Grand Army of Republic connected to Stones River

January 3, 2010, Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post

President’s Father died here in 1863

Once a powerful organization, the Grand Army of the Republic has slipped to an almost forgotten footnote to the Civil War. The GAR was organized by Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson on April 6, 1866, in Decatur, Ill. It was more of a fraternal organization, but it incorporated military traditions as well. It was divided into “Departments” at the state level and “Posts” at the community level and military-style uniforms were worn by its members.

There were posts in every state in the U.S. and several overseas. The organization wielded considerable political clout nationwide. Between 1868 and 1908, no Republican was nominated to the presidency without the endorsement of the GAR. In 1868, General Order #11 of the GAR called for May 30 to be designated as a day of memorial for Union veterans; originally called “Decoration Day, it later became Memorial Day.

GAR was also active in issues including pension legislation and establishing retirement homes for soldiers. The influence of the GAR led to the creation of the Old Soldiers’ Homes of the late 19th century, which evolved into the current United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

By 1890 the organization had 490,000 members. Each year, the GAR held a “National Encampment” from 1866 to 1949 when final encampment was held at Indianapolis. At that session, the few surviving members voted to retain the existing officers in place until the organization’s dissolution. Because of that decision, Theodore Augustus Penland of Oregon, the GAR’s commander at the time, became its last. In 1956, after the death of the last member, Albert Woolson, the GAR was formally dissolved. Penland was a national figure during his days as a top Grand Army of the Republic official.

He was born on Jan. 23, 1849 in Elkhart County, Ind. He was living in Portland, Ore. when he died at age 101 in 1950. Only eight other surviving Union Army veterans were alive at that time, Joseph Clovese, Hiram Randall Gale, Lansing A. Wilcox, Douglas T. Story, Israel Adam Broadsword, William Allen Magee, James Albert Hard and Albert Henry Woolson. Penlands personal war story was limited. He entered the Union Army at Goshen, Ind. at age 16, in early 1865 and served with Company A of the 152nd Indiana Infantry. He saw no combat, serving guard duty instead along the Potomac River. He was discharged a few months later at Charleston, W.Va. However, his elder family members fought and lost their lives during some of the worst fighting of the Civil War. His father, John Penland, died as the result of a wound he received at the Battle of Stones River.

John had enlisted as a private in K Company, 57th Indiana Infantry on Oct. 15, 1862. He was wounded in action on Dec. 31, 1862 when he was grazed in the gut by a cannon ball. He was left for dead on the Stones River battlefield and walked back to camp holding in his guts. John died in the Unions First Division field hospital at Overall’s Creek on Jan. 4, 1863 at the age of 45 and is buried in the Stones River National Cemetery in grave number 1444 in Section D.

Two of Penlands brothers died at Andersonville, the infamous Confederate prison near Americus, Ga. More than 12,000 Union prisoners died there due to disease, malnutrition and exposure. As for Theodore Penland, his fame grew even into the 20th Century as his lure for adventure drew him to the American West. In 1868, Penland literally walked from Indiana to California, living briefly in Cheyenne, Wyo. before ending up in Sacramento, Calif. and then moving onto Nevada. He worked in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the Union Pacific Railroad through 1869 when the golden spike completed the transcontinental line at Promontory Point, Utah.

After a brief return to Indiana, Penland’s other residences included Michigan, Los Angeles, San Diego, and, ultimately, Portland, Ore. Later during his long life, Penland repeated these long transcontinental walks by journeys on trains and even by airplane. His travels even took him to Australia and New Zealand. Until the end of his life he remained interested in veterans’ affairs and in the fraternal and charitable activities of the Grand Army of the Republic. He attended battlefield reunions at Gettysburg as well as National and Department Encampments of the GAR. As one of the final survivors of the Civil War, he held the top office of Commander in the Department of Oregon from 1935 until his death and was a national GAR officer from 1941. He held membership in 32 patriotic orders including the GAR.

Penland enjoyed giving talks on his experiences in the Civil War, of the time he saw President Abraham Lincoln and on the virtues of “living carefully. His distinctive singing voice was a feature of GAR firesides, with a favorite “Tenting On The Old Camp Ground.” In later years, he enjoyed talking and singing on the radio an amazing development for someone born during the beginning years of telegraphy and speaking with young people.

Penland took the train to his final GAR encampment in Indianapolis where the few surviving members voted to retain the existing officers until the organizations dissolution, which came in 1956 following the death of Albert Woolson, the organizations last member. Woolson, like Penland, never saw action during the Civil War, but he was the son of Union soldier who died of wounds received at the Battle of Shiloh. When he died at age 106 in 1956, he was the last surviving Union Army veteran, outliving James Albert Hard of the 37th New York Volunteer Infantry (who was the last surviving Union Army combat veteran) by three years.

Before his death, Woolson deeded the GARs property over to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. The GAR’s records went to the Library of Congress, and its badges, flags and official seal went to the Smithsonian Institution.

Until its dissolution, the GAR was headquartered in one half of the 1893 Chicago Main Library on Michigan Ave. between Washington and Randolph Streets. The current Chicago Cultural Center, which occupies all of the former library space, has preserved the entire building with special attention to the original GAR meeting hall. On a marble frieze are carved ivory inscriptions representing all the main Civil War battles. The building is entirely free to the public. The collection of Civil War artifacts once displayed there is now preserved at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago.

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