The Monument Today
Located in the north-east section of Sacramento’s historic Old City Cemetery is a plot of nearly 80 graves and a large monument dedicated to the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was a benvolent organization formed by Civil War veterans shortly after the end of the war. The GAR’s mission was primarily to provide and advocate for financial support for veterans, children and widows of servicemen who fought for the Union in the Civil War. At the time, there was no federal program or equivalent of the modern Veterans Administration. The GAR was particularly focused on ensuring proper burials and memorials for Union veterans.
In Sacramento, the GAR was given a plot in the City Cemetery in 1887, where they re-interred the remains of veterans who were previously buried in two other cemeteries. The GAR also erected a monument in this plot in 1889.
The monument is comprised of a concrete base supporting a granite plinth about 12 feet high, topped by a white bronze statue of a Union soldier that stands approximately 6 feet in height. The total height of the monument is about 20 feet.
The front (west) face of the monument is inscribed with the words, “Erected to the memory of our soldier dead,” with the letters “G. A. R.” in relief on the bottom section of the plinth. On the north side of the plinth is a bronze plaque with a relief portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant that is inscribed, “Our General—U. S. Grant”.
The figure atop the monument—colloquially known as Old Eli—is posed in the “at-ease” position with his cloak draped over his right shoulder, his musket grasped loosely in both hands with the butt resting near his right foot.
How the Monument Came to Be
The Grand Army of the Republic plot was originally located in the New Helvetia Cemetery at the corner of 31st and J streets, in a plot donated to the GAR Sumner Post No. 3 by the cemetery owner and proprietor, John Wesley Reeves. The plot was duly dedicated in 1865. Upon the death of Reeves in 1867, and the City’s acquisition of the New Helvetia facility, a plot of more appreciable size was offered to the G.A.R. in the City Cemetery in exchange. The remains of Civil War veterans buried at New Helvetia were removed and re-interred here. The plot was subsequently walled with granite coping in anticipation of a suitable monument.
Several attempts were initiated to secure an appropriate monument for the plot, but lack of funding was a constant problem. One such effort was to obtain four cannons from the Mare Island Naval base and place them at the four corners of the plot. The local GAR posts were all in hard financial straits at the time, and could not raise the necessary funds to transport the cannons to Sacramento. In 1886, the GAR posts decided on the concept of a bronze memorial statue, and established the Grand Army Memorial Fund to support the cause. About $1,000 was raised, but this was still only about half of what was needed.
Fortunately for the GAR, a parallel memorial fundraising effort was underway to create a separate monument for Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. This group had also raised about $1,000 for their own monument. Negotiations between the groups reached an amicable compromise: the Grant funds were transferred to the GAR, and in exchange the GAR agreed to include the bronze plaque honoring Gen. Grant on their monument’s plinth.
The Dedication Ceremony
The monument was formally dedicated on September 9, 1889, in a ceremony conducted by three local chapters of the GAR. The ceremony was a grand affair, which was covered extensively by the newspapers of the day. Many State and local dignitaries were in attendance, along with representatives of several other fraternal orders allied with the GAR, such as the Ladies Relief Corps, The Sons of Union Veterans, and the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the GAR.
The Sacramento Daily Bee and the Sacramento Daily Union both published accounts of the dedication ceremony, which began with a 12 block-long parade to the cemetery, led by a platoon of police and a military escort. Also marching in the parade, following behind a long string of carriages carrying dignitaries, was the drum corps of the newly-organized Sons of Union Veterans.
At the cemetery, the ceremony began with a prayer by the GAR chaplain, followed by a speech from Superior Court Judge W. C. Van Fleet, in which he officially turned over the cemetery plot to the GAR.
The next event in the ceremony was a ritual conducted by the veterans, where an honor guard was posted at the monument, while a sailor laid an anchor and a cutlass at the south base of the monument, and a soldier laid a knapsack, cartridge box and musket at the north base.
Following this ritual, Judge N. Greene Curtis delivered a stirring, hour-long oration that one account stated “no brief report can do justice to.”
Current State of the Monument
Although dedicated 125 years ago, the monument still stands at it’s original location. This is far from the usual case with similar monuments, and Sacramento is fortunate to have “Old Eli” still standing as he was in 1889. In fact, the physical condition of the monument is overall pretty good, but it is in need of some restoration and preservation work.
The entirety of the Old City Cemetery is now a preserved historical site, managed by the City of Sacramento. With many prominent historical burials, the cemetery is a popular location for school groups and tourists alike, and the GAR monument still holds a prominent place among the points of interest in the cemetery. The GAR plot is maintained by the Sacramento chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the monument has featured as the centerpiece for several of their recent memorial services and living history re-enactments.
Most notably, the SUVCW held an event celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The event was held on November 19, 2013, the exact day of the anniversary, and featured an authentic re-creation of Lincoln’s original speech with well-known Lincoln portrayer Wayne Scott in the leading role. Nearly 200 people showed up for this mid-week event, including about 50 school children and several media outlets.
Many thanks to Dean Enderlin and Sebastian Nelson for their research, and for providing the original news clippings and on which this article is based. Thanks to the Old City Cemetery Committee for supporting SUVCW’s work on the monument and the GAR plot. And finally, thanks to the Brothers of Camp 22 for their enthusiastic work in preserving and protecting this valuable piece of Civil War history.