In the spring of 1883, Erastus G. Bartlett, a veteran of the 12th West Virginia Infantry and assistant inspector general for the Grand Army of the Republic’s (GAR) Department of West Virginia, submitted his annual report to John W. Burst, the GAR’s inspector general. Bartlett, a resident of Martinsburg, W.V., saw not only steady growth throughout the department, but also a significant decline in the animus among former Confederates toward the establishment of GAR posts throughout the state and in neighboring Virginia. “New Posts are springing up in different parts of the Department, and old Posts, many of them, are increasing in numbers… The comrades of this Department,” Bartlett explained, “like those of the Department of Virginia, have about outlived the odium placed upon them by the FFV [First Families of Virginia] who were in or sympathized with those who fought for the ‘lost cause’ and consider the GAR a good order,” Bartlett explained to Burst.
While Bartlett viewed some positive developments in former Confederates’ attitudes toward the GAR by 1883, that was not so following the organization’s establishment in 1866. Those who once supported the Confederacy looked askance at the GAR and thought it organized solely “for political purposes.”
Distrustful that the GAR’s principles of charity, fraternity, and loyalty served as a cover for, as historian Stuart McConnell wrote, “a Radical front group,” the life of most GAR posts in the South established in the late 1860s-early 1870s was short-lived. For example, the GAR claimed 35 members in Tennessee in 1871. Six years later, it reported zero. Virginia, the former Confederate state with the largest GAR membership, boasted 387 members in 1871. That number declined precipitously seven years later to 184. The GAR’s decline in the South, however, proved temporary. By the early 1880s membership in the GAR enjoyed a resurgence as an increasing number of Union veterans moved South to enjoy “the economic opportunities of the New South” and “a milder climate.” The increase made Union veterans residing in the South believe, as historian Wallace Davies concluded, that they were “strong enough numerically and sufficiently accepted socially to attempt to infuse new life into the moribund Grand Army of the Republic.”
Efforts to “infuse new life” into the GAR in the Shenandoah Valley began in autumn of 1880 when Henry V. Daniels, a veteran of the 4th New Jersey Infantry and the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Department who lived in Harpers Ferry, and William H.H. Flick, a veteran of the 41st Ohio Infantry wounded at Shiloh and a prominent political figure in West Virginia who resided in Martinsburg, established the first GAR post in the Valley, Lincoln Post No. 1 in Martinsburg. Daniels and Flick proved important in the creation of the first GAR post in the Shenandoah Valley, and in the re-establishment of the GAR in West Virginia that reported zero members since 1871, the year the department “was formally declared disbanded.” Flick served as the Department of West Virginia’s first commander and Daniels as assistant adjutant-general.
Soon after the Lincoln Post’s establishment, Colonel Joseph Thoburn Post No. 2 formed in Harpers Ferry under the 33-year-old George W. Graham, a veteran of the 144th New York Infantry. Graham, perhaps best-known for his brief stint as superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield Site that began in the summer of 1912 and ended with his dismissal the following spring owing to a long chain of abuses of authority, took great pride in not only being the post’s first commander, but the youngest GAR post commander in the nation. In addition, Graham reveled that his post “was located within 500 feet of John Brown’s Fort at Harpers Ferry—where the war of 1861-65 virtually commenced—and eight miles from the battlefield of Antietam.”
By the spring of 1888 four GAR posts existed in the Shenandoah Valley. In addition to Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, posts were established in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., and Winchester, Va. While unclear as to the precise date of the formation of the George D. Summers Post No. 13 in Berkeley Springs, it is mentioned as early as June 1883, Winchester’s Mulligan Post No. 30, named in honor of Union Colonel James Mulligan, mortally wounded during the Second Battle of Kernstown, was established on May 17, 1888.
The Mulligan Post
Although small in number, with 20 members at the time of its founding, the Mulligan Post grew out of a desire to assist Winchester’s Ladies National Memorial Association, organized on June 17, 1887, care for the graves of the nearly 4,500 Union dead buried in the Winchester National Cemetery. Dedicated on April 8, 1866, but not officially deeded to the U.S. government until four years later, the Winchester National Cemetery had become by the 1880s, in the estimation of Edmund M. Houston, one of the Mulligan Post’s charter members, “sadly neglected, from the lack of loyal sympathy of the citizens” of Winchester.
Houston, a veteran of the 143rd New York Infantry who worked as a harness maker in Winchester after the conflict, believed that the GAR’s members from across the nation and the states whose dead rested in the cemetery should bear the financial responsibility in caring for the graves. Houston implored his comrades and the GAR’s leadership in the pages of the National Tribune for the “necessary appropriations… either by the National Encampment… or by the several Departments of different States.” The native New Yorker challenged the Empire State to “furnish her quota of recognitions” for the more than 700 New York soldiers buried in the cemetery.
