Grand Army of the Republic at The Filson

By Michael Veach
Special Collections Assistan

In September 1895 the city of Louisville was host to the annual Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). This gathering of veterans of the Union Army is still the largest convention ever held in the city.

Every hotel was booked; the schools were turned into barracks for units that wished to camp together; local parks became tent cities and thousands of Louisvillians made extra money renting rooms to the veterans. The week-long event included a parade of the veterans, fireworks on the river, and a huge picnic in Wilder Park with a boardwalk, vaudeville entertainers, and music concerts. The Encampment in Louisville was a success marred only by a collapsed grandstand at the fireworks display and a cannon explosion on the morning of the parade.

For many of the veterans, this was not their first trip to Louisville. During the war Louisville was a major transportation and supply center for the Union Army west of the Appalachians. In recent years The Filson Historical Society has added several collections of letters and diaries from these soldiers of the western campaign to its Special Collections Department. Many of the issues discussed in the records of the G.A.R. Encampment were also being discussed in the letters sent home by the soldiers in the war. Encampment organizers were often Confederate veterans who sold the idea of coming to Louisville by saying this was an opportunity to show the world that the war really was over and that the nation was united again. The South was holding out an olive branch to the North. Of course, the state of Kentucky remained in the Union during the war. Kentucky never joined the Confederacy. Even so, there was much concern during the war about Kentucky and its loyalty to the Union. Several of Robert Winn’s letters in the Winn-Cook Family Papers question the loyalty of Kentucky to the Union because it was a slave state. The state was divided, and Col. Samuel T. Wells of the 50th Indiana Infantry writes that Russellville was indeed a hotbed of rebel activity and that the women were more fervent in their politics than the men. After the war, the illusion of a “Confederate” Kentucky was reinforced as many Kentuckians who served in the Confederate Army became elected officials.

Another concern of the veterans coming to Louisville for the Encampment was the treatment of their African-American members. There were articles circulating in northern black newspapers stating that the blacks would only be shown the work camps and the river if they came to Louisville. The organizers in Louisville assured them that the facilities for the black members were just as nice as those of the white members and if a white unit had black members and wanted them to stay with their chapter, then there would be no objections from the Louisville organizers. These concerns have their roots in Kentucky’s slave past. Robert Winn writes often that there was great opposition to arming the African-Americans. This opposition was increased when some of these units were placed in Kentucky to guard against guerrilla activity. Winn’s opinion was that if the blacks were armed, then they should be placed on the front in the thickest fighting.

Many of the soldiers serving in Kentucky described the places where they were serving in their letters home. They also described the people they encountered and gave their opinion of slavery. When they returned in 1895, many wished to visit the places they remembered from the war and to meet with people they had met thirty years earlier. This led to such events as an organized picnic at West Point for the units that had served at Fort Duffield during the war and “campfires” or gatherings for different units that allowed all of their members to unite for a night no matter where they lived in the United States.

The Special Collections Department of The Filson Historical Society has increased its collecting focus of Civil War letters to include letters from soldiers of other states who served in Kentucky. In the past several years, Special Collections volunteer Joan Rapp has cataloged dozens of individual letters and several larger collections of letters written by Union soldiers who served in Kentucky and the western campaign. Other major collections cataloged in the last few years include the papers of General Don Carlos Buell, the Winn-Cook Family Papers, and the records of the Grand Army of the Republic Encampment of 1895.

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The Filson Historical Society
1310 South Third Street - Louisville, KY 40208
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