That Sunday afternoon in 1885 was one of the finest fall days of the season, perfect for a hike. Civil War Veteran Henry S. Beckhardt, a machinist for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, set out for the slopes of Mount Penn. Beckhardt frequently wandered the trails here, often ending with a stroll through Penn's Common, beautifully landscaped since the community improvement effort of 1878. Unexpectedly, he found himself yards from the fountains and lovely ornamental plantings, off in a section of the park along Hill Road known as Potter's Field. The place had been used as a cemetery since 1847, the burial place of unclaimed prisoners and paupers.
Beckhardt felt certain that he knew no one interred there. Surely he was not acquainted with criminals or indigent persons. But as his eyes scanned the crudely painted boards marking some of the graves, he received a shock. There were two names he recognized! These were the names of men who had served with him under Captain James McKnight in Battery M, 5th U.S. Artillery, formerly the Ringgold Light Artillery -the "First Defenders."
Beckhardt stared in disbelief. He recalled that both men had been wounded at Cedar Run, early in the war, and that neither had ever fully recovered. He was appalled that these men, who had sacrificed so much for human freedom, would be considered paupers and have received so ignominious a burial. Overcome with emotion, he hurried down the hill toward his home at 553 North Ninth Street. Later that afternoon, as Beckhardt shared the sad tale with his wife and young daughter Beulah, he broke down in tears. He could not shake off the feeling of personal guilt over such neglect.
Beckhardt immediately took action. What he did from thereon resulted on September 10, 1887, in one of the most brilliant patriotic spectacles in Reading's history. It was the dedication of the Grand Army of the Republic monument in Charles Evans Cemetery. The Grand Army of the Republic or GAR was an organization of Civil War veterans. Its monument has been the site of Memorial Day services ever since.
That Sunday, Beckhardt hardly could wait until the next evening when the McLean Post GAR would hold its weekly meeting. McLean Post at that time had its headquarters on the second floor of a building in the 800 block of Penn Street. Long after the GAR vacated the premises, the building ultimately became the victim of neglect and was finally demolished as part of urban renewal in the 1970s.
Beckhardt repeated the story of his distressing discovery at the railroad shops during the Monday noon hour break. Many Civil War veterans were employed there. A solid group of machinists and car-shop workers were at the McLean Post later that evening to support him.
As soon as the business session was over, Beckhardt was granted the floor by Andrew Miltower, Post Commander, who operated the hotel at 300 North Ninth Street. Once more Beckhardt told of his Sunday experience in Potter's Field. It was a story he would repeat again and again over the next 18 months as he spoke before church societies, fraternal lodges, fire companies, and social groups, at political and civic meetings and club picnics.
Beckhardt proposed, that Monday night in 1885, that a cemetery plot be secured for the burial of Civil War veterans. The McLean Post approved the idea but thought the other local GAR group, the Keim Post, should be asked to join the movement. Beckhardt was authorized to carry out the task.
The Keim Post was the smaller of the two GAR organizations in Reading. But Keim Post was more influential. Its members included many high-ranking officers from Berks County including Major General David McM. Gregg.
After the Keim Post also approved the movement, a committee was appointed with Beckhardt as chairman. Others serving were: Charles W Baum, F. Marion Jones, and Thomas Wait of the McLean Post; along with H. J. Fink, Capt. P. R. Stetson, Capt. R. H. Savage, and E. D. Smith of the Keim Post.
The committee found Beckhardt's discovery was just a small part of the neglect. Fifteen other veterans were located buried in the Potter's Field at the county almshouse near Shillington. Another twenty-six were identified in the "poor plot" at Charles Evans Cemetery. The committee decided that what was needed was ground not only for these but also for approximately 200 graves.
No time was wasted in approaching the trustees of Charles Evans Cemetery, a non-sectarian, non-profit necropolis established north of the city by the Reading attorney and philanthropist Charles Evans in 1846. The idea was well-received by the cemetery trustees, many of whom had family members who had served during the Civil War, and whose number included Major General David McM. Gregg himself.
A "Committee on the Grand Army Lot" was appointed with Judge George Stitzel as chairman. This committee moved quickly to accommodate the request of the GAR. Only a few months later, at a special meeting held on Saturday, November 14, 1885, the Charles Evans Cemetery trustees resolved to set aside a group of lots, comprising 3,000 square feet of the new section, for the burial of Civil War Veterans and the erection of a suitable granite monument, costing no less than $2,000.00. The plot was a valuable one at the top of a slope that overlooks Reading and gives a panoramic view of the Blue Mountains to the north. Re-interment of those veterans buried in potter's fields around the county began as soon as weather permitted.
Next, Beckhardt embarked on a speaking campaign in an effort to raise the funds needed to erect an appropriate memorial on the land generously donated by Charles Evans Cemetery. This solicitation was not an instant success. Some of the apathy was due to the failure of a movement in 1883 to erect a Civil War monument in the center of Penn Square.
That monument had been designed by G. A. Nicholls, an Irishman who came to America in the 1830s and rose through the ranks of the fledgling P&R RR to become its General Superintendent and Second Vice President. Nicholls himself had enlisted as a private when Pennsylvania was invaded by the Confederate Army. He served as a trustee of Charles Evans Cemetery from 1862 to 1886, sadly passing away in the year before the erection and dedication of the GAR monument.
Persistence bore fruit and eventually Beckhardt and his committee were successful. Ultimately, $4,000.00 was collected for the project. This was more than hoped for and enough to erect a grander monument than originally planned. A search for artist and design ensued but didn't take long. Dr. Herman Strecker was the obvious choice for sculptor.
