In continued celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Charter of the Rhode Island Department, Grand Army of the Republic, the Rhode Island Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War will conclude their year-long commemoration of their parent organization’s founding with the placing of a memorial marker at the final resting place of the last G.A.R. veteran in each of Rhode Island’s five counties.
The second-to-last surviving Union veteran in Rhode Island, Joseph Thomas Ray was born in Virginia in 1847. Local legend suggests that he had to escape enslavement before he made his way north and ultimately, in 1865 originally intended to enlist with Rhode Island’s “colored regiment,” the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, but finding enlistments were full, he joined the 118th United States Colored Troops. After the war, he was a resident of Newport and a leading member of Newport’s Lawton Post 5 (later Lawton-Warren Post 5), RIGAR, of which he was the last surviving member. He was the final Senior Vice Department Commander of the Rhode Island Grand Army of the Republic. He passed away on May 1, 1943 and is buried in the North Burial Ground on Farewell Street. He was Newport County’s last Civil War veteran, and the last African-American Civil War veteran in Rhode Island.
“The old boys never asked for glory or accolades,” said James P. McGuire, Department Commander of the Rhode Island Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “Joseph T. Ray was a celebrated local citizen who embodied the spirit and resolve of the Boys in Blue. Once revered, these last soldiers and sailors left this world humbly, relics of a war that was already considered ancient by many, even though it was a little over 80 years past. It was the dedication and sacrifice of these soldiers and sailors that saved the Union and freed a People. By marking the last soldiers in each county in our State, we hope that the memory of all of the Boys in Blue who rest in Rhode Island will be honored. They served, they labored, they sleep, and we must remember them, now more than ever, as we must remember all of the men and women who have served our Nation in all of its conflicts.”
A public memorial service and marker dedication with military honors for Joseph T. Ray will be held on October 13, 2018, at 11 A.M. at North Burial Ground (north end of Braman Cemetery), Farewell Street, Newport, RI.
The Grand Army of the Republic was the first national veterans’ organization in the United States that did not differentiate between rank or race. The only qualifier for membership was honorable service to the Union in the war of 1861-1865, and it became a model for future veterans’ organizations. Having the presence of mind to recognize its mortality, the G.A.R. established the Sons of Veterans (later renamed as the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War) in 1881 to carry on its work and “keep green the memory” of the “Boys in Blue.” The Sons of Union Veterans was Congressionally Chartered as the legal heir and representative of the G.A.R. in 1954, two years before the last G.A.R. veteran, Albert Woolson, passed away.
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