The Grand Army of the Republic in Wisconsin

Although Illinois bears the distinction of being the birthplace of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first department of the Order was officially organized at Madison, Wisconsin on June 7, 1866. At that meeting, General James K. Proudfit was elected Department Commander. Within three months' time, eight posts had been established in the state, the first being the Cassius Fairchild Post #1, chartered in Madison on June 10, 1866 with 17 members. A year later, at the Encampment held in Madison on June 19, 1867, 16 of 51 posts were represented.

Following this initial period of enthusiasm, however, the GAR experienced a general decline in membership and interest not only in Wisconsin, but throughout the nation as well. The causes for this decline have been attributed by GAR historians to the neglect of proper reports and organizational work, the use of grades or degrees of membership, participation in partisan politics, and a waning interest among some of the early members. To its credit, the Department of Wisconsin maintained its organization and held annual encampments during the lean years of 1868 to approximately 1879.

1880 National Soldiers and Sailors Reunion

1880 Soldier's Home in Milwaukee
Scene from the Soldier's Home in Milwaukee, circa 1880.

In June of 1880, Milwaukee became the scene of what many observers have judged to be the rebirth of the GAR as a national organization. The call for the meeting, originally intended only for GAR members in Wisconsin, concluded with this appeal:

'Comrades! Attend to this at once, or we shall not know whether you are dead, proud or gone to Texas."

The response was so overwhelming that it was decided to invite Civil War veterans from all over the country to attend.

Forty thousand blue clad veterans accompanied by wives, children and assorted camp followers converged on Milwaukee for the conclave that opened on June 7. Generals U.S. Grant and Phil Sheridan arrived by special train and were guests of honor at the campfire and parade. Wisconsin's famed war eagle, "Old Abe," was there for what would prove to be his last parade. The direct result of it all was a renewal of interest and enthusiasm in the charitable and patriotic work undertaken by the Order.

1880 GAR parade in Milwaukee
The 1880 Reunion parade

Griff Thomas
Griffin J. Thomas
Wisconsin Dept.
GAR Commander
The Wisconsin Department, not unlike others, experienced growing pains in its development. During the administration of Commander Griff J. Thomas (1879-81), Post #1 at Madison refused to cooperate with the Department even to the extent of ignoring letters written to it. After consultation with the Commander-in-Chief, Thomas annulled its charter and the E.B. Wolcott Post was organized at Milwaukee and awarded the coveted designation of Number 1. The Madison comrades soon realized their mistake, but had to be content with a new number, Post #11, as the price for their intransigence.

Dept. of Wisconsin Membership Peaks in 1889

Most of the posts in Wisconsin were organized in the decade between 1880 and 1890. A total of 280 posts were recorded in the Wisconsin Grand Army roster. The year 1889 marked the high-water point in the state with 264 active posts and 13,987 members on the rolls. Post #4 at Berlin, chartered September 8, 1866, is credited with being the oldest post in continuous existence in the nation, since it never experienced a reorganization.

National Encampments Hosted in Wisconsin

Milwaukee hosted the National Encampments of 1889, 1923 and 1943, as well as the 1880 meeting, and Madison played host to the organization in 1937. At the 1937 Encampment, 192 veterans representing 36 Departments attended the proceedings. In the parade, 122 hardy Grand Army veterans marched around the Capitol Square. Eighteen of these were listed on the Wisconsin roster. Over the years, Wisconsin was privileged to furnish the GAR with three Commanders-in-Chief: Lucius Fairchild in 1886, Augustus G. Weissert in 1892, and Frank A. Walsh in 1926.

Last Wisconsin Veteran Dies

Lansing Wilcox
Lansing A. Wilcox
Wisconsin Dept.
GAR Commander
Taps sounded for the Department of Wisconsin on September 29, 1951, when Lansing A. Wilcox, aged 105, died at the Grand Army Home at King. He had enlisted at the age of 18 and had served with a Wisconsin regiment for three years, most of which was spent in Louisiana. He served as Department of Wisconsin Commander from 1946-1951. With his death, the last survivor of the Civil War to reside in Wisconsin was gone.

The GAR Legacy in Wisconsin

Although officially a non-political organization, GAR members were destined to play prominent roles in the politics of the Badger State. Eight post-Civil War governors; Fairchild, Washburn, Smith, Rusk, Hoard, Peck, Upham, and Scofield; could claim membership in the Order.

As a charitable and fraternal order, the GAR has left an enduring memorial to the people of Wisconsin in the establishment of the Grand Army Home, located at King. At the Encampment held on February 15, 1887, a resolution was passed, urging the founding of a home for indigent veterans and their wives and widows. In April of that year, the Legislature enacted a bill to provide maintenance at the rate of $3.00 per week for residents of such a home. Through the efforts of the GAR, the Woman's Relief Corps and other patriotic organizations, the sum of $5388.32 was raised to help establish the home. With the cooperation of the city of Waupaca, possession of the Greenwood Park Hotel and 78 acres of land just west of the city was obtained. Early in November 1887, the first occupants of the Soldiers' Home took up residence. Although owned today by the State of Wisconsin, the Home symbolizes the resourcefulness and foresight that characterized the early members of the Grand Army of the Republic in the Badger State.

(Prepared for the GAR Centennial Observance held at Decatur, Illinois, on April 16-17, 1966. Submitted on behalf of the Department of Wisconsin, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, by Thomas L.W. Johnson, Commander, November 1, 1965)

Additional Information

  • List of all Wisconsin GAR Posts


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    Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
    Department of Wisconsin

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