Even after 150 years, some people can say, ‘My grandpa fought in the Civil War’
Rose Baxter Gust of Monongahela shows the original charter of Starkweather Circle 173 of the Ladies Grand Army of the Republic, chartered in 1911, while at the Monongahela Area Library on Aug. 6.
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Jane Kosack Crosby of Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, displays a locket with a picture of her great-grandfather, Civil War veteran James Williams Baxter.
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Dorothy Frye Walker, national patriotic instructor for the Ladies Grand Army of the Republic, looks at a display of photographs from the 2007 rededication of the Civil War section of Monongahela Cemetery while at Monongahela Area Library on Aug. 6.
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The Grand Army of the Republic, founded as a fraternal organization for Union Civil War veterans in 1866, just after the war ended, ceased to exist 90 years later when its last member, Albert Woolson, died at age 109. Its sister organization, the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, was always made up of female blood relatives of men who were honorably discharged from service to the Union.
So not only does the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic still exist, it has a chapter in Monongahela that was formed in 1911, 50 years after the start of the Civil War.
Amazingly, “There are still a few granddaughters left,” said Dorothy Frye Walker, a Monongahela native who lives in Hookstown, Beaver County, and is secretary-treasurer of the local group and patriotic instructor for the national LGAR, which, like its local chapters, is open to female blood relatives of soldiers, sailors or Marines who served in the Civil War, as well as relatives of Army nurses.
The Monongahela LGAR has four granddaughters of Civil War veterans: sisters Rose Baxter Gust and Catherine Baxter Liparulo, who are descended from Union Army veteran James Williams Baxter; Annabelle Walters, who is a descendant of Civil War veteran Archibald D. Sloan; and Betty Sutherland, who is descended from both James Williams Baxter and is related to John, Thomas and Simon Frye through her father’s side.
Sutherland and Walters were unable to meet with a reporter last month at Monongahela Area Library, but, through Walker, Walters said she joined the organization because of her interest in history and with “an appreciation of sacrifices made for freedoms today.”
In memory of her mother and sister, Laverna Farnsworth and Jane Mathias Hoffman, Walters donated a 5-foot-long Ladies GAR banner to the organization’s national headquarters that opened last month in Sandusky, Ohio. The banner, one of a pair, was displayed in Monongahela Memorial Day parades in the 1980s and 1990s when parades went through town and ended at Monongahela Cemetery. The Monongahela group is keeping the matching banner.
Gust, 87, of Monongahela, said her Civil War granddad died before she was born as the 12th of 13 children in Dunkirk, Carroll Township, but she and her eight sisters all joined the Ladies GAR between 1939 and 1948, and their brothers served in World War II. Between 1911 and 1954, more than 200 women joined the Monongahela group, which now has 18 members.
“We were raised that we were patriotic, this was our country and next to the Lord, we served the country. We were proud that our parents were the same, and they gave us all good standards of living,” said Gust.
In addition to its patriotism, the LGAR provided community service. Gust recalls that the organization’s treasury purchased Liberty bonds that the United States government used to finance World War I. Years later, members were wondering what became of them, and she remembers learning that they were sold during the Great Depression to finance soup kitchens for the jobless.
Jane Kosack Crosby of Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, began researching her family tree while working as a nurse on Long Island, N.Y., and happened upon Baxter, her Civil War ancestor.
She also discovered some family folklore that had Baxter, a member of the cavalry, stopping by the Behanna farm near Fayette City to water the horses. His comrade-in-arms, David Behanna, introduced Baxter to his cousin, Sarah Amanda Behanna. She was engaged to be married, but she forsook her intended to wait for the dashing cavalryman Baxter to return from the war.
His discharge paper shows that he mustered out Oct. 31, 1865, in Maryland. He rode all night, arriving at “Horse Shoe Bend, Little California,” where he married Sarah Amanda Behanna the next day. Baxter farmed in Carroll Township, dying at age 73. His flag-draped coffin was taken to Mt. Zion Cemetery, Ginger Hill, for burial. He is one of two known Civil War veterans buried there.
David Behanna, meanwhile, was instrumental in founding a chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic in Monongahela, naming the post after Brigadier Gen. John Converse Starkweather. The Ladies GAR took its name from the post and is known as the “Starkweather Circle.”
Walker noted that Monongahela Cemetery, which observed its 150th anniversary earlier this year, was founded because the town fathers expected many of its sons would not return alive from the Civil War. It is the final resting place for 264 Civil War veterans.
“My focus is reconciliation,” Walker said. “We’ve seen the sacrifice. Now what do with this knowledge? We look ahead.”
Change occurs slowly, but Walker noted that the 50-year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 drew veterans of both the Union and Confederacy.
“They feel that was first time both sides could embrace,” Walker said.
And 150 years after the emancipation of American slaves and the sesquicentennial of West Virginia statehood, Walker said, “You still hear racial slurs in the news and West Virginia jokes that are inappropriate. That’s not reconciliation. We need to treat everybody with dignity. In 150 years, we are not as far ahead as we should be.”
Walker’s passion has inspired her son, Ethan, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who remembers going time after time to Gettysburg and seeing Civil War re-enactments. He’s studied Civil War battle tactics and strategy, and he hopes to become a teacher of American history, specializing in the Civil War.
And lest anyone think that the LGAR is only for ladies of a certain age, the circle’s president, Sarah Kapusta of Baltimore, Md., formerly of Finleyville, is 24. Like Sutherland, she is a descendant of John Frye, sometimes spelled “Fry,” who is buried in Monongahela Cemetery, and Baxter.
“They have enlarged throughout the country,” Walker said of the organization’s chapters. “Our membership is rising, so there’s a definite interest in this great heritage.”