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Hundreds of Civil War veterans visit the USS Iowa in Bremerton in 1899

The June 1899 annual department encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic was one of the largest in the department of Washington and Alaska's history. The Grand Army of the Republic was the primary Union Civil War veterans organization and an "encampment" was an annual event akin to what we might today call a convention. The encampment being held in Seattle swelled the numbers significantly over typical encampments of the era as many of the veterans from all over the state made a special effort to attend the year's event in Seattle. Department encampments were infrequently held in Seattle as they were typically held in the state's smaller cities. It was estimated that over 1000 veterans were at the encampment as delegates and representatives of their hometown "posts" that year, this being separate from the nearly 2000 Union veterans living in Seattle and the vicinity at that time. The big 1899 encampment not only featured the normal comings and goings of the encampment, but the week was also surrounded by other activities catering to all the veterans, their families and other visitors that flooded into the city that week in June, 1899. Among the excursions provided for the veterans was a very unique day of trips for the old Civil War veterans across the Puget Sound from Seattle to Bremerton to visit the famous USS Iowa, which was at that time spending time in the new Puget Sound Naval Yard to be overhauled in preparation to join the Navy's Pacific Squadron.

On Friday June 23rd, the veterans at the GAR encampment were shuttled across the Sound on the steamers "George E Starr" and the "City of Denver" for the old soldiers to visit the battleship and enjoy a basket picnic and a clam bake. The steamers were scheduled to leave the central dock in Seattle at 9 am, 9:30 am, 1 pm and 7 pm, returning visitors at 12:30, 6:30, 6:45 and 11 pm. Demand to partake in the excursion was so high that two more steamers, the “Mary E Parley” and the “Skagit Chief” were added to accommodate the throng of passengers. It seemed that every veteran in attendance wished to make the trip and all were fortunately accommodated. It was requested that all of the veterans that had fought for Iowa regiments meet at the dock at 9 am so as to travel together as a body to see the battleship named in their state's honor.

The day’s weather was delightful and bands played to the “merry-hearted” people on the decks of the “Starr“ and the “Denver” and the trips across the water were described as most delightful. The veterans enjoyed exploring the ship, the decks, machinery, armaments and equipment. It was described as an unfailing source of attraction and it particularly impressed the veterans from the inland parts of Washington State. Throughout the day, they toured the battleship that had seen action at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish American Conflict. Then they would gather about a half a mile west of Bremerton to share in the day’s picnics and clambake.

It was an exceptionally enjoyable day for all the Washington Civil War veterans as they shared this picturesque day of travel and camaraderie together as part of the G.A.R.’s department of Washington and Alaska Annual Encampment in June 1899. We can only just imagine the stories that were told, the reminiscences shared and the conversations that were had by these Civil War veterans gliding back and forth across the Sound, serenaded by the bands on the decks of the steamers on that sunny summer day.

Sources: Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper June 23rd 1899 Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper June 24th 1899 Seattle Daily Times newspaper June 23 1899 Seattle Daily Times newspaper June 24 1899

The USS Iowa in 1898 Photo: Uncle Sam's Navy, 1898. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

The USS Iowa in drydock at the Puget Sound Naval yard 1899/1900 photo: "In the Navy Yard of Puget Sound", in Seattle and the Orient (1900)

The steamer "George E Starr" which carried Civil War veterans to visit the USS Iowa in Bremerton. Bands played on the deck while the ship carried the visitors across the Puget Sound that day. Photo: UW Special Coll PH Coll 794.43

Seattle P.I June 24, 1899

The steamer "Skagit Chief", which was called into service to carry the Civil War veterans from Seattle to Bremerton to visit the USS Iowa. Photo: UW Special Coll PH Coll 376

Seattle Daily Times June 24 1899

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