The Weirs Beach Veterans Campground in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire was the national headquarters of veterans reunions after the Civil War. Not only a site for statewide reunions, it also welcomed Union veterans and their families from across the North, as well as housing a pavilion for the national veterans organizations. No other states had such extensive or active veterans campgrounds.
By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, roughly 34,000 New Hampshire men had served in the military. Although nearly 5,000 of them died in the war, the rest came home to take up their lives again. It was a hard transition for many of them. Some were wounded, others moved to the American West, but for almost all New Hampshire soldiers, fighting in the war had been a transformative experience. For the rest of their lives, they would feel a connection to others who had served in the Civil War.
The state of New Hampshire offered some support for returning veterans, especially those who had been wounded. For decades after the war ended, the government employed an adjutant general who oversaw veterans affairs, such as the establishment of an Old Soldiers’ Home in Tilton. Veterans themselves also formed groups, mainly the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), which lobbied for veterans’ issues.
Beginning in the early 1870s, veterans’ organizations began hosting reunion events that usually consisted of a banquet and speakers. In 1875, the New Hampshire Veterans’ Association brought all of these groups under one umbrella organization with the goal of maintaining the bonds among former soldiers. That fall, the group hosted a statewide soldiers’ reunion held over three days in October at the Manchester fairgrounds.
The second statewide reunion was held in 1878 at Weirs Beach, which was on the cusp of becoming a tourist destination at that time. About 1,500 people attended that reunion—veterans and their families, who camped in tents on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. It was such a success that Weirs Beach became the permanent location of these reunions.
The summer retreats at Weirs Beach proved increasingly popular, and in the early 1880s, the Veterans’ Association started building permanent structures at the site, such as dining and dancing pavilions, a grandstand and amphitheater, and a speaker’s platform. The state government paid to construct barracks, and the various New Hampshire regiments built their own regimental houses. Unsurprisingly, the first of these regimental houses was organized by the Fifth New Hampshire, which had earned the reputation of being one of the toughest units in the Union Army. The regiment was often referred to as the “Fighting Fifth.”
Concord nurse Harriet Dame gifted a house to the Second New Hampshire Regiment, the outfit for whom she cared throughout the war. Even the National Veterans’ Association built a house on the site. The Boston & Maine Railroad, which was in the process of consolidating its hold on all train service in the state, helped fund many of these buildings and ran special trains to make it easier for veterans and their families to reach the site.
There was much to do at the campground, especially during the annual four-day reunion in the last week of August. There were bonfires, parades, concerts, dances, sporting events, and even mock battles. No other state in the country had such an extensive veterans’ campground. Many of the leading generals of the Civil War visited the camp and gave speeches, including George B. McClellan, William Tecumseh Sherman, Joseph Hooker, Ambrose Burnside, and Philip Sheridan. Even politicians like Teddy Roosevelt began visiting the campground, anxious to win the veterans’ votes. Although many of the buildings are gone now, the campground is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.