A Land of Soldiers: Kansas and Civil War Veterans

This April marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. This post is the first of four which highlight ties between Topeka and Shawnee County and national movements during and after the Civil War.

Chances are, if you have a male ancestor that came to Kansas in the late 19th century then he was most likely a veteran.

While the state of Kansas was far from the main theater of the Civil War east of the Mississippi River, our state nonetheless played an important part in the lives of Union soldiers and veterans. The events of Bleeding Kansas (1859 – 1861) set the stage for the national debate on slavery and states’ rights. During the war over half of the 30,000 eligible men in our young state volunteered for the Union Army – one of the highest volunteer rates in the nation. By 1870 nearly 28,000 Union veterans had returned or immigrated to

Kansas G.A.R. members at the dedication of Memorial Hall, May 27, 1914.

Kansas G.A.R. members at the dedication of Memorial Hall, May 27, 1914.
(source: KansasMemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply)

Kansas.  Many of these men were members of their local posts of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Founded in 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a nation-wide fraternal organization composed of Union veterans who had served during the Civil War. Regional departments were subdivided into local community units, and by the turn of the century over 500 posts had been registered in Kansas.  Together, their combined enrollments totaled over 20,000 members.

Over the lifespan of the G.A.R. Topeka was home to five local posts:

  • Department of Kansas Post #1 – Lincoln (Topeka)
  • Department of Kansas Post #71 – Topeka (Topeka)
  • Department of Kansas Post #250 – Blue (North Topeka)
  • Department of Kansas Post #321 – Fort Pillow (North Topeka)
  • Department of Kansas Post #495 – G.G. Gage (Topeka)

In addition to these posts the headquarters for the Department of Kansas, G.A.R., was located in the lower level of the state capitol building from 1866 – 1914.

Memorial Hall

Dedication of Memorial Hall, 1914. Many of the onlookers are G.A.R. members from throughout Kansas.
(source: KansasMemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply)

Locally, G.A.R. members followed national examples and promoted patriotic education, participated in parades and lobbied for veterans’ pensions. In 1914 the Memorial Building in downtown Topeka (120 SW 10th Avenue) was dedicated under its more formal name:  The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall. This picturesque structure was built with Federal funds received as part of the State of Kansas’ Civil War claims.  The G.A.R. Council of Administration stated that the building would serve “the memory of the soldiers of the war for the Union.” As such, the Department of Kansas, G.A.R. relocated to Memorial Hall once complete and the remaining space was utilized by the Kansas Historical Society until they move to the west side of town in 1985.

As time passed membership decreased and G.A.R. posts across the country became inactive. The last Kansas posts were disbanded in 1943 and the national G.A.R. dissolved in 1956 with the death of its last member.

The Memorial Building still stands near downtown Topeka as a testament to Union soldiers. In addition, G.A.R. and Civil War memorials are located in several Shawnee County cemeteries including Auburn Cemetery, Rochester Cemetery, Topeka Cemetery and Prairie View Cemetery – Menoken.

Want to learn more about your Civil War ancestors?  Staff in the Topeka Room can help you utilize a variety of resources to dig deeper, including online databases and printed materials.  Whether you’re searching for a photograph, pension documents or G.A.R. records – we’re here to help!

 

 

Michelle Stottlemire

Michelle is a fifth-generation Kansan who has a passion for history, radical home-making and science fiction. When not on one of TSCPL's bookmobiles she can be found educating students at surrounding schools with dynamic programming.