GAR Veterans Remember the Civil War

Children at the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument on Memorial Day, 1901. I took this poor-quality image from a microfilm reader at the Indiana State Library.
Children at the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on Memorial Day, 1901. I took this image from a microfilm reader.

Leo Rassieur woke up early on the morning of May 30, 1901. It was Memorial Day and the Missouri native had a train to catch. While he had frequently stayed in Missouri for Memorial Day commemorations, this year would be different. Rassieur would soon be leaving from Union Station in St. Louis to attend this year’s Memorial Day services in Indianapolis.

Forty years ago, Rassieur had enlisted for service as a Second Sergeant with the Union Army in the 1st Regiment, U.S. Reserve Corps, Missouri Infantry, in St. Louis. After the regiment’s one year term concluded, Rassieur returned to St. Louis and reenlisted with the 30th Regiment of the Missouri Infantry, which fought in the Trans-Mississippi theater of the war, including the battle of Chickasaw Bayou, the Siege of Vicksburg, and the assault and capture of Fort Blakely. Rassieur was a Captain by the time the 30th was mustered out of service on August 31, 1865.

In the years after the Civil War, Rassieur became an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Missouri. When the National Encampment of the GAR came to St. Louis in 1887, Rassieur was elected as a representative of the Department of Missouri and selected by Department Commander Nelson Cole to join a committee that was instructed “to take charge of and arrange everything that will be necessary for the proper care of the National Encampment.” In 1900, Rassieur was elected to a one year term as the Grand Army of the Republic’s National Commander-in-Chief. As Commander-in-Chief, Rassieur traveled around the country attending state Encampments, meeting with GAR members, and encouraging Union veterans who had not already joined the GAR to do so. In anticipation of Memorial Day, the Indiana GAR arranged to have Rassieur make the keynote speech for Memorial Day services at Crown Hill Cemetery, the third largest non-government cemetery in the United States today.

The Indianapolis News took great interest in Rassieur’s arrival and provided a detailed description of the day’s events in an article entitled “In Memory of the Dead” in an evening edition of that day’s paper. Rassieur arrived at Indianapolis Union Station at 8:30AM and was greeted by Indiana GAR leadership. Rassieur and company made their way to the nearly-completed Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (the formal dedication ceremonies took place in May 1902), where children in local schools throughout Indianapolis were decorating the monument with flowers. To instill a sense of patriotism within these students, the Superintendent of public schools had called off school for the day, and the News estimated that roughly 1,500 children were present to lead the parade from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument to Crown Hill Cemetery.

Once the group arrived at Crown Hill, Rassieur addressed his audience. Similar to the thousands of Memorial Day addresses given by the GAR veterans all across the country, Rassieur attempted to use his memories of the Civil War to educate his audience (especially those who were not alive at the time of the conflict) about the meaning of the war, what the Union soldiers had died for, and why remembrance was essential to good citizenship and patriotism. Rassieur also reflected on the life of Indiana GAR member and former U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, who had recently passed away. While Rassieur’s entire speech is too long for this post, a few select quotes can convey the central ideas of his speech:

The Union volunteer soldier and sailor, though serving in an [sic] humble capacity, was no ordinary citizen of the republic… His conception of duty… was grand and noble. It was a holy and pure patriotism that led him to tender his service to his imperiled country. He fully appreciated that the service involved a bloody contest with his fellow-citizens of the South. He had learned of their preparation for that contest. He knew how terribly in earnest was their desire for a separation and how strongly they believed in their imagined superiority over their brothers of the North and West… Our solider and sailor was not only great in the performance of every duty, and in the overcoming of every obstacle, he was also great in guarding himself against the perpetuating of such wrongs as are frequently indulged in by victorious armies… those that survived the struggle returned to their civic occupations with increased need for the upbuilding of our reunited country, and with an unbounded veneration for the civil laws of the land, which has been manifested by them on every occasion.

Rassuieur continued:

Not only did they make exemplary citizens as far as their own conduct was concerned, but in the furtherance of the best interest of our entire country these victorious soldiers and sailors of the republic forgave their opponents, the vanquished armies of the South, and unhesitatingly urged them to renew their allegiance to a reunited country and invited them to a free and equal participation in all the rights of American citizenship, the greatest of all earthly boons.

On the face of it, Rassuieur’s speech may not seem all that remarkable. However, we must remember that the process of remembering involves a subjective creation of memories. What is mentioned in a speech and what is left out can say a lot about how a person feels not only about the past but about the present as well, and Rassuier tells us a few things about his conception of the past and the present in these excerpts. Several notable points stuck out to me as I read this speech for the first time:

  • Rassieur rejects the idea that Confederates were engaging in treason when he refers to them as “fellow-citizens.” Forgiveness and reconciliation with former Confederates are central to Rassieur’s speech.
  • He believes Southerners were mistaken in their attempt to leave the Union. However, Union soldiers–through their voluntary service in the military–had demonstrated what Rassieur believed to be the most noble qualities of citizenship: dedication to duty, honor, and sacrifice to the nation. As exemplars of good citizenship, Union soldiers had allegedly “forgiven” their former enemies, returned to their “civic occupations” (without any issues, ostensibly), and followed the laws of the land. Even better, Union veterans had gladly invited their former adversaries to return to the Union and enjoy the greatest gift a people could ever receive: American Citizenship.
  • Rassieur hardly ever mentions the Union Dead (even though the Union Dead were the reason why Memorial Day was established), nor is there any mention of slavery or emancipation.

Were these sentiments shared by other veterans? How did other Union veterans feel about their former enemies? Did any Union veterans believe that former Confederates had engaged in treason, and were they deserving of American citizenship after the war? What about slavery and emancipation? Did white Union veterans ignore the legacy of emancipation in the years after the war?

These questions and many more in regards to Civil War Memory fascinate me, and historians–especially within the past twenty years–have begun to go through primary source documents like Rassieur’s speech to see how people remembered the Civil War in the years after the conflict. My thesis addresses some of these memory questions, but the focus of my thesis is centered on events in Indiana, so I haven’t really had the chance to explore the Union/Confederate dynamic very much. Over the next few weeks, I will analyze how Indiana GAR soldiers remembered the Civil War and how they viewed former Confederates. We’ll also look at how different historians have interpreted GAR veterans and Civil War Memory over time.

Have a great Labor Day. Thanks for reading.