Sept. 28 will mark the 70th Anniversary of the formal dedication ceremony to name U.S. Highway 6 across Iowa as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway.
It was at 2 p.m. in the afternoon on Sunday, Sept. 28, 1947, when Iowa’s two remaining Civil War veterans James Martin and Ebenezer McMurray came together at the Old Capitol Building in Iowa City with Governor Robert Blue, other dignitaries, and a crowd of about 400 people for the formal dedication of the Grand Army of the Republic Highway. As the proposed marker sign for the highway was unveiled, Governor Blue proclaimed “the deeds that Civil War veterans performed have not been forgotten.” (Iowa City Press-Citizen, 29 September 1947, p. 1) And, “We dedicate this highway today as a symbol of unity between these 48 states from coast to coast, to the vision of the boys of the Civil War, and to the future, for these men have left to us a heritage of freedom.” (Des Moines Register, 29 Sept. 1947, p. 1)
Who were the Grand Army of the Republic?
In the spring of 1866, the year following the American Civil War, Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, a surgeon with the former 14th Illinois Infantry met with other veterans in Springfield, Illinois, and began to lay the foundation for what would become the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). Before winter of 1866, Departments of the G.A.R. had been formed in five states, including Iowa, and local posts were forming in another seven states. The organization would quickly spread across the country. The founders set forth the organization’s guiding principles to preserve and strengthen the fraternal bonds of brotherhood among the soldiers, sailors and marines who served for the Union cause; to assist their former comrades in need; to aid to the widows and orphan children of those who had fallen; and to maintain allegiance to the United States of America.
In the fall of 1865, veterans in Davenport had formed an organization known as the Old Soldier’s Association of Scott County, Iowa. On July 12, 1866, this organization became the first Grand Army of the Republic post in Iowa, chartered as Post No. 1. By September, a sufficient number of posts had been organized and the Department of Iowa was created. Slow to gain new members and in danger of disbanding altogether, the Department of Iowa was reorganized in the early 1870s and grew steadily for the next twenty years. At its peak in the early 1890s the G.A.R. in Iowa counted more than 20,000 members and 439 posts across the state.
The G.A.R. was very influential in national and local politics. In Iowa, six members of the G.A.R. were elected Governor of the State, and, in fact, the Department of Iowa G.A.R. maintained an office in the Iowa State Capitol Building into the 1950s. Their influence was largely responsible for the establishment of the Soldier’s Home in Marshalltown.
The Grand Army of the Republic Highway
An effort to name U.S. Highway 6 across the United States as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway was started by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in the 1930s. William L. Anderson of Massachusetts is generally given credit for the idea of naming a major highway to honor the G.A.R. The plan required getting each state through which Highway 6 passed to have its state government pass legislation designating the name for the highway across the state. In 1947, U.S. Highway 6 across Iowa was officially designated as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway with Governor Robert Blue’s approval of House File 227 on April 29 and the formal dedication ceremony in Iowa City on Sept. 28.
In the months after the dedication ceremony, marker signs were placed along the highway at each of the towns which had a G.A.R. post in the past. Over time, many of those signs had disappeared. In 2015, the Department of Iowa Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War began a project with the aid of the Iowa Department of Transportation and local municipalities to re-mark the historic 1947 route of the Grand Army of the Republic Highway with appropriate signage.
As you travel between towns on the historic route of U.S. Highway 6 across Iowa, you might see the marker signs with the yellow stars and remember the once proud Grand Army of the Republic and all of the “Boys in Blue” who fought to preserve the United States of America.