During the Civil War, not much happened in Clark County. But that doesn’t mean the county lacks any history of the era. The deaths of two Union soldiers oddly bracket Vancouver’s connection to the violence. One was the first Union casualty and the other the last commander of the fraternal group Grand Army of the Republic, also known as GAR.
Shortly after the South stopped shelling Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, 25, became the Union’s first casualty. He was a colonel of the 11th New York Infantry and had resided in Vancouver. Ellsworth was killed in Alexandria, Va., not on the battlefield but by a secessionist innkeeper on May 24, 1861. Vancouver named its Grand Army of the Republic post after him.
Eighty-nine years after Ellsworth’s death, the last head of the Grand Army of the Republic died of a heart attack at Vancouver Barracks Barnes Hospital. Theodore Penland, a 101-year-old Portland resident, was elected the last commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic the year before. Penland went to war at 16, and his death marked the end of the Grand Army of the Republic. When Penland died, fewer than 30 members remained, not enough to hold encampments.
After the Civil War, both sides formed groups catering to veterans. However, such organizations faced attrition because admission required service and their aging members were dying off. Formed in April 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic declared its objectives as fraternity, charity and loyalty. At its peak in 1890, it had 400,000 members.
Southern states started Confederacy groups before 1889, and several merged that year into the United Confederate Veterans. The fraternity professed to advance social, literary, historical and benevolent goals, but it adhered to the “lost cause” ideology that presents the Confederacy in a positive light. When the Daughters of the Confederacy began in 1894, it adopted the same credo.
The Grand Army of the Republic held its last encampment in 1949 when it elected Penland. Vancouver’s Ellsworth GAR Post, established in 1881 with 33 members, held its own encampments. In 1901, the Association of Clark County Veterans assembled for its first GAR reunion. It convened a three-day encampment at Fourth Plain. A newspaper reported the comrades fell into parade rest at 8 p.m., raised “Old Glory,” and sang “America” and “Marching through Georgia.” The account states Chaplin Bateman spoke for an hour but was “enthusiastically urged to speak on.” The second day highlighted dancing, with the old veterans watching the youngsters kick up their heels. They filled the last day with patriotic oratory and the vets reminisced about the Civil War days.
The GAR often participated in Decoration Day and July Fourth celebrations.
Sometime after Vancouver’s Carnegie Library was built in 1909, the local GAR post held meetings there. Then in 1922, the library board booted the GAR out. In a patriotic response, Glenn Ranck, one of the board members, resigned over the ejection along with two more members.
In June 1937, the 55th Annual Encampment of the Washington and Alaska Department of the GAR assembled in Vancouver. Just 15 veterans, all in their 90s, attended. Southwest Washington wasn’t represented. The last member of the Ellsworth post, George Stanford, died the previous month.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.