Determined to improve the cemetery to “a similar condition to Antietam and Gettysburg cemeteries,” the Mulligan Post invited representatives from various GAR posts from Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley to visit Winchester and view firsthand the cemetery’s deplorable situation. Delegations from posts in Mechanicsburg, Carlisle, Newville, Shippensburg, Chambersburg, and Fayetteville visited Winchester on March 18, 1890. The delegation agreed that the cemetery’s condition was dreadful. Particularly appalling was its lack of sufficient space. The Pennsylvanians believed that the cemetery should be expanded beyond its approximately five acres so that it could “receive the dead found along the lines where they fought, as well as those who desire to be buried there after death.” While the Mulligan Post and the delegation hoped “that the matter will receive the speedy attention that its importance deserves,” support came slowly.
Two years after the Pennsylvanians’ visit, Houston continued petitions for assistance. Slightly more than one month prior to Memorial Day in 1892 Houston again appealed to his comrades in The National Tribune. “A murmur passes through the comrades of Mulligan Post 30, in the historic Shenandoah Valley: How can we better observe Memorial Day? With our few in number the burden of responsibility upon us in the South is a tax more than we feel able to assume,” Houston wrote. Although pleased that “some of the departments contributed last year flags for decoration,” Houston seethed that “in the main most remain quiet or deaf to the appeals from the mounds where underneath lie those who shared their hardships.”
Notwithstanding the limited support the Mulligan Post received in its efforts, its membership, which evidence indicates never rose above 24 despite 82 Union veterans residing in Winchester and Frederick County, Va., at the time of the 1890 Veterans Census, never shirked its responsibilities in honoring the Union dead as long as at least one member of the Mulligan Post was alive. By 1925 the Mulligan Post reported only two members, with only one physically able to preside over the Memorial Day ceremony in the National Cemetery—Joseph H. Bean. Born in Frederick County, Va., in 1841, Bean served in the 87th Ohio Infantry during the Civil War. Hailed as “one of the comparatively few Virginians who served in the Union army,” Bean died four years later, the “last member of the Mulligan Post.”
Beyond its commitment to the Union dead in the Winchester National Cemetery, the Mulligan Post always aided various regimental associations in the decades after the conflict commemorate fallen comrades in the Shenandoah Valley and beyond. In September 1888, slightly more than one year after its creation, the Mulligan Post welcomed veterans from the 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry for the dedication of a regimental monument in Winchester’s National Cemetery. The Mulligan Post’s hospitality and support for the dedication, which included six-year old Carrie Houston, daughter of commander Edmond Houston, “crown[ing] the monument with flowers,” so impressed the Massachusetts veterans that they eventually presented Houston with “a handsomely ornamented and mounted” belt and sword engraved…Commander E.M. Houston, Winchester, Va., from the Third Massachusetts Cavalry.”
Beyond the Shenandoah
Other groups of Union veterans took notice of the Mulligan Post’s efforts. Following a visit with Union veterans in Chambersburg, Pa., a reporter for The Franklin Repository penned in praise: “Down in Virginia around Winchester there are not a great many Grand Army men but those who are there are the most enthusiastically people we run across.”
In addition to honoring the Union dead, the Valley’s GAR posts, as they had throughout the nation, performed a critical role in celebrating national holidays and promoting American patriotism. Sometimes these posts assumed the commemorative burden without aid from other local organizations. For example, the responsibilities of celebrating Independence Day in Martinsburg in 1883 fell squarely on the Lincoln Post. The post’s members organized a parade and fireworks. “Martinsburg is one of the few places in the state where anything like a patriotic celebration of Independence Day will take place to-day. There will be a public parade, public speaking, fireworks, etc., under the auspices of Lincoln Post No. 1… Flags and bunting will be liberally displayed,” a newspaper correspondent wrote in praise of the post’s efforts.
The Valley’s GAR posts also ventured beyond the Shenandoah to lend support to various commemorative activities. For example, on June 22, 1887, members of the Lincoln Post journeyed to Greencastle, Pa., to assist in the dedication of a monument to Corporal William H. Rihl, a veteran of the First New York Lincoln Cavalry, who became, on June 22, 1863, the first Union soldier killed in action on Pennsylvania soil. Nine years later members of the Lincoln Post joined “many soldiers from far and near” at the dedication of the monument to the Philadelphia Brigade at Antietam, where the Lincoln Post frequently participated in various memorial events.
The Lincoln Post’s support of ceremonies at Antietam also helps bring some perspective to how GAR members from the Valley interacted with veterans of United States Colored Troop regiments (USCT). While records do not indicate whether or not the GAR Posts in the Valley were integrated, existing sources illustrate that, at a minimum, members participated in ceremonies with USCT veterans. For example, in 1889 and 1890 a contingent of Martinsburg’s and Harpers Ferry’s GAR posts participated in Memorial Day ceremonies at Antietam National Cemetery that included members of Lyon Post No. 31—an all African American post from Hagerstown, Md. Although a seemingly simple act, participation in this ceremony illustrated, particularly at a time when various GAR posts in the South made commemorative activities “a white-only affair,” that members of these Shenandoah Valley posts chose to not forget the service and sacrifice of their African American comrades.
