The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization of veterans of the Union Army, Union Navy, and Marines who fought in the American Civil War. Organized on April 6, 1866, its purpose was to promote “fraternity, charity, and loyalty” among its members.
Emblem worn on a GAR hat
According to Wikipedia, the Grand Army of the Republic had 410,000 members at its peak in 1890. While participation in the war was the common connection within the organization, its interests were many. It achieved many goals such as ”…(being) among the first organized advocacy groups in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, promoting patriotic education, helping to make Memorial Day a national holiday, lobbying Congress to establish regular veterans' pensions, and supporting Republican political candidates.”
The GAR, as it was commonly known, expanded from its initial group in Decatur, Illinois to form over 100 local posts in areas where former Union soldiers lived. The post members frequently marched in parades and held an annual National Encampment from 1866 to 1949. The organization was dissolved in 1956 after its last member, Albert Woolson, died at the age of 106.
This stamp commemorates the final GAR encampment in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1949. Sixteen veterans were still alive but only six attended.
On August 25-28, 1879, the normally quiet farmlands just north of Blawenburg became the campgrounds for over 3,000 Civil War veterans and an entertainment destination for many thousands of daily visitors. While some prognosticators expected 100,000 visitors over the four days, the actual number was less than 50,000.
The event took place on 80 acres of farmland nestled between two railroad lines where Montgomery High School is today. The farms involved were owned by James Van Zandt and his father, John Van Zandt. These rail lines were primary means of transportation to Camp Skillman. To the north and west of the encampment, the Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad served Skillman Station, just off Camp Meeting Road. To the south and east of the encampment, the Mercer and Somerset Railroad served the Blawenburg Station. There were also plenty of locals attending who arrived by carriage or horseback.
Note the location of GAR Camp Skillman in the center of the map. The road marked Great Road is Blawenburg - Belle Mead Road/Route 601. Great Road begins at Route 518 in Blawenburg and runs south to Princeton.
Basic Needs and More
The tents and the food were provided by the GAR. Rows of orderly tents were set up with wide avenues for troops to march between them. The veterans wore their uniforms if they could still fit into them. Food and beverage tents were set up for the visitors who arrived to see the events. The troops cooked their own food, which was issued each day by the GAR, but it was very basic. Each soldier received a daily allotment of 14 ounces of bread and a pound of beef. This was backed up with beans, pork, coffee, sugar, and soap. The veterans were also seen at the concession tents getting beer, cake, ice cream, and other goodies.
Water was a critical need for the many people who were at the encampment. One of the reasons the site was chosen was because Rock Book ran on the south side of the property at the base of Blawenburg hill. Pipes were run from the brook to the camp to supply water.
There was a big flap over beer at the encampment. It seems that the Council of Administration of the GAR leased tents for vendors to sell lager, and at least eight men from Newark became vendors. When the local law and order enforcement officers found out that the men from Newark did not have a Somerset County beer license, they indicted the men for selling beer without a county license. The encampment turned out to be a money loser for these men. In addition to a loss of sales, they each had to pay a $50 fine plus costs for a total of $92. On the other hand, those who were properly licensed made a lot of money.
This page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was published on September 6, 1879. From top to bottom, it shows the arrival at Skillman Station, arrival by wagon at the camp, men cooking, the camp photographer, and the camp guard “protecting” the men from female invaders.
The four-day reunion maintained a rigorous schedule much like the soldiers experienced during the war. The buglers were very busy signaling the various activities. Reveille was at 6:45am. The signal was issued from the camp headquarters, and then other buglers continued the reveille call throughout the camp. Next came a fatigue call, which alerted designated personnel to do chores—cleaning up an area, digging ditches, etc.
The troops cooked their own food, so there was a constant smell of smoke throughout the camp. The breakfast call was at 7:45am with breakfast at 8:00am. Sick call came after that. (Hmmm!) This was an opportunity for anyone who needed medical attention to visit one of the hospital tents to see a doctor. The main morning activities were called at 10:30am and included troop reviews and drills.
Dinner (we’d call it lunch) was called at 11:45am. This was the main meal of the day. The afternoon was filled with speeches by dignitaries and demonstrations of martial skills. A dress parade wrapped up the afternoon schedule at 5:00pm. The troops were on their own for supper, a smaller meal than dinner, and for much of the rest of the evening.
