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G.A.R. Encampment Comes to Litchfield

In June 1889, Litchfield was the site of the Grand Army of the Republic’s (G.A.R.) Northwestern District Encampment. At the time it was said to have been the “biggest time in the history of our city.” The G.A.R. was an organization similar to today’s American Legion or V.F.W. but for Union Civil War veterans. An encampment was a multiple-day gathering of veterans with parades, speeches, and other activities. The events themselves ranged in size and scope. Each year there was a national encampment in different major cities across the county. There were also state and district encampments, such as the one held in Litchfield.


Litchfield spared no expense in getting the town ready for the veterans. With many of the attendees arriving by train, the city hung a 10-foot-long G.A.R. badge over Sibley Avenue, making it one of the first things seen when arriving in town. A bit further down the street was a huge “welcome” banner made out of 50 yards of cloth with 3-foot-tall red letters.


There was also the impressive arch that spanned over the Sibley Avenue at 3rd Street. It was described as “simply gorgeous” and included large paintings of Union generals. In the G.A.R. Hall today is a large portrait of General George Thomas, and we suspect this painting might have been part of the arch. Not to be outdone, every local business also decorated their buildings.


One of the early concerns for the event was how to feed everyone. Litchfield at this time had a population of less than 2,000 people. Thousands of visitors were expected, with estimates anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people. But the people of Litchfield weren’t going to let that stop them. The six hotels in town estimated they could daily feed 1,000. The Women’s Relief Corp, an auxiliary to the G.A.R., could feed 200-400 each day. The rest was taken up by the residents who set up food stands across town. There were even a couple of food stands on wheels with the ability to go wherever needed the most – perhaps Litchfield’s first food trucks.


The next concern was housing. Many of the soldiers stayed in tents, reminiscent of their days in the military. Just prior to the Litchfield encampment, there had been one in southern Minnesota, and the tents used there were sent to Litchfield. The organizers would have been in a bit of a panic when the delivery was delayed and the tents arrived a day late. Additional tents came from St. Paul and in total there was sleeping room for 2,000 veterans. Many of the tents were set up in a large block north of the Courthouse, with overflow in the streets and vacant lots. The rest of the visitors were welcomed into private homes across Litchfield.


Litchfield was now ready for the festivities to begin. More in our next blog post.

 

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