In August of 1909, Salt Lake City hosted the forty-third annual encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for veterans of the Civil War. One feature of the 1909 encampment was a “living flag” comprised of children dressed in red, white, and blue. Organized by Professor William A. Wetzel—director of music for the Salt Lake City public schools—the flag was a testament to the Mormon genius for collective action. The roughly twelve hundred children of the flag began rehearsals about a month in advance. They learned to sing patriotic songs and to rise or sit by sections to give the impression of a flag waving in the wind. Local G.A.R. women’s relief corps combined efforts with a dry goods company to make the children’s colored capes out of about 7,000 yards of cloth. A women’s citizens committee prepared lunch and lemonade for all the children. And, of course, a contractor built the stand on which the children stood.
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens when fallible people put on big events, the execution still fell short of the planning. The 1200 children who participated were rather fewer in number than the 2500 originally intended. More crucially, the contractor neglected to complete the canvas canopy that was supposed to shield the children from the scorching sun. Wetzel later complained that the contractors’ love of money had overcome their love of country; they had focused all their efforts on finishing the grandstands, for which they received a dollar per seat.
Finally, on August 11, the time came for the great G.A.R. parade. As the grizzled Civil War veterans passed the reviewing stand on Main and 7th South, the children made their patriotic performance. According to a report in the Deseret News,
Prof. Wetzell, a wizard on a pedestal in front, waved wands of flags forming mystic signals for the expectant little hosts, giving a code as potent as ever hung from warships in battle time; and at each symbol the vibrant folds moved, rose, fell, swayed and curled, then straightened into symmetrical form a row of red and white lines in the stripes, or square of freedom’s blue in the starred space. Up in the blue disc silver points of light scintillated, gilt-parasols in star shape but glowing splendidly in the mass. At a special sign in the code signal the great living mass, star and stripe and bar, found voice. It rose and rang out in clear, childish trebles and altos, to greet the hosts of the marching heroes, while hats held by feeble, trembling hands went off, and dimmed eyes were shaded by damp handkerchiefs. All the old war songs chanted by a living flag, an emblem for which the marching hosts had fought and bled.
Tragically, many children were overcome by the heat. It was an 87-degree day, with additional heat radiated by the asphalt and no breeze or shade to provide relief. “Once in a while an ambulance drove up carrying a Red Cross nurse: and from a stripe or star a little form fell out. . . . The sight of little figures borne from the seething crowds on the stretchers wakened chords of sympathy, and imagination too for the sterner sights these marchers had seen, when the ambulance galloped in war time and still figures—stilled forever by rebel bullets or sword cuts[—]were borne from a real field.” When finally the children were permitted to disperse, “a cheer went up from the marching hosts and the crowds,” and parents rushed to tend their suffering children, who were taken immediately to a shaded area for lunch and lemonade. Fortunately no children died, though fifty-seven fainted and were taken to the hospital for emergency treatment.
“But for all that,” the News reported, “it was splendid, and those who sat where the flag drilled and saw both that and the enthusiasm aroused in the breasts of the visitors will never forget the sight.”
The Child Spangled Banner, Oh, Long May It Wave
O’er the land of the Free and the Homes of the Brave!
(Special thanks to Ardis Parshall for sending me careful transcriptions of many historical news articles about this event. Ardis has written about the 1909 G.A.R. in the final chapter of Civil War Saints and runs a fantastic Mormon history blog called Keepapitchinin. She is not responsible for any errors in this post.)