The History of Joliet – Chapter 36

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“There never was a time when the Grand Army was grander than it is today.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In the fall of 1923, a group of old soldiers gathered here in Joliet to remember those days that forever had bound them together.

All had white hair. The youngest among them were “three score and ten plus,” The Herald News reported.

They were the last of this state’s Civil War Union Army veterans gathered at what they called a camp fire reunion.

Once their numbers had been in the tens of thousands. But only some 200 of them made it to that 1923 reunion in Joliet of the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was the name of the old soldiers’ national veteran organization, which had posts all across the nation.

And some beautiful words were spoken by the orators while the old soldiers sang their marching songs, saluted the flag and reminisced about the days of their youth on Southern battlefields.

Fortunately, there was a good reporter from this newspaper there to preserve their words for us to read today.

“There is both a sadness and a gladness in being here,” said W.J. LIBBERTON, state commander of the GAR. “It is almost pathetic to attend some camp fires and see how few of the boys remain and how lonesome that few is. However, there is a spirit of gaiety here.

“Nothing lies closer to my heart than the boys of the Grand Army. There is a tugging at my heart strings as I see them going. Out of the 152 (state) regiments which answered the call to the colors during the rebellion, only five regiments are left.

“There never was a time when the Grand Army was grander than it is today. It stands today like the closing of a day in autumn, the closing of the day and year together, quiet and peaceful, yet in the splendor of the scene yet awaiting it.”

William O’CALLAGHAN, commander of Joliet’s Bartleson GAR Post, said the Grand Army was greater in peace than it had been in war. The GAR had taught patriotism for a half-century, he said.

“The spirit of the Grand Army will never die, but will march on forever,” he said. “It is our duty to see that your sacrifice has not been in vain and that our flag continues to wave unsullied and unstained over your graves and our graves.”

But O’CALLAGHAN warned against that element attempting to harm the United States Constitution.

“The brand of patriotism exhibited in this country is so much higher than that of the countries across the sea because the government is our own,” he said. “You Grand Army men have set the example which the boys in the world war followed. There was not a greater incentive than that remembrance of their fathers who had shown their patriotism on Southern fields in the preservation of the nation. They sought to emulate you in making the world safe for democracy …

“You fought for the Constitution, and your might prevailed. We are assailed on every side by people attempting to alter the Constitution by specious interpretation. If men and women will seek out laws which do not suit them, it will not be long until those same people will step up to the Constitution and condemn it. We relied upon the character and experience of the GAR in the past and rely upon those now to see that crack-brain people do not come here and attempt to attack our Constitution.”

Those proud old soldiers numbered about 125 in Will County then, with 75 of them living in Joliet. Earlier that year, federal legislation had been approved giving them a $72 monthly pension.

In the following years, they died one by one until there was no one left in that Grand Army of the Republic. And the GAR posts vanished into history, eventually to be replaced by the VFW posts with World War I veterans.

Now those World War I veterans have disappeared, too. As time continues to march on, the World War II veterans are also on their way to becoming a vanishing breed.

Each of these generations of citizen warriors has believed in patriotism. In the flag and our nation. In freedom and the Constitution. In making the supreme sacrifice to preserve our way of life.

They have passed that burning torch on to the hearts of grandsons and great-grandsons who have put on military uniforms to fight in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and distant battlefields all over this world.

American fighting men must believe in these ideals to do what they do.

And after they do it, they just fade away into history like these old Civil War veterans who gathered here in 1923.

Published December 01, 2001