On October 18, 1893, at a Tacoma meeting of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, an offshoot of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union veterans of the Civil War), General Rossell G. O'Brien (1846-1914) makes a motion that attendees stand at attention for the playing of the national anthem. O'Brien is a Civil War veteran who arrived in Washington Territory in 1870 as a deputy collector of revenue and served in various positions in state government and on the Olympia city council and as mayor. He is also commander of the Washington National Guard, having formed the guard's first Olympia company, the Capitol Guards, risen from lieutenant to brigadier general, and guided the guard through its formative years in Washington. O'Brien will be remembered as the "father of the Washington National Guard" but will be best known for something he did not accomplish -- establishing the custom of standing when "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played, which appears to have been instituted by others well before his 1893 motion.
Rossell Galbraith O'Brien was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 27, 1846. He immigrated to the United States with his family in 1853. The family settled in Chicago, where Rossell attended school. When he was 16, O'Brien joined the Ellsworth Zouaves (Governor's Guard). He worked on a farm and then as a clerk in a dry goods store.
The Civil War was raging, and on April 28, 1864, at the age of 17, O'Brien enlisted in Company D, 134th Regiment, of the Illinois Volunteers. He was made a second lieutenant on May 31, 1864, served in summer campaigns in Kentucky and saw action in Missouri. On October 29, 1864, O'Brien was mustered out in Chicago. He returned to the Governor's Guard as a first lieutenant and completed six years of service. His full-time employment was as a railroad freight clerk. O'Brien attended college, taking courses in accounting and business.
Life in Washington
In July 1870, O'Brien accompanied Governor Edward S. Salomon (1836-1913) to Olympia. President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) had appointed Salomon as territorial governor. The new governor selected O'Brien as deputy collector of revenue, a position he held for five years. O'Brien also served as Chief Clerk of the Washington House of Representatives and a clerk of the Supreme Court. In 1876 he was appointed a United States Commissioner and served 13 years.
When he arrived in Olympia, O'Brien lived two doors from the residence of Dr. Arden Steele (1822-1902). He met Dr. Steele's daughter, Fanny Orlo Steele (1855-1932), and they married in 1878. The couple lived in the Steele home on Franklin Street while their impressive two-and-a-half-story home was built nearby at 210 Union Avenue.
The same year that he married, O'Brien was made quartermaster general of the Washington National Guard. He also organized the first National Guard company in Olympia, the Capitol Guards. In the National Guard he advanced from lieutenant to brigadier general. Brigadier General O'Brien was appointed as Adjutant General (commander) of the Washington National Guard in 1884. He guided the organization through its formative years and was commander at the time the Washington guard became an organized state military organization when the territory was admitted as a state in 1889. O'Brien retired from the guard in 1895. He is considered by many to be the "father of the National Guard in Washington."
O'Brien was active in local politics, serving on the Olympia City Council and as mayor of the city from 1891 to 1892.
Standing for the National Anthem
On October 18, 1893, in the Bostwick Building in Tacoma, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion met with 100 members in attendance. The Loyal Legion, an offshoot of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), was made up of former Union officers who worked to honor veterans and the nation. At the meeting General O'Brien made a motion that "People should rise and remove their hats, if they were not in the military, and stand at attention for the playing of the national anthem" ("Secret Orders"). The motion was passed.
The Washington chapter of the Loyal Legion urged other chapters to adopt and promote this motion. The Grand Army of the Republic was also urged to take up the cause.
In July 1970 a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) installed a plaque on the Bostwick Building, at the corner of Broadway Avenue and St. Helens Street, recalling the event. The plaque reads:
"In honor of Rossell G. O'Brien who in the Bostwick Building, Tacoma, Washington, in 1893 during regular session of the Washington Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the U.S.A. did originate the custom of standing during the rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America."
In his 2014 book Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem, Marc Ferris argues that Rossell O'Brien did not originate the custom of standing during the rendition of the national anthem. He cites other people and organizations who had a more direct and significant role in making the custom universal, advancing the cause earlier and more effectively. The statesman Daniel Webster (1782-1852) is considered by some historians as a stronger contender for originator of the custom. During a concert by the popular singer Jenny Lind (1820-1887) in 1851, Webster stood up as she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," and soon others were doing the same.
The custom of standing at attention was formally adopted by the United States Congress in 1931. It is spelled out in 36 U.S.C. sec. 301, "Conduct ... During a rendition of the national anthem."
Remembering Rossell O'Brien
At the turn of the twentieth century O'Brien focused on his business career, making business trips to San Francisco. There he established himself in real estate and became a broker, moving first to San Francisco and several years later to Oakland. In 1914, while in Pasadena on business, he was injured in a street-car accident. He did not recover and died at home. '
Rossell O'Brien was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. His daughter Helen O'Brien Aetzel (1885-1946) and her family had moved into the home at 210 Union Avenue SE in Olympia when her father moved to California. The Aetzel family lived there for a number of years.
The home survived into 1950 and was then demolished. The site of the O'Brien home was developed as Olympia's Centennial Park, with the steps to the home surviving as well as a stone wall. The park included a coast redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens) that O'Brien may have brought back from one of his California business trips between 1899 and 1903 and planted in the yard of his home. In 1989 the tall tree was dedicated as the "Daniel J. Evans Tree" to honor the environmental efforts of Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925) during his three terms as Washington's governor (1965 to 1977). As of 2015, the Dr. Alden H. Steele House still stood across the street at 1010 Franklin St. SE.
United States Representative Joel T. Broyhill (1919-2006) of Virginia spent years in the 1960s unsuccessfully introducing bills to revise the national anthem to make it easier to sing. He also spoke of Rossell O'Brien as the person behind the custom of standing for playing of the anthem. His efforts and the plaque on the Bostwick Building have given Rossell O'Brien more credit than probably deserved. However, he deserves great credit for his Olympia political career, his role as father of the Washington National Guard, and possibly planting the redwood that would become the Daniel J. Evans Tree.