At sunset, the buglers called retreat, which marked the end of the formal activities for the day. Troops gathered for the lowering of the flag ceremony. Tattoo came at 9:30pm. This was a musical display or parade that likely wound through the camp. (See the origin of tattoo in FACTS below.) Finally, at 11:00pm the exhausted buglers played taps to signal that lights should be turned (blown) out and food and drink concessions should close.
Despite what looks like a rigorous schedule, the veterans and visitors had a lot of free time to share war stories and enjoy the company of fellow GAR members. The organization professed to have strict rules about drinking alcohol and gambling, but the beer tents were very popular. Gambling likely took place too. But there are no reports of violations, and no one was asked to leave the encampment.
On Tuesday, August 25, the opening day of the camp was anticipated to be a great day, until the troops awoke to rain. This not only put a damper on the events that were planned, but it also cut the attendance. The day was referred to in the local press as “poorly attended”. The weather and attendance were better on Wednesday, and by Thursday, the continuously-running trains were full. The best attendance was on the final day, Friday. Over 20,000 visitors arrived by train and carriage to see the reenactment of a typical Civil War battle, which they called a “sham battle”.
The Sham Battle
The “sham battle” was the crowning event at Camp Skillman. Many of the visitors knew only what they heard about the war and were anxious to see the action. Despite its late start, 3:00pm instead of noon, the crowd delighted in seeing the troop reviews and listening to the band music.
The sham battle was hard fought in more ways than one. Of course, the troops didn’t use real ammunition, but the event was loud nevertheless. Many visitors were scrambling to get a good view of the battle, and often found themselves on the battlefield with men firing from many directions. Franz Kastner, a brewer from Newark, was so eager to see the battle that he hoisted himself to the top of his beer tent, only to find that others were also there. Within a very short time, all of them found themselves down at ground level when the tent collapsed., Kastner, who was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, was the only casualty of the sham battle, receiving a broken leg. The local press reported with tongue in cheek, “The soldiers behaved bravely and vanquished the enemy without bloodshed.”
Shortly after the battle at 6:00pm, the buglers made their last call to end the encampment and send the visitors on their way.
Despite the great location of the event, the following year the GAR moved its encampment to Bordentown. Rumor had it that it was easier to sell beer there, but the real reason may have been that the Mercer and Somerset Railroad was sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad on November 28, 1879 and abandoned on January 29, 1880. This cut a main artery of transportation for veterans and visitors who might have supported another encampment in Skillman. (See Blog 78, The Frog War and the M&S Demise.)
1. Although there were some women who fought in the war, most of the troops were men. Like many organizations in the late 1800s, the GAR members were mostly men, too. The role of women at that time was to support the efforts of the GAR. The Woman’s Relief Corp and the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic are two examples of support groups. One of these groups was known as the Tea Tray Cadets, and its members helped with benevolent and charitable efforts. The National Tribune in 1883 said of the cadets, “Their sweet smiles and merry laughter will cheer the heart of the veteran at the same time that their nimble fingers minister to his comforts.” As veterans got older, the women’s auxiliaries helped provide aid to the veterans and their families.
The Tea Tray Cadet medal says
“Grand Army of the Republic, 1861- Veteran – 1866.
2. Tattoo was an event that had occurred for many years before the Civil War. Musicians, often drummers and buglers, would visit taverns in the evening and played their music outside to signal that it was time to shut down their beer taps, a last call reminder for taverns.
3. Train tickets to the encampment were discounted from their usual $.69 to $.52 round trip.
4. There have been two other events in or near Blawenburg that have drawn large numbers of people—the Soil Conservation Day at the Van Zandt Farm in 1950 (See Blog 11) and the Wally Byam Caravan Club, an Airstream trailer rally, on the same grounds as Camp Skillman in 1964 (See Blog 20). But these don’t compare to the throngs that came to the Camp Skillman GAR reunion. Because there has been so much growth in Montgomery Township, it would be hard to have multi-day camping event like Camp Skillman or the Wally Byam Caravan today.
GAR Notes. New Brunswick Daily Times, August and September, 1879
Havens, Jessie. “Hindsight: The Battle at Skillman in 1879.” Messenger Gazette, August 22, 1991.
Tea Tray Cadets. Washington, D.C., The National Tribune, January 18, 1883.
GAR emblem – public domain
GAR stamp 1948 - Bureau of Engraving and Printing; Stamp design by Charles R. Chickering
Map of Encampment and surrounding area – 1873 map of Blawenburg, Location notes by Greg Gillette, https://cnhillsborough.blogspot.com/
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 6, 1879
Tea Tray Cadets medal – Wikipedia Commons
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