Stewart (1848-1917) died nearly a century ago from heart problems while mobilizing Pennsylvania National Guard troops to go overseas to Europe.
A bronze statue of Stewart in dress uniform with a ceremonial sword stands in a niche in the Capitol Rotunda next to the House chamber. He seems out of place with the frock-coated senators and governors memorialized in the other three Rotunda niches, but Stewart was a man successful in both the military and political worlds.
Stewart died on his 69th birthday on Sept. 11, 1917 as the last Pennsylvania National Guard troops were leaving the state to go to war, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph. Stewart had been in poor health for a year but spurned pleas to take a break from his demanding job of preparing the federalized Guard soldiers for combat.
His death came as a shock to Pennsylvanians five months into a major war but not seeing casualty lists yet. Stewart had been the face of Pennsylvania’s military establishment for years.
The United States joined the Great War on April 6, 1917 after President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. German submarine attacks on American ships and offers of an alliance with Mexico led Wilson to abandon the neutral course set when the European powers went to war in 1914.
My grandfather, George S. Swift, entered the Army at Avalon Pa. near Pittsburgh eight days after Stewart’s death. He fought as part of the 80th Infantry Division at the epic Battle of Meuse-Argonne a year later. Known as the Blue Ridge division, the 80th was composed of soldiers from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
Stewart bridged the years between the Civil War and the Age of Flight. At age 16, he enlisted with the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1864 and saw action at the war’s end at Petersburg and Saylor’s Creek.
Stewart pursued a business career in Norristown, joined the Pennsylvania National Guard and became active with the Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful Union army veterans organization. These were pathways to success in the late 19th century. Stewart advanced quickly and made friends helped by his natural ability to give a good speech and write with a steady hand.
By the 1880s, Stewart’s tandem political and military careers were well on track. He was elected to the state House representing Montgomery County and then served two terms in the statewide elective office of Secretary of Internal Affairs. He became commander of the military Department of Pennsylvania in 1889.
Stewart’s lengthy service as state adjutant general of the Pennsylvania National Guard started in 1895 with an appointment from Gov. Hastings. He prepared Pennsylvania troops for service in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Stewart’s GAR activities didn’t take a backseat. He led GAR efforts to help the flood-stricken citizens of Johnstown in 1889. In 1902 came a plum post for a man of Stewart’s interests. He was elected Commander-in-Chief of the GAR of the United States.
All of this was known when the officers and soldiers of the National Guard and the Keystone Division started a subscription drive to raise money for a Stewart statue.
The statue was dedicated in June 1919 as the Treaty of Versailles formally ended the Great War and troop ships full of American soldiers were returning home.
The statue is the work of noted Sculptor J. Otto Schweizer. He created a number of statutes at Gettysburg, including the Abraham Lincoln statue at the Pennsylvania State Memorial.
The Pennsylvania National Guard honors Stewart’s memory with the General Thomas J. Stewart Medal awarded for excellence in drill.