Clark County History: Grand Army of the Republic


During the Civil War, not much happened in Clark County. But that doesn’t mean the county has no history from the era. The deaths of two Union soldiers curiously frame Vancouver’s connection to violence. One was the Union’s first casualty and the other was the last commander of the fraternal group Grand Army of the Republic, also known as the GAR.

Shortly after the South ceased shelling Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, 25-year-old Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth became the Union’s first casualty. He was colonel of the 11th New York Infantry and had resided in Vancouver. Ellsworth was killed in Alexandria, Virginia, not on the battlefield but by a secessionist innkeeper on May 24, 1861. Vancouver gave his name to his post in the Grand Army of the Republic.

Eighty-nine years after Ellsworth’s death, the last leader 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, had been elected the previous year as the last commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. Penland entered the war at age 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 restoration groups for veterans. However, these organizations faced attrition because admission required service and their aging members died. Constituted in April 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic declares its objectives of fraternity, charity and loyalty. At its peak in 1890, it had 400,000 members.

Southern states created Confederate groups before 1889, and several merged that year to form the United Confederate Veterans. The fraternity claimed 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, they adopted the same creed.


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