Yesterday (August 28, 2016) I attended a ceremony at Ilus Davis Park in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Organized by both the Sons and Daughters of Veterans of the Civil War, this marked the opening 100 years earlier of the 50th National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) held in that city. The GAR was the organization of Union Army veterans from the Civil War.
By 1916 the GAR was passed its peak in membership by 26 years. But the five day event still drew a respectable crowd:
“The 1916 National Encampment in Kansas City was special, being the GAR’s 50th anniversary and their Golden Jubilee Reunion. It was also the era when an aging GAR was losing thousands of members each year. The Kansas City Journal reported during the encampment that “ninety older soldiers hear taps each day” referring to the 33,000 Civil War veterans that died the prior year in 1915. Even with members in their 70s and 80s, 4,000 veterans from the GAR accompanied by military bands and 6,000 from the Sons of Veterans, Woman’s Relief Corps, and Ladies of the GAR paraded through 12 blocks in downtown Kansas City to a crowd the Kansas City Star reported at over 100,000.”
Sunday’s event drew considerably less than the 100,000 that gathered in 1916. One might have even recalled the bit of poetry composed by John Hendriks, the last surviving veteran of the 89th Indiana Volunteer Infantry:
When the comrades have departed,
When the veterans are no more,
When the bugle call is sounded
On that everlasting shore.
When life’s weary march is ended,
When campfires slumber long;
Who will tell the world the story,
When the boys in Blue are gone?
One could replace “boys in Blue” with “Doughboys,” and a point could be made. But that’s not the one I’m aiming for.
Consider what the world of 1916 was like when the Boys in Blue met in Kansas City. They were 51 years removed from their war. In Europe, war was already into it’s third year, and the United States was still seven months away from entering The Great War. On one level that war was a long way off, but almost certainly the effects of that war had touched many of those gathered in Kansas City.
That’s the point I’m seeking here, particularly for museums, libraries, and other organizations seeking ideas for observing the World War I Centennial. For all the efforts to remain isolated from the European war, there were things happening before war was declared on April 6, 1917.
Perhaps most events were subtle. In 1914 the Ben Greet English Players made an appearance at the Eastern Illinois State Normal School (and probably many other locations in America that year,) and they were booked for a return appearance in the summer of 1915. By that time, as it was famously put, the lamps had gone out over Europe, and the Players had to cancel their American tour.
Or one could consider the Belgian War Relief efforts, headed up by Herbert Hoover. Certainly many communities in Kansas took part in this, and that deserves a separate post on this site.
Trade continued with the allied countries, supplying goods and war materiel, despite the fact we were technically a neutral country until April, 1917. How did Kansas benefit from that trade?
Then there are the ethnic groups. Before America declared war, did the German communities support Germany, and how did that change after the declaration of war? What was the effect on other ethnic groups in Kansas? Or for that matter, religious groups?
Check you community’s newspapers, and find out what people were saying. You may know some of that already. There may be more to learn.
This is a good time to examine your community’s history, and discover things you may have never known. The Great War was not as far away as it may have seemed when the Boys in Blue met in Kansas City 100 years ago.