planted in the ground next to it – something the Finch camp plans to correct this year after new markers are cast from original markers and completed by Elk Rapids artist Scott Nelles.
The two soldiers became good friends in the early 1900s as GAR color-bearers who attended GAR encampments and parades in Washington, D.C., Arlington Cemetery and other places across the nation. Bryant carried the state flag. Finch, who lost an eye serving with the First Michigan Sharpshooters, toted the national banner. Finch died in 1924.
”Preserving is what we do,” Skip Bryant said.