The Rhode Island Department Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) traces its roots and official beginning from the RI Department Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The GAR was first established in RI on April 12, 1867 with the formation of Post 1 in Providence. On May 11, 1867, the Department was provisionally established with the election of temporary Officers with William Sprague being elected Grand Commander. The Department of Rhode Island Grand Army of the Republic was officially organized and Chartered on March 24, 1868.
As the children of GAR veterans, we were their Post Cadet Corps and later their GAR Post Associates. So, SUVCW affiliation with the GAR in the Ocean State actually began as early as 1872. On November 12, 1881, the National Sons of Veterans, USA, (SofV) was officially formed in Indianapolis, Indiana. The National Order was founded by GAR/Civil War veteran, Major Augustus Plummer Davis, with the “reserved” blessing of the National GAR. Early on, the GAR reserved their full confidence in the SofV, to insure that the young Order would fully dedicate its organization to carrying on all the objects and interests of the GAR as the GAR prescribed. As the SofV, (or True Sons of the GAR and Union Civil War veterans) the organization began to realize that it needed to make provisions for the GAR grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. The Spanish American War & World War I provided the reason for the next change in the Order when veterans of those eras wanted to apply for veteran or Lineal status membership in the SofV.
By the 1920s, Spanish-American War and WWI veterans wanted to join the SofV and change the mission of the Order to include all other wars. The end result convinced the GAR once and for all that the SofV was their most logical successor, because the SofV refused to alter its mission in any way that would change its original Civil War purpose. To reinforce its commitment to the GAR, the SofV changed its name to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) and firmly dedicated the Order to the work & maintenance to preserve the memory and assets of the GAR and all Union Civil War Veterans that fought to save the Union, 1861 to 1866. This decision by the SofV lead to the eventual formation of the American Legion & the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It also led to the decision by the GAR to deed or will their interests & assets, tangible and intangible to the SUVCW in 1954. In Rhode Island, the actual beginning of the transference from the GAR to the SUVCW started with GAR permission & creation of the RI Division SofV, USA.
In the early days of the Order, it was common for GAR men to join the SofV. As active members of the SofV, the GAR wanted to guide the Sons in their proper role & function, which is to do the work of the GAR. The “Old Boys in Blue” wanted to be part of the Order with their sons. In fact, the first “Division” (Department) or state Commander of the RI Division of the SofV was Theodore A. Barton, Department Commander 1886, a member of Slocum Post 10, RIGAR. He was Commander of both Orders in 1886, when RI received its Provisional Charter from the National SofV, and served a 2nd term as Provisional Commander of the RI Division SofV in 1887. On Jan. 21, 1888, RI received its Permanent Division (Department) Charter & Comrade/Brother Barton was elected SofV Division Commander in 1888 & again in 1889. Barton (a GAR man) was unquestionably the founder of the RI Department SUVCW that still exists today.
Since 1888, there have been 98 Department Commanders in the 131 (Permanently Chartered) year history of the SUVCW in RI. Three men have been elected Commander-in-Chief from RI: Brother Arthur B. Spink, Past Department Commander (PDC),1895; Brother Harold E. Arnold, PDC, 1956, 1964 and 1968; and Brother Leo F. Kennedy, PDC, 2009. As CinC, Brother Arthur B. Spink founded the National Sons of Veterans Reserve (SVR), with his General Order No.5, on October 5, 1903. He established the National Headquarters of the SVR, or uniformed entity of the SUVCW, in Providence. The SVR was Federalized twice in its history. First, the SUVCW/SVR served as support elements in the Philippine Insurrection and then as combat units to fight in WWI. Today the roll of the SVR is ceremonial and educational, but the Federal status of all 7 of its military districts & units remain the same in the US military as when Brother Spink first formed the SVR in 1903.
From 1930 to 1943 the RI Department GAR and RI Department SUVCW held joint Department Encampments. Comrade/Brother John H. Riley, veteran of Company H, 2nd Regiment, RI Volunteer Infantry was the last RI Department GAR veteran. He died on May 7, 1943. The Last member of the GAR in the country was Albert Woolsen, of Duluth, MN., who died on August 2, 1956, at the age of 109 years. Prior to his death, he signed the deed of conveyance granting all GAR assets, tangible and intangible, to the SUVCW. General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Grant III and General Amos Frey attained the Federal Charter for the SUVCW, (also, updated 1998) approved by President Eisenhower (members of the Order). Today it is the basis for the SUVCW National Constitution & Regulations of the Order. Half of the U.S. Presidents from 1866 to the present were members of the GAR/ SUVCW.
The state Department Headquarters for the GAR & four GAR Posts was the Old Arsenal on Benefit Street at 176 in Providence from 1867 to 1943. It also became the Department Headquarters for the SofV & Allied Orders granted by RI Governor Charles Lippitt in 1909. Currently the Old Arsenal houses one of the nation’s finest GAR/ SUVCW Civil War collections of war relics, veterans memorabilia, books, art works, photographs, GAR items and documents in the country. After a hiatus of over two decades, the Department once again began holding its Annual Encampment at the Arsenal in 2014.
Today there are 4 Camps in the RI Department that have been Chartered by the National SUVCW. Rhode Island Camp members are instrumental in setting up and taking part in many school programs, actively flag Veterans graves at Memorial Day, providing work on the ground and data entry for the National Grave Registration database, hosting Services remembering RI Civil War Veterans, awarding the SUVCW Eagle Scout Award and ROTC/JROTC Awards, and sponsoring educational events that perpetuate the memory of the “Boys in Blue” and the mission of the G.A.R.