LOOKING BACK TO MEMORIAL DAY 1916
Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
During the four-year-long American Civil War, some 2.1 million men served as soldiers with the Union forces. Much has been written about these fighters, but many do not realize that women also worked on the front line, volunteering for important roles such as spies and nurses. When the bloody conflict ended in 1865, the men and women returned home, proud to have served and grateful to have survived the United States’ deadliest war.
However, a year after the war, the returning Union soldiers became concerned about veterans benefits, so they formed an organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). It became a powerful advocacy group, and eventually local posts were in every state, with some even outside the country. In 1883, an auxiliary organization was created called the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC). The group wanted the country to recognize the contributions of women during the war, but mainly wanted to support the men of the GAR. Although separate organizations, the two worked closely together.
Even though a sizable number of former Civil War soldiers settled in Visalia, it took several years to get a local post. In 1886, 20 Union vets petitioned the GAR leadership for authorization to establish a local unit. That year, Grand Army of the Republic Gen. George Wright Post No. 111 received its charter, named in honor of the Civil War commander of Union forces on the Pacific Coast. At the time of the charter, the membership roster had 32 names, almost all from Visalia. The group was led by Jacob L. Asay, who was named commander, and they met regularly at the Good Templars Hall.
Members wasted little time in making their presence known, proudly wearing their uniforms at community events, especially parades. It was common for the local members to ride on floats decorated with bunting and American flags. In August 1886, members Augustus Weishar and Frederick Speise were pleased to represent Visalia at the big GAR encampment held in San Francisco. However, their mood was dampened somewhat when a thief broke into their hotel room and stole personal items.
Visalia also had a local chapter of the Woman’s Relief Corps called the Ladies of Gen. George Wright Relief Corps No. 73. The relationship between the two organizations was strong. In 1898, Mrs. C.J. Berry, the new incoming president, summed up the connection between them saying, “We are attached by command to Gen. George Wright GAR post and more attached in feelings than by any general orders.” The two groups even had a joint installation of officers in January 1898.
But perhaps the most obvious example of their cooperation and bond was shown in the early 1900s. Both groups noted that Civil War veterans were dying at an alarming rate and that the town did not have a monument to honor them. So they decided that one was needed and that the cemetery was the best place for it. The symbol they chose was a statue of a Union soldier, a very popular figure made by the W.H. Mullins Company in Salem, Ohio. The selected statue was product #4728 called “Soldier at Parade Rest,” and cost about $2,500. It stood roughly 6 feet high and was hollow, made from formed sheets of bronze.
The two groups set Memorial Day 1916 as the date for completion. Fundraising began, and the ladies made quilts to sell, and sold tickets to shows and concerts. They raised considerable money. In fact, the Tulare County Times reported, “The ladies who expended so much time in securing the funds necessary … are to be heartily commended .…”
As planning for the big day began, it was clear that the holiday was going to be busy. The town had always made a big deal about the patriotic holiday, but this time, it was going to be especially busy with the statue dedication.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1916, after the Main Street parade finished at 9:30 a.m., the procession walked west on Main, then north on Giddings Street and onto the cemetery grounds. Members of the GAR and WRC were taken there by automobile.
The first part of the service began at the newly placed statue. An estimated crowd of 500 listened to beautiful music, then Patrick Michael Longan, controller for the Mt. Whitney Power & Electric Company, gave his keynote remarks directed
especially to the old soldiers.
“Veterans of the Grand Army, you are the orators of Decoration Day, no matter who may be the speakers. You and your flowers and your little bronze buttons and your graves thrill all hearts into patriotism by your silent eloquence,” he said, adding, “A generous public has made it possible to erect this beautiful monument, which we have dedicated today to the memory of our heroes. It shall stand here a mute, expressive witness of the gratitude of a people rejoicing in the benefits won by their sacrifices.”
Then Marion Morton, representing the GAR, and Neva Abshire, acting on behalf of the WRC, removed the statue covering. The crowd then adjourned to the regular Memorial Day service. Obviously impressed with the day’s activities, the Visalia Morning Delta called the services “the most carefully arranged and excellently carried out of any that haveever been given.”
At the time of the dedication, the Visalia GAR post had fewer than 20 members and, as the years passed, the numbers decreased. By 1938, only George R. Anderson remained and on July 18, he passed away at the age of 91. With his passing, the Gen. George Wright Post No. 111 ended its 62-year existence.
Even though the GAR and WRC are gone, the Union soldier statue remains at its original site in the Visalia Cemetery. The 114-year-old bronze soldier is showing age, but he continues to stand representing and honoring all those Union soldiers who fought in America’s Civil War. But the statue also serves as an important reminder of what was accomplished by the men and women of both groups.
I encourage you to see the statue — it’s worth a visit!