Strecker and his father had taken over the Moers Marble Yard, the first such operation in Reading, dating to the latter years of the 18th century. Later, Strecker took a position with P.F. Eisenbrown's Eagle Marble and Granite Works, a career move that permitted greater freedom for the pursuit of his true avocation, lepidopterology. Strecker eventually amassed one of the largest collections of butterflies and moths in the world, exchanging specimens with European aristocracy. After his death, his collection was sold for $30,000.00 to the Field Museum of Chicago, where it remains one of the most important internationally. Strecker already had a reputation for sculpting elaborate memorials, extending beyond Berks County, when he was chosen to execute the GAR monument.
The towering monument stands 40 feet high and is built of New Hampshire blue stone, in 13 pieces. The base is 13 feet square and 1 foot thick. Above that, rises another stone base, nine feet square, and 2-1/2 feet thick. The mounting column was constructed of several pieces. The base stonework and the inscriptions thereon were the work of Dennis McSherry, a stonecutter for P. F. Eisenbrown. Above it all is the figure of a bugler, sculpted by Strecker and standing 8-1/2 feet high, holding a nickel-plated bugle. This statue weighs 7 tons by itself.
The model for Strecker's figural sculpture was a Civil War veteran named Charles Gilliams, a member of the McLean Post. Gilliams was a native of Philadelphia, who moved to Reading in his youth. He entered the regular army in 1856 and served 5 years as a bugler. When the Civil War started he became first sergeant of Co. M, Sixth Cavalry. After being severely wounded, he was discharged in December 1862. As so many others injured in the war, he was given a job with the P&R RR through the efforts of G. A. Nicholls, who had promised to employ any disabled veterans in jobs not requiring physical labor. After less than two years Gilliams sufficiently recovered and reenlisted in February 1864, once again in the position of bugler.
For the GAR monument, Gilliams posed as a bugler sounding "Taps" over the graves of his comrades. Strecker sculpted a tree stump at the feet of the bugler. The tree stump was a commonly employed device in memorial art. It was used to represent a life cut down in its prime, as was that of many a Civil War soldier.
The date set for unveiling the monument and dedication of the plot was September 10, 1887. A contemporary newspaper reporter estimated that 30,000 people crowded around the cemetery plot to witness the program. How many others lined the streets of Reading, no one attempted to guess. All Penn Street businesses were decorated for the occasion, as were saloons all over town, and the homes of many Civil War veterans. The Reading Eagle selected for special mention the stores of Kline, Eppihimer & Co., C. K. Witner, B. & J. Saylor and T. P. Merritt, along with 19 others.
The parade started from the McLean Post hall, by then relocated to 533 Penn Street. William H. German was post adjutant that year, and William T. Gorrell was post commander. In formation were GAR posts from all over the state, many with a hundred or more marchers. Each group brought a hometown band or bugle corps.
The list in the Eagle took almost a full column of space. Others came not to march but simply to observe. The morning train from Philadelphia was run in several sections and more than 3,000 disembarked at the Franklin Street Depot. The Lebanon Valley line was half an hour late due to overload and extra coaches. As the many delegations arrived, they created an unforeseen problem. Many had been invited to receptions at the leading hostelries - the Keystone, Merchants, Central, and Globe Hotels, and the Berks County, Union, and American Houses. The question was what to do with all the flags and band instruments until parade time. The quandary was solved by opening the rooms of the Reading Library, under police protection.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union presented bouquets of flowers to all members of Beckhardt's committee. There were mementos and souvenirs distributed by various businesses. Glasser and Frame, at their Market House Restaurant, gave a cigar to each patron entering that day.
From 11:00 a.m. until the start of the parade at 1:00 p.m., Professor James Harrison played the chimes of Christ Church on North Fifth Street. Included in his program were such topical war songs as "Rally 'Round the Flag Boys," "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching," and "Hurray for the Red, 'White and Blue."
Major General David McM. Gregg was chosen chief marshal of the parade. With him marched Pa. Gov. James A. Beaver and former Gov. Henry M. Hoyt. Behind them came H. Willis Bland (later to be county judge), E Marion Jones, E. C. Eban, William Call, W. Murray Weidman, R.A. Savage, Philip Bissinger, William Moore, P. M. Ziegler, and Henry Beckhardt.
Leading the GAR units were all the officers of the state department of the GAR. This was notable for on that same day another GAR monument was being dedicated at Bradford, Pa. Every grave on the GAR plot had been decorated by the ladies auxiliaries of the Keim and McLean Posts. Already, headstones had been inscribed with the names of those who had been previously buried in the Potter's Field and poor plots.
The program was opened with the playing of a dirge by the Ringgold Band. There were short speeches by the officers of both Reading posts. The main address was given by former Gov. Hoyt. The Pa. Dept. GAR Commander, J. P. 5. Gobin of Lebanon, also spoke.
At last came time for the unveiling. Chosen for the honor was 10-year old, Beulah H. Beckhardt, a pupil at the 10th and Green School. One fall Sunday, two years earlier she had seen her father come home from a hike and break down in tears.
He was in tears again at this moment, but these were tears of joy. Around him, comrades of the struggle for the Union were whooping it up with cheers and shouts of "Hurrah!" There was hardly anyone who could hear the benediction by the Rev. M. P. Doyle, chaplain of the McLean Post, or the rendition of the National Anthem played by the Germania Band.
That evening, all over town, in public houses and in private homes, old war outfits and comrades met at reunions. Many had not seen each other since their discharge. Gen. Gregg was host to state officials and many former generals at his residence at 108 North Fourth Street.
Soon after Henry Beckhardt accomplished his goal in 1887, he gave up his job as a machinist. For a while he became an insurance agent. Then he became a postal employee under Postmaster George K. Whitner, at the post office on the southwest corner of 6th and Court Streets. Beckhardt died May 2, 1904, at the age of 64. He always considered the erection of the GAR monument his life's greatest achievement.