Memorial Day began as Decoration Day to remember and honor all those who died during the Civil War. While it originated among relatives of Confederate soldiers in 1866, the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, adopted the concept in 1868. The GAR's first commander, Gen. John A. Logan, issued General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868, asking the membership to observe May 30 as an annual observance to honor the Union dead. It became known as Decoration Day.
The Grand Army of the Republic began with great fervor in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois. However, within a few years it had become a wing of the Republican Reconstruction movement. Its original zeal flagged even as Reconstruction faded as a national issue. By the end of the 1870s, the organization lost momentum, and many posts and state departments became delinquent.
In Missouri, the election of former Confederates to state office, such as former Confederate Maj. Gen. John S. Marmaduke as governor in 1884, was an impetus for a resurgence of the GAR. Ostensibly, it was to remember their fallen comrades but also to wave the "bloody banner" in order to get compensation for Union veterans, according to historian Walter Busch's book on the battle of Pilot Knob.
Attempts to reorganize the Missouri department took place from 1880 to 1885. Posts were revitalized or established in many Missouri towns. Veterans established the O.P. Morton Post No. 14 in Joplin on May 17, 1882, named for Indiana's governor during the Civil War. W.H. Fairbanks was its first commander. The members actively remembered their fallen comrades.
In 1883, they entertained Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his visit to Joplin. Two years later, members organized the public celebration of Independence Day. The next month, on Aug. 8, 1885, they led a memorial for former President Ulysses S. Grant on the day he was interred in a temporary vault at Riverside Park in New York City. It was attended by members of the GAR, military societies of Joplin and a large number of Joplin residents, according to Joel Livingston's "History of Jasper County."
Morton post remembers GAR veterans
From 1892 to 1922, the GAR took the lead in Decoration Day observances. Parades and ceremonies at Fairview Cemetery became traditional. After the Fairview service, the post conducted a "water service" to honor Marines and sailors at the low-water bridge over Shoal Creek. Women of the Woman's Relief Corps tossed sprays of flowers into the stream to "carry the sentiments of the women to the sea."
With the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the assembled GAR veterans marched with Army guardsmen of Company G from the courthouse at Seventh and Virginia to 10th and Main streets. Company G marched through two lines of the veterans to the Missouri Pacific train station, where they departed for wartime service in May 1898.
While the Missouri department boasted 36,000 members at its peak, the Joplin post reached its largest enrollment with 450 veterans. Service groups then were exclusive. The GAR did not accept veterans of the Spanish-American War, who, in turn, did not accept veterans of World War I. Nor did any accept women. However, the Woman's Relief Corps was formed as the GAR auxiliary in 1883.
The GAR held state encampments or reunions. In Baxter Springs, Kansas, Camp Logan, named for Gen. John Logan, was a regular destination for O.P. Morton veterans. It attained its maximum attendance through the first decade of the 1900s with 50,000 attendees. Even then, descriptions of GAR activities began to talk about "grey beards" or veterans walking with canes. Photos reflected the aging membership.
By 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, the veterans of the GAR, Spanish-American War and Veterans of Foreign Wars hosted members of Company G, the regimental supply company and the hospital detachment of the Missouri National Guard in a farewell banquet at the market house at 12th and Main before the troops left from the Missouri Pacific station. Two years later, they were part of the estimated 150,000 people who greeted returning servicemen to Joplin in May 1919.
Those returning veterans formed their own Robert S. Thurman post in the new American Legion in July 1919. For a few years, there were four separate veterans groups existing alongside one another. With the membership of the GAR edging into their 80s, the O.P. Morton post was ready to pass the baton to the energetic young veterans. The News Herald reported in May 1922 that E.L. Schwartz, on behalf of the GAR, said it was time to hand over its "obligation of keeping their public holiday in reverence and respect to the younger organization: the American Legion."
As the legion assumed those duties, the O.P. Morton post dwindled. It was down to four members in 1936. Dr. R.B. Tyler, former city physician, at 82, was the youngest in the post and in the GAR. In four years, Tyler, 86, and William H. Osborne, 97, were the last two. Tyler and Osborne both had been department commanders largely because of their longevity. Tyler died in 1941.
Osborne was spry and kept attending events. In 1942, he was invited to inspect Camp Crowder. He toured the camp and spoke on changes in Army procedures. Three years later, at age 102, he attended the 79th annual encampment in Columbus, Ohio.
Of the 162 remaining members nationwide, Osborne was touted as the next national commander. He had been the Missouri department commander since 1940. Interviewed by the UPI, he said he wasn't sure he wanted the job: "The white-haired old man sat in a hotel lobby, his cheeks apple pink and his old slouch hat askew. 'I've been nominated three times before for commander-in-chief. Somebody else can have it. It's too much sugar for a penny. The commander doesn't have much to do with the GAR anymore — the women run it to suit themselves.'"
He continued to attend GAR and WRC conventions. At 104, he was a featured speaker at the joint GAR-WRC convention in Cleveland in 1947. It was his last hurrah. William H. Osborne, the last member of the O.P. Morton Post No. 14 and Missouri department commander, died on Oct. 28, 1948, at age 105.
The O.P. Morton Post No. 14 faithfully memorialized the nation's veterans and passed that baton on to the American Legion and VFW.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.