A Catskill Catalog: June 2, 2010
In the Catskills, Memorial Day traditionally marked the beginning of the season. Hotels and boarding houses often opened for business, or, at least, opened the winter-shuttered place for air. Summer residents opened the country house. Old acquaintances renewed.
Each small town community gathered for a parade and solemn moment of remembrance for those who fought and died. Ice cream often followed. The kids played, the adults talked, summer began.
Memorial Day and the small town community seem made for each other. After a long winter and always-iffy mountain spring, folks gather downtown, at the village memorial, in summertime-sunny weather, if we’re lucky. The atmosphere is tempered by the solemnity of our remembrance, the honor we offer those who never got to come home.
But our excitement and enthusiasm break through in spontaneous applause for our Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, Cubs and Webelos. The fire equipment sparkles for public inspection and the school band plays a lively step for the marching fire companies and veterans.
Memorial Day began as Decoration Day. Decorating the graves of war-dead became a common practice throughout the northern states in the first years after the Civil War. It’s a practice that continues, uninterrupted, to this day. Check out the local cemeteries.
Decoration Day as earnest memorial began when General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, ordered every local GAR post to observe Decoration Day on May 30, 1868. There were posts of the veterans’ organization all over the states that had remained loyal to the United States.
It is hard for us, today, to grasp the power, influence and importance of the Grand Army of the Republic in the United States in the 30 or 40 years after the Civil War. The GAR was the leading organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. And the Civil War – more accurately, the memory of the Civil War – remained a huge factor in American life.
In the Catskills, GAR posts included many veterans of the 20th New York State Militia, formed in Kingston and known as the Ulster Guard. The 72nd New York Volunteers had mustered in Delhi and were the first to leave the Delaware River portion of the Catskills. There would have been a lot of them in local GAR posts.
Catskill Mountain recruits had enlisted in a variety of places. The 156th New York Volunteers, the Mountain Legion, began as the New Paltz Volunteers. The 71st New York Volunteer Infantry mustered originally in Colchester. The 44th N.Y. Volunteers, a “people’s regiment” that picked highly skilled recruits from around the state, attracted a number from around the mountains.
The genius of the Grand Army of the Republic was to organize all Union veterans in one big army of veterans without distinguishing among regiments and battalions, where you fought, or under whose command. If you were a Union “veteran of the late unpleasantness,” you were a member of the Grand Army of the Republic.
This was new in American life. Veterans of the Revolution and the War of 1812 had essentially fought in community groups. Guys enlisted together in a regiment raised locally, fought together, and stayed together, even returning, the lucky ones, to their communities together.
The Civil War started that way. When President Lincoln asked for 75,000 volunteers, companies and regiments formed locally, the 20th in Kingston, the 72nd in Delhi. That happened all over the northern states. But this war proved too big and too complicated for that old formula, and, soon, a truly national army emerged.
“Men from different communities and even different states were forced together by the exigencies of battle where new friendships and lasting trust was forged.”
So reads the website of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the successor organization to the now defunct GAR.
The Grand Army of the Republic was founded by Benjamin F. Stephenson in Decatur, Illinois on April 6, 1866, one year after the war’s end. Soon there were posts throughout the north. In 1890, the GAR reported 490,000 members.
The GAR quickly became a force in politics, helping to elect Republican presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to William McKinley, helping to ensure Republican dominance throughout the north. The Democrats were seen as the party of rebellion, the party of the south.
That’s why Catskill Mountain counties remained solidly Republican from the end of the Civil War until very recently. In 1982, Walton native Bob Estes was elected Delaware County Judge, the first Democrat to win countywide office in 50 years, since Margaretville Democrat Ray Marks was elected Delaware County Treasurer in the 1932 Roosevelt landslide. Only recently have Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Ulster County.
Decoration Day was not the number one event on the GAR calendar. That would be the annual encampments, “elaborate multi-day events which often included camping out, formal dinners and memorial events.” The GAR held encampments every year from 1866 to 1949.
The last Union veteran died in 1956, ending the GAR. Albert Woolson was 106 and had enlisted, in 1864, as a drummer boy.