Celeste Gentieu (1879 – 1971) lived a life bookended by the Civil War and the Vietnam War. A fitting memorial to the Civil War gave her purpose, and the cultural dichotomy of the Vietnam War shot her down. She was a first-generation American and a patriot, because her French immigrant father fought in the Civil War and it affected him and in turn, every member of the new American Gentieu family for their entire lives. Celeste was the fourth child and the first daughter, and as the longest-lived of the six siblings, lived to be 91. Unfortunately she was ridiculed to death by the conflicted press of 1970; her rightful legacy erased. It was through Celeste’s efforts spanning thirty three years of her life that a monument to the last living Civil War union soldier was created and installed at Gettysburg, in 1956.
Celeste’s father, Pierre Gentieu was an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, (GAR) Smyth Post #1, in Wilmington. In 1898, when his sons were around age 20, he helped them form the Appomattox Camp #2 Sons of Union Veterans (SUVCW). In 1900, Celeste, age 21, became a charter member of the Appomattox Camp #2 Auxiliary — the women’s part of the group that started as the Women’s Aid Society many years before, attached to the GAR and the SUVCW. In 1906 and again in 1916 she was elected the president of the Auxiliary’s Department of Maryland.
Like her father and each one of her siblings, Celeste worked for DuPont. She lived in the family home, and when her father retired from DuPont in 1912, they moved from Henry Clay village to Riverview Avenue. Her mother died in 1925.
Around 1923, Celeste dreamed up a plan to dedicate a monument to the last living GAR member. Because she lived with her father, she was particularly sensitive to the affect the Civil War had on him. She would hear his stories about the Civil War and witnessed how much the GAR meant to him.
Pierre Gentieu died in June 1930. In August 1930, Celeste was elected National President of the Auxiliary of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
During her year as National President, Celeste collected $11,000 towards the monument, which 26 years later, commissioning the sculptor, Avard Fairbanks, would cost $19,000. She continued to work on the monument until completion. In 1955, after Albert Woolson, drummer boy of the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment, became the last living veteran, he posed for the artist in his hometown of Duluth. Woolson died on August 2, 1956. Three weeks later, Celeste supervised the forging of the life-size statue at a bronze factory in Corona, New York. Celeste unveiled the statue at Gettysburg on September 12, 1956.
Pierre wrote in his will that as long as Celeste remained unmarried, she could continue to live in the Riverview Avenue house after he died – otherwise, the property would be sold and proceeds would be split evenly between the siblings. Pierre died in 1930. Celeste lived in the house until moving to a rest home in 1964. Perhaps because of animosity over a few thousand dollars of inheritance, Celeste was the brunt of family jokes. After her sister Jessie died in 1956, no one seemed to look after her. “I think we were very unkind to Aunt Celeste,” said Norman Gentieu, son of Joseph, during an oral history interview that I conducted in 1999.
And then there is Dorothy Hilyard.
In 1965, the Auxiliary honored Celeste with a marble bench in her name placed next to the Woolson monument at Gettysburg. Someone was thinking of her, and that someone was Wilmington’s second National President from the Appomattox Camp #2 Auxiliary (who had served in 1961-62), Dorothy Hilyard. She had been quite active in the Auxiliary since 1938. She also worked on the Wilmington Memorial Day parade for 67 years. She may have been going strong in 1965, but by 1997, Dorothy Hilyard would be reduced to being merely a little old lady with a grandfather in the Civil War.
Dorothy Hilyard may not have been Joe Biden’s press secretary like John Flaherty was, but she worked on the Wilmington parade for 67 years.
The 2019 Sons of Union Veterans, Appomattox Camp #2 of Wilmington, Delaware have morphed from being the noble group of real sons and daughters of Celeste’s generation and into a misogynistic group of opportunistic elderly male Civil War veteran data collectors. (They have lost all of my respect after a recent personal experience with them.)** The vice commander, Ken Finlayson, skipped over Dorothy Hilyard’s 67 years of service when he planned a special mention of the currently active Memorial Day parade committee member, former press secretary to Joe Biden, turned lobbyist, John Flaherty, for a particular presentation. He compared Flaherty’s 20 years of parade committee service to Frank Gentieu’s 28 years, as if Flaherty had only eight years to beat the record. In their world, women don’t count.
