Grand Army of the Republic

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The members of Charles W. Carroll Post 144 pose on the steps of the Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham, Massachusetts on Dedham's 250th anniversary in 1885.

The "Grand Army of the Republic" (GAR) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army (United States Army), Union Navy (U.S. Navy), Marines and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War for the Northern/Federal forces. Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, and growing to include hundreds of posts (local community units) across the nation, (predominately in the North, but also a few in the South and West), it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member, Albert Woolson (1850–1956) of Duluth, Minnesota, died. Linking men through their experience of the war, the G.A.R. became among the first organized advocacy groups in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, promoting patriotic education, help to make Memorial Day a national holiday, lobbying the United States Congress to establish regular veterans' pensions, and supporting Republican political candidates. Its peak membership, at more than 490,000, was in 1890, a high point of various Civil War commemorative and monument dedication ceremonies. It was succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (S.U.V.C.W.), composed of male descendants of Union Army and Union Navy veterans.


The Grand Army of the Republic badge. Authorized by the U.S. Congress to be worn on the uniform by Union Army veterans.[1]

After the end of American Civil War, various state and local organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Many of the veterans used their shared experiences as a basis for fellowship. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power. Emerging as most influential among the various organizations during the first post-war years, was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded on April 6, 1866, on the principles of "Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty," in Decatur, Illinois, by Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson.

The G.A.R. initially grew and prospered as a de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. The commemoration of Union Army and Navy veterans, black and white, immediately became entwined with partisan politics. The G.A.R. promoted voting rights for then called "Negro"/"Colored" black veterans, as many white veterans recognized their demonstrated patriotism and sacrifices, providing one of the first racially integrated social/fraternal organizations in America. Black veterans, who enthusiastically embraced the message of equality, shunned black veterans' organizations in preference for racially inclusive/integrated groups. But when the Republican Party's commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, the G.A.R.'s mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. The G.A.R. almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many state-centered divisions - named "departments" and local posts ceased to exist.[2]

In his General Order No. 11, dated May 5, 1868, first G.A.R. Commander-in-Chief, General John A. Logan declared May 30 to be Memorial Day (also referred to for many years as "Decoration Day"), calling upon the G.A.R. membership to make the May 30 observance an annual occurrence. Although not the first time war graves had been decorated, Logan's order effectively established "Memorial Day" as the day upon which Americans now pay tribute to all our nation's war casualties, missing-in-action, and deceased veterans. As decades passed, similarly-inspired commemorations also spread across the South as "Confederate Memorial Day" or "Confederate Decoration Day", usually in April, led by organizations of Southern soldiers in the parallel United Confederate Veterans.[3]

In the 1880s, the Union veterans organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating Federal pensions for veterans. As the organization revived, black veterans joined in significant numbers and organized local posts. The national organization, however, failed to press the case for similar pensions for black soldiers. Most black troops never received any pension or remuneration for wounds incurred during their Civil War service.[4]

The G.A.R. was organized into "Departments" at the state level and "Posts" at the community level, and military-style uniforms were worn by its members. There were posts in every state in the U.S., and several posts overseas.[4]

The pattern of establishing departments and local posts was later used by other American military veterans' organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (organized originally for Spanish–American and Philippines Wars [formerly referred to as the "Philippine Insurrection"]) and the later American Legion (for the First World War and later expanded to include subsequent World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Middle Eastern wars).

The G.A.R.'s political power grew during the latter part of the 19th century, and it helped elect several United States presidents, beginning with the 18th, Ulysses S. Grant, and ending with the 25th, William McKinley. Five Civil War veterans and members (Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and McKinley) were elected President of the United States; all were Republicans. (The sole post-war Democratic president was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th chief executive.) For a time, candidates could not get Republican presidential or congressional nominations without the endorsement of the G.A.R. veterans voting bloc.

Reverse of the Grand Army of the Republic Badge.

With membership strictly limited to "veterans of the late unpleasantness," the GAR encouraged the formation of Allied Orders to aid them in various works. Numerous male organizations jousted for the backing of the GAR, and the political battles became quite severe until the GAR finally endorsed the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War as its heir. Although a male organization, the GAR admitted its sole woman member in 1897. Sarah Emma Edmonds served in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a disguised man named Franklin Thompson from May 1861 until April 1863. In 1882, she collected affidavits from former comrades in an effort to petition for a veteran's pension which she received in July 1884. Edmonds was only a member for a brief period as she died September 5, 1898; however she was given a funeral with military honors when she was reburied in Houston in 1901.[5]

The GAR reached its largest enrollment in 1890, with 490,000 members. It held an annual "National Encampment" every year from 1866 to 1949. At that final encampment in Indianapolis, Indiana, the few surviving members voted to retain the existing officers in place until the organization's dissolution; Theodore Penland of Oregon, the GAR's Commander at the time, was therefore its last. In 1956, after the death of the last member, Albert Woolson, the GAR was formally dissolved.[2]

GAR Parade during the 1914 Encampment in Detroit, Michigan

Memorials, honors and commemorations

Memorials to the Grand Army of the Republic include a commemorative postage stamp, a U.S. highway, and physