Great American Stories: Uncle Sam’s Birthday
By Carl Cannon
PlannedMan

Today is the recognized birthday of Uncle Sam. Although the iconic bearded visage, usually pictured in a top hat, gained universal fame in World War I recruiting posters, it was nearly a century earlier that he came to life. 

Great American Stories: Uncle Sam’s Birthday
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Today is the recognized birthday of Uncle Sam. Although the iconic bearded visage, usually pictured in a top hat, gained universal fame in World War I recruiting posters, it was nearly a century earlier that he came to life.

As the War of 1812 dragged on, the fledgling federal government solicited butchers, bakers, farmers and food distributors to supply American troops with rations. In New York, a large contract went to a businessman and warehouse operator named Elbert Anderson Jr. In upstate New York, one of the meatpacking subcontractors hired by Anderson was Samuel Wilson.

So how did that produce “Uncle Sam”?

Here’s how: Sam Wilson was a popular personage in his adopted hometown of Troy. Born in Massachusetts, he had held local political office in Troy. More relevant to the soldiers stationed at nearby Greenbush Cantonment, Wilson was also a decorated veteran of the Revolutionary War. Among his friends, he was known affectionately as “Uncle” Sam.

Wilson dutifully stamped every crate of salted pork or beef “US/EA,” which simply meant that the foodstuffs were procured by Elbert Anderson for the United States government. But many of the troops stationed at Greenbush were from Troy and knew Sam Wilson personally. The notion that “US” really meant that “Uncle Sam” approved this meat began as an inside joke, then became a wider rumor, and eventually caught on all over the country, albeit a much smaller country than exists today. Uncle Sam was born. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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