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Sons of the American Revolution
Early ALSSAR Pioneers Turn to Civil War Captain for Leadership
Editor’s Note: The following is taken from page 187 of the Year Book of the Societies Composed of Descendants of the Men of the Revolution by Henry Hall.
A circular letter had gone out, dated April 10,1889, to various organizations interested in preserving the heritage of the American Revolution. It was sent by William O. McDowell of Newark, N.J. The treasurer of The Society of Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey, Herman Burgin, of Philadelphia, responded by inviting interested parties to meet on April 30, 1889, in New York City at Fraunces’s Tavern at 9 a.m.
A preliminary organization of what would become the Alabama Society was held in Birmingham on April 27, 1889 at the suggestion of a special committee of the New Jersey Society. The meeting included Major Goldsmith B. West (chairman), Dr. John Randolph Page, William B. Lightfoot, John Randolph Bryan and St. George T. C. Bryan. The prime object of the meeting was the sending of a representative to the National Convention at Fraunces’s Tavern in New York City. It was found impracticable for any of the persons present to attend the National Convention and a proxy was telegraphed to Dr. Charles Curtis Page of New York City.
The next day, “…May 1st, at 9:30 A. M., the Convention was called to order at the Produce Exchange.” A constitution and by-laws were adopted. Article I reads as follows: “The name of this Society shall be ‘The Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.’” The first president of The Society of the Sons of the American Revolution was the Honorable Lucius P. Deming of New Haven, Connecticutt. “Vice-Presidents, by States (included) … the Hon. G. B. West, Birmingham, Ala.” Another meeting featuring more potential members in this state was held in Birmingham on June 18 and a temporary organization was formed with West as chairman.
The National Society, meanwhile, would change its leadership before the official formation of the Alabama Society. “Solely with a desire to strengthen the National Society, S.A.R., and to bring into its councils a gentleman who would add to its influence, President Deming, who had become overwhelmed with the work of the Society, resigned his office Nov. 23, 1889, having, however, first made sure that, if elected, Dr. William Seward Webb of New York would accept the position. Dr. Webb was, on the same day, elected as his successor. A committee was appointed to wait upon Dr. Webb and notify him officially of his election.”
It is a part of the interesting history of the installation of the new President-General that, when it became known in New York City that a number of members of the New York Society of Sons of the Revolution had been invited to be present at the ceremony, the following circular was issued by the officers of that Society, under date of Dec. 5, 1889, and was mailed to every one of their members: An invitation to attend the Inauguration of the President of the so-called “National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution,” is without authority from the Society, or the Managers of the Society of the “Sons of the Revolution,” organized at the historic Fraunces’s Tavern, in the City of New York in 1883, duly incorporated under the laws of the State of New York, and of which you are an honored member. We hope and trust you will not countenance this movement by your presence or aid in any way.
Several withdrawals took place from the New York Society in consequence of this circular.
The Alabama Society was organized permanently on Feb. 10, 1890 with the adoption of a Constitution and Bylaws in harmony with those of the SAR and the following officers were elected: Capt. Joseph Forney Johnston, president; Alfred Ross Lightfoot, vice-president; and St. George T. C. Bryan, secretary and treasurer. The choice of a registrar and historian was postponed until a larger number of members had joined the Society.
Several regular meetings were held by the Alabama Society for the discussion of its business and the adoption of measures recommended by the National Board of Managers. The Society was represented at the National Congress in Louisville, Ky., on April 30-May 1, 1890, by West and Alfred Lightfoot in person.
By 1892, under the leadership of Johnston, Lightfoot and Bryan, the Alabama Society expanded to 20 members. Two years later, the ALSSAR elected Edward Webb as president. Maj. Gen. Julian W. Whiting, one of the early members who helped create the organization, took over in 1890. Much of the Alabama Society’s early direction came from Johnston, a Civil War hero who enlisted in the 11th Alabama Infantry Regiment as a high school student and ended the war as captain of the 12th North Carolina Infantry. He was wounded in battles at Chickamauga, Spotsylvania, New Market and Petersburg. Johnston, a practicing attorney in Selma for 17 years after the war, was president of the Alabama State Bank and president of the Sloss Iron and Steel Company in the years immediately preceding his term as ALSSAR president. After his term, he became governor in 1896 and 1898 and later was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1907 to complete the term of Edmund Pettus after Pettus died in office in August, 1907. Johnston was reelected in 1909 and held the office until his death from pneumonia in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8, 1913.