The Way It Was — Civil War Veterans Marching at Campus Martius

Take a closer look at this 1891 photo of a crowd admiring Civil War veterans as they march through Detroit.
Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University


Although Veterans Day has long been observed on Nov. 11, an earlier significant acknowledgment of the sacrifices of military personnel began at the end of the Civil War when, in 1866, Union veterans organized the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization that staged annual national encampments from 1866 to 1949.

By 1890, GAR membership had peaked at more than 400,000 with over 7,000 posts in small towns and cities.

In 1891, Detroit was the host city for the national encampment, and it hosted again in 1914. This photograph shows an admiring crowd watching Civil War veterans march at Campus Martius past the old Detroit Central Market building (center) and the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which was dedicated in 1872.

At the start of the Civil War, Campus Martius was where the 1st Michigan Infantry Regiment received its colors before departing for duty.

The Detroit Free Press proudly celebrated the encampment in its Aug. 4, 1891, edition, writing: “Detroit acknowledges this as the proudest day in all her two hundred years of thrilling history. She is favored among the cities of the earth. She is the hostess of the Grand Army’s greatest encampment and no city of the world ever before welcomed so many gallant guests as Detroit greets today.”

The GAR became a powerful political voice that lobbied Congress for veterans’ pensions, paid for veterans’ burials, raised money for monuments and memorials, advocated for the preservation of Civil War sites, and helped elect postwar presidents. The GAR’s principal legacy to the nation is the annual observance of Memorial Day.

At the 1891 encampment, Michigan Civil War veterans successfully lobbied for a memorial meeting building funded by the city of Detroit and the GAR on land donated by Lewis Cass at West Grand River and Cass avenues. The Grand Army of the Republic Building, a castlelike Richardsonian Romanesque-style building, opened in 1900 and at one time also housed shops, a bank, and office space.

For years it was vacant, and in 1986, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Earlier this year, it was announced that the building had been sold and would be converted into event space and a steakhouse.

This story is from the November 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition. Plus, find even more The Way It Was articles at