Prayers for Former Enemies
The Valley’s GAR Posts also interacted with Confederate veterans in various ways—most notably in shared memorial ceremonies in cemeteries. On June 6, 1882, Confederate Memorial Day in Martinsburg, members of the Lincoln Post joined Confederate veterans and placed “flowers upon Confederate graves.” Winchester’s Mulligan Post engaged in similar acts. Following the dedication of the 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry monument in the Winchester National Cemetery in September 1888 the Union veterans marched to the Stonewall Confederate Cemetery, separated from the national cemetery by a narrow lane, and gathered around the monument to the unknown Confederate dead. The Mulligan Post’s chaplain offered a prayer while the post’s members and Massachusetts veterans knelt “around the mound to the unknown dead, then… deposited the flowers and wreaths.” The practice of Union veterans visiting Confederate graves, offering prayers for the dead, and strewing flowers was something in which all Union veterans’ organizations that visited the Shenandoah Valley in the postwar era engaged. For example, members of the Sheridan’s Veterans Association visited the Stonewall Confederate Cemetery when they first visited the Shenandoah Valley in September 1883 and performed the act once more when the group returned two years later.
The Valley’s GAR members interacted with Confederate veterans in other ways. For example, in September 1898, members of Winchester’s Mulligan Post and the Turner Ashby Camp of Confederate Veterans joined together for the funeral of a Spanish American War veteran, Corporal John R. Steele, a 22-year-old native of Winchester who died from typhoid at Camp Cuba Libre in Jacksonville, Fla. Earlier that spring, on Memorial Day, undoubtedly fueled by the patriotism sweeping the nation as a result of the Spanish-American War, members of Martinsburg’s Lincoln Post and area Confederate veterans marched to the “graves of the deceased soldiers” and “liberally bestowed [them] with flowers.”
Twenty-six years later John Burkholder, a native of Lancaster, Pa., who served in the 130th Pennsylvania Infantry, and moved to Frederick County, Va., shortly after the war’s conclusion, and one of the Mulligan Post’s last surviving members, sat on a float with Confederate veteran George Washington Kurtz during Winchester’s annual Apple Blossom Parade. The scene of these two veterans riding on a float emblematic of reunion in 1924 was, according to a newspaper correspondent covering the parade, “much admired by all.”
While evidence illustrates that members of the GAR in the Shenandoah Valley engaged in reunion activities with Confederate veterans typical of other GAR posts in the South, it did not mean that the relationship was always harmonious. Several weeks prior to Memorial Day in 1892 the Mulligan Post’s commander, Walter A. Davidson, who served as a captain in the 71st New York Infantry and suffered wounds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, extended an invitation to Charles W. McVicar, commander of Winchester’s Turner Ashby Camp of Confederate Veterans, for “the members of the Ashby Camp to aid [the] Mulligan Post… in the performance of our duties in the observance of Decoration Day at the National Cemetery.” McVicar, who served in R. Preston Chew’s Battery during the Civil War, declined the invitation because of the GAR’s statement six months earlier about the public display of Confederate flags.
On November 4, 1891, the GAR’s commander-in-chief, John Palmer, issued General Order 4, which prohibited any member “wearing badge and uniform of the order” to “march under anything that has the semblance of a Confederate flag.” Palmer believed participating in events with the Confederate flag betrayed the memory of Union soldiers who died during the conflict.
While Palmer never questioned the “right” of the GAR’s members “to mingle with the men against whom you fought,” participating in events with Confederate flags went “against the terms of surrender” and should be viewed as “an act of hostility against the government of the United States.” Palmer also believed the public display of the Confederate flag would continue to “arouse a feeling of animosity or revenge.”
Bothered by the GAR’s views on “anything that has the semblance of a Confederate flag,” McVicar refused Davidson’s invitation. The Ashby Camp commander, while he informed Davidson he would “urge the members of the Camp, in their individual capacities, to be present,” McVicar would not allow his members to officially participate in the observance. McVicar explained that Confederate veterans did not bring out the Confederate flag as “only as the ever to be honoured emblem of the memories we cherish.”
In 1900, tensions rose once more following the Confederate veterans’ condemnation of the GAR’s stance that school textbooks used throughout the South taught “false history” about the Civil War and promoted “unpatriotic ideas in the youth of the land.” Offended by being labeled “brave fools or rash traitors,” Winchester’s Confederate veterans lambasted “the Grand Army of the Republic…[for] a vicious attack upon our Southern School Histories.”
The tensions that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries between the GAR’s members in the Valley and Confederate veterans, juxtaposed with the various positive interactions the groups had with each other during the same period, illustrates that the GAR’s members in the Shenandoah Valley navigated a complex world. At times it appeared an environment where, as a member of the Mulligan Post reflected, “the burden” seemed “more than… able to assume.” While they fraternized with former foes and engaged in activities aimed at healing the conflict’s deep wounds, commitment to honoring comrades and, as one GAR member explained, saving “the Union and the stars and stripes from dishonor,” always stood at the forefront of the Valley’s GAR posts’ mission.
Jonathan A. Noyalas is director of Shenandoah University’s McCormick Civil War Institute. Slavery and Freedom in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War Era (University Press of Florida, 2021), is his most recent book.