Frank Gentieu was also the first commander of the Appomattox Camp, in 1898. In my conversations with Finlayson, he made a big deal of Frank and his brother George, while Celeste’s dedication and long-term accomplishment of placing a Civil War memorial bronze statue to the last living Union veteran at Gettysburg barely got a footnote.
Celeste’s accomplishment was not only of important historical significance, it was also a poignant personal tribute to her father, with whom she lived until he died at the age of 88. Celeste heard all of her father’s stories, and experienced with her father the deep meaning of the Civil War and the effect it had on his life and on the lives of everyone in their family.
What happened to the women? I asked the 2019 vice commander Finlayson. They fizzled out in the Fifties, he said. Not true, I have discovered. The Appomattox Auxiliary was active well beyond the 1970’s. The national and regional organization of the Auxiliary still exists. They raise money for the care and maintenance of the Gettysburg monument.
In the 1997 News Journal’s condescending article about Dorothy Hilyard, who was 79 at the time, Family Pride inspires her Memorial Day, pictured above (click on the image for full article), erroneously states that the park bench was placed in honor of Frank Gentieu, not Celeste!
Hilyard and her late husband, Winford, donated a memorial bench in the National Cemetery in memory of Frank Gentieu, who was the son of a union veteran and served many years as chairman of the Wilmington parade.
Last of the Blue and Gray by Richard Serrano
In a 2013 book, Last of the Blue and Gray, the author refers to the statue of Albert Woolson in the very first paragraph on the very first page —
Because everyone said he was the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans once nearly half a million strong, they erected a life-size statue of him on the most hallowed ground of that entire horrible conflict – Gettysburg.
“They.” The statue is referred to again on page 115, discussing the Sons of Union Veterans at a ceremony displaying a bust of Woolson in 1954 to be installed in the rotunda of Duluth City Hall, and the sculptor Avard Fairbanks is there —
Fairbanks spoke too; he had just been commissioned for another sculpture of Woolson, this one to be a life-size work commemorating both Woolson and the Grand Army of the Republic. It was to be placed at Gettysburg, the watershed spot in the war.
The single mention of women in the book reveals an appropriation taking place in 1955:
Cora Gillis [secretary of the GAR] continued to write from Washington, warning Woolson of internal squabbles among competing Sons and Daughters organizations that honored Union veterans: “The Sons have the idea that because they are the men in the family that they should run everything, and we don’t agree with them.”
The Sons of Union Veterans are mentioned seven times in this recent book, with only this tiny reference to women: a “squabble” taking place with the men – which was more like thievery. The author brushed it over without getting into detail – heck, what’s 33 years of one woman’s devotion to a project. Just women, merely squabbling. In this contemporary book of Civil War history written by a man, women are insignificant pronouns who squabble and men get all the glory.
That’s how women get erased in history.
This interview of Celeste at age 90 appeared in The Feminine Side section of Wilmington’s The Morning News. I’m sure they meant well, making fun of an old woman, the last of the Civil War generations, how quaint. The story is disrespectful, and it contains a fundamentally incorrect fact — Pierre did not fight in Appomattox, Appomattox is the name of the Auxiliary Celeste belonged to. And perhaps she didn’t like Nixon but was being loyal to the party by saying she didn’t want to cause any harm by saying anything negative. But whatever. This was during the Vietnam War. The Associated Press syndicated the feature, and it was picked up all over the country, a little abridgment used as a filler on the society and wedding announcement pages, killing her, and then continuing to rub it in after she died. Rubbing, rubbing, rubbing, until she was completely erased. Half of Celeste’s obituary was about her father.
In stark contrast to Celeste’s old-age interview in the press is the old-age interview of her father, Pierre Gentieu at age 87.
*Pantheon Nadar, 1854, France, click photo to see the women on the pedestal.
** The 2019 Sons of Union Veterans uses individual Civil War veterans for ceremonies without asking permission from the family. They should have to ask permission. Asking permission would mean they’d have to pay some respect. They are men in the twenty-first century invading and appropriating sacred ancestor space as if these men, in the name of the former Grand Army of the Republic, have some claim to Civil War veterans and their graves. Written in the Appomattox Camp’s 2018 press release for one such ceremony: “The Sons of Veterans are the legal successor to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and were granted receivership of all GAR dedicated soldier burial plots in Wilmington.” However, the GAR never owned burial plots, so apparently the 2019 SUVCW is attempting to rewrite history, taking Civil War veterans and their legacies and shaping them for their own selfish purposes.