In 1949, six men gathered in Indianapolis for the last meeting of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans organization. At its peak, it boasted 400,000 members with thousands of posts nationwide. By 1949, however, only 16 remained. And only six were able to make the trek to Indianapolis. One of those was 108-year-old James Hard, a veteran of the battles of First Bull Run, Antietam, and Chancellorsville.
In the next four years, all but one of those would have died, and with them, the firsthand memory of Civil War combat.
The battle standard of James Hard’s Civil War infantry unit.
The only one of the six to outlive Hard would be Albert Woolson, the last known member of the Union Army and the last undisputed surviving member on any side of the Civil War. But Woolson never saw action as a member of a heavy artillery unit from Minnesota. Hard was the last surviving Union combat veteran of the Civil War.
Between 1900 and into World War II, the surviving number of American Civil War veterans began to dwindle at an exponential rate, much like what the U.S. is seeing with its World War II veterans today. The Grand Army of the Republic held marches, and a yearly meeting called the Encampment to celebrate those veterans who served and to make sure they held on to their hard-won rights.
A 1912 Grand Army of the Republic parade marching through downtown Los Angeles.
James Hard was born in Rochester, New York around 1843. He lied about his age in 1861 to be able to join the Union Army. He joined the 37th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, also known as the Irish Rifles, in May 1861 and his service record verified his claim.
His unit was stationed around Washington, DC until Gen. Irvin McDowell used the 37th as a reserve unit in the battle of First Bull Run. McDowell had never led troops in combat and was soundly beaten. Its biggest loss came at Chancellorsville in 1863 when it lost more than 200 men to night fighting and a surprise attack during a flawed, unorganized retreat. A young James Hard was present for all of it.
The last of America’s Union Army, gathered in an Indianapolis ballroom in 1949.
By the time the First World War came around GAR membership was still very strong, its encampment still bringing in numbers just shy of a half a million or so. By the time the United States entered World War II, however, the Civil War veterans time had passed, and with their memory went so many of their numbers. In 1942, just over 500 Civil War veterans were on the rolls of the Grand Army of the Republic.
At the outset of the Cold War and the Atomic Age, only 16 remained. They were too frail to walk in any parades and had to be accompanied to Indianapolis by their Veterans Administration nurses. They drove through the parade route in vehicles, machines that were a very new invention to them.