When Civil War veteran Peter M. Austin of Luzerne died in 1928, the flag that he had defended went with him to the grave, a silken stars and stripes forever to envelop him.
Austin, who lived to 84, was the last man in the small borough to have served in the war. The gesture of interring the flag with him at the Forty Fort Cemetery, rather than removing it before burial, was the community’s way of saying goodbye to a heroic generation.
It was a gesture that was repeated in spirit many times over as the men who’d fought the 1861-1865 war — the 150th anniversary of which is being commemorated at events this year in Gettysburg and beyond — grew old and America moved into the 20th century.
About 2,500 men from the Wyoming Valley served in uniform during the Civil War, with an estimated one-fourth of them killed or wounded. Soon after the war the local veterans formed Conyngham Post 97 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), part of a national veterans organization. By 1889, with more than 1,100 members, the local chapter was meeting in a castle-like building on Wilkes-Barre’s South Main Street — the GAR Hall.
Like their fellows all over America, the local veterans, who continued to wear uniforms, marched in parades, campaigned for a national veterans’ pension and supported military preparedness. Some from the Conyngham Post helped to organize the 9th Infantry Regiment, which later became the 109th Field Artillery of the Army National Guard.
Though busy as businessmen, workingmen and farmers (Peter M. Austin was a carpenter with the Haddock Mining Co.), they kept their patriotic spirits alive through regional, state and national meetings known as “encampments,” often traveling to the sites of their long-ago battles.
By the 20th century, even the youngest Civil War veterans were nearing their 60s. They were still familiar sights at public events, but their numbers were shrinking. Before long, local communities were seeking ways to honor the aging men.
Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day), declared soon after the Civil War, had already become a national holiday. Not for recreation but for placing flowers and memorials on the graves of veterans, whose tombstones generally highlighted their military service right down to regiment and company. In some local cemeteries, veterans’ graves were placed together, as if marching off to eternity, still in ranks.
From about 1900 on, the deaths of veterans were marked by newspaper obituaries that often ran as lengthy news stories, with headlines using military imagery and biographies highlighting their wartime service. It was a far more extensive treatment than most non-veterans received in that day.
Typical was the 1925 Wilkes-Barre Record obituary for James F. Kirk, a New Yorker who settled in Wilkes-Barre after the war and worked 50 years as a baggage supervisor for the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
“Civil War vet answers taps,” read the main headline in large type, alluding to the tune played at military funerals. “Fine war record,” was printed below it, with the article listing his company and regiment and detailing his service in the battles of Bull Run, the Seven Days, Gaines Mill, Alexandria, Antietam and Fredericksburg, names that well into the 20th century still struck awe.
Peter M. Austin’s obituary was headed, in large type, with a dramatic “Last Veteran Gone” and was accompanied by a photo of him in his old forage cap.
In the 1920s, the community found an imaginative and enduring way to honor the men — by memorializing the name of their beloved organization. In October of 1922, four elderly veterans, once again in uniform, helped lay the cornerstone for Wilkes-Barre’s new high school, GAR Memorial, aptly located between streets named for generals Grant and Sherman, and containing in its foyer a frieze depicting Civil War soldiers.
Another planned honor, however, failed to materialize. A 1931 groundbreaking for a massive Public Square clock tower, again by a group of veterans in uniform, came to nothing when Luzerne County, facing demands of the Great Depression, could not come up with the funding.
By the end of the 1920s, so few of the original members of the Conyngham Post remained, that the group found it necessary to rent out their GAR Hall. Part of it became a movie theater.
It was in a spirit of gratitude to a passing generation that the touching ritual was played out in 1928 by the borough of Luzerne, where the area’s military training ground, Camp Luzerne, had been built in the long-ago 1860s.
“When Comrade Austin’s casket is lowered into the grave at the Forty Fort Cemetery next Monday afternoon, there will be interred with it an American flag, which was purchased by school children of Luzerne Borough and presented to the veterans of that town many years ago,” said The Times Leader.
“It has been used to drape the casket of every member of the Grand Army of Luzerne since that time. Some years ago the veterans decided that it should be buried with the last of their number.”
The last Civil War veteran from the Wilkes-Barre area, Charles Rhenard, died in 1939. Luzerne County’s last Civil War veteran, Alfred W. Gabrio of Hazleton, once the state GAR commander, died in 1946 at age 100. The South Main Street GAR Hall was demolished in the 1960s under a federal urban redevelopment program. A parkade now occupies the site. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, successor to the old GAR, has a Northeastern Pennsylvania chapter.