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The Last Man


In May, 1865, one hundred fifty thousand Union soldiers passed in review following the Civil War. After the Washington, D.C. parade, most of them mustered out, returning to civilian life. But they were not about to forget their service, or their fallen comrades. They formed the Grand Army of the Republic, known as the “G.A.R.” It was a social organization, but also had a political agenda. The GAR remembered the role played by black troops in winning the war, and promoted voting rights for black veterans. The organization also lobbied Congress to establish pensions for veterans and pushed for recognition of Memorial Day.

Since membership in the GAR was limited to Civil War veterans, it was male-only, with one exception – Sarah Edmonds, who served in the 2nd Michigan Infantry disguised as a man. Auxiliaries were formed by non-veterans as support groups. These included the Sons of Union Veterans and the Daughters of Union Veterans. Family members of veterans and those who had served in a support capacity, such as nurses, joined these auxiliary units.

Steve Welch was the first and only color-bearer for the Bismarck post of the GAR. He held the position for more than 50 years. But by 1931, most Civil War veterans had passed away. Welch was the last surviving member of the Bismarck post. On this date in 1931, it was announced that Welch, age 91, was ready to surrender the flag. He saw no further point in keeping a memento of comrades who had passed and a war that was long over. It was his wish to present the flag to the North Dakota Historical Society. He folded the flag one last time and gave it to Judge John Burke.

In a brief ceremony, Burke presented the flag to Judge L.O. Birdzell, vice president of the Historical Society. R.J. Kamplin, the state commander of the American Legion, accepted the flag from Birdzell and placed it in the Historical Society’s vault. An era of North Dakota history was nearing an end.

The last North Dakota GAR chapter at Grand Forks permanently closed in 1949. The Civil War veterans were gone but not forgotten. There are many GAR monuments throughout the state, including Devils Lake, Grand Forks, and Bismarck.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Gilman, John E., Commander-in-Chief, Grand Army of the Republic, 1910. “The Grand Army of the Republic.” "" Accessed 4/14/2015.

Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “Bismarck’s ‘Last Man’ Surrenders Post Flag.” 5/27/1931.