Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Armistice Day and Civil War Veterans

Ninety years ago, on Armistice Day, November 11, 1921,  thousands  gathered in Washington and Arlington National Cemetery for the  the funeral procession and burial of an unknown American soldier "known but to God" who had fallen in France during the Great War.  Veterans of three  wars-- the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the World War-- marched in the procession.  Gray-haired veterans of the Union and Confederate armies now marched in honor of their sons and grandsons who had fallen in the War to End All Wars..

Joseph Lonsway, a 85 year-old Civil War veteran and then oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, with General John J. Pershing at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice Day 1921. 
The first Veterans Day, then called Armistice Day, was observed in the U.S. on November 11, 1919, in honor of those Americans who had died in the Great War, i.e. the First World War.   However, a dwindling number of Civil War veterans in the Washington area joined in observing the earliest Armistice Day ceremonies.

When the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, 1921, Civil War veterans from three major veteran organizations participated in the funeral procession: the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, and the United Confederate Veterans (UCV).  The G.AR. contingent, marching eight abreast, led the procession of war veteran societies that accompanied the Unknown Soldier's casket from Washington to Arlington. The Washington Star noted that "there were no prouder veterans among those who marched in honor of the nation's unknown here today than those who wore the blue in the mortal crisis of the nation half a century ago." 

Members of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), including General Nelson Miles, stand in front of the Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Amphitheater on Memorial Day in 1920.  G.A.R. was a Union Army veterans organization that once wielded significant political power in the late 19th century,   Throughout the 1920s, GAR posts remained active throughout the county and the last national GAR encampment, attended by only four veterans, was held in Indianapolis in 1949.
The funeral procession also consisted of a contingent of the nation's Congressional Medal of Honor winners from the Civil War, Indian campaigns, Spanish War, and the recent World War.  The Washington Star described this illustrious group as "probably the most remarkable body of heroes ever assembled in the history of the world."  Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming, who distinguished himself at the battle of Port Hudson in 1863, chose to march with his fellow Congressional Medal of Honor comrades rather than his Senate colleagues.

The spirit of national unity outweighing sectional differences was captured in a statement issued by the G.AR. regarding the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown:  All our internal divisions and differences are forgotten in this overwhelming impulse of loving tribute to one whose name even is unknown." A 1927 Washington Post editorial on "What Armistice Day Means," opined that sectional differences were only truly healed with the coming of the First World War:  " Then the sons of Confederate soldiers fought side by side with the sons of Union soldiers.  Then the men who word the blue at Gettysburg waited with the men who wore the gray at Gettysburg for word from overseas." 
Senator Francis Warren, who was also General Pershing's father-in-law, would serve in the US Senate until his death in November 1929 and was the last Union veteran to serve in Congress.  At the time of his death, the 35 year incumbent was the longest serving US Senator in history.  Years after the Civil War, the Congressional Medal of Honor was bestowed on him for voluntarily taking part in an attack against the enemy's works under heavy fire in advance of a general assault at Port Hudson, Louisiana in May 1863.

Although  a handful of Civil War veterans participated in various Armistice Day commemorations in the capital through the eve of the Second World War, it was clear that there were days were numbered.  On Armistice Day 1926, The Washington Post observed that there were now less than a half million living Civil War veterans and that "soon scarcely a corporal's guard of the of the boys in blue will be left to gather around the flag to respond to the annual roll call of the Grand Army of the Republic, for the average age of all is beyond fourscore."

One "youngster" in his 70s amongst these veterans was  John L. Clem, the "Drummer Boy of Chickamauga," who retired from the regular Army on the eve of World War One as a brigadier general.  As late as 1940,  Peter Pierre Smith, a 97-year old Confederate veteran living in Washington, planned to participate in Washington's annual Armistice Day broadcast, but had to cancel due to ill health.  

 In 1954, Armistice Day was formally renamed Veterans Day and expanded to honor veterans of all of America's wars. Two years later, Albert H. Woolson, the last surviving veteran of the Union Army, died in Duluth, Minnesota.  Earlier this year, Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of the First World War, died in Charles Town, West Virginia and was buried at Arlington where he rests with hundreds of thousands of fellow veterans ranging in service from the Civil War to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Daly, John J.  "Ten Years After:  A Full Decade After the End of the Most Destructive War in the History of the World, The Washington Post, November 11, 1928.

Daly, John J.  "What Armistice Day Means," The Washington Post, November 13, 1927.

"G.A.R. Veterans Proud to Honor Unknown Hero," The Washington Star, November 11, 1921.

"Passing of the Veterans," The Washington Post, November 12, 1926.

"Senator Warren, Medal Man, Walks in Parade," The Washington Star, November 13, 1921.


  1. War veterans are our nation's true heroes. I hope that the government not only celebrates the sacrifices that our veterans made, but also give them the proper recognition and aid that they need, like homes, financial support, and proper healthcare. War veterans deserve gratitude for their honorable deeds in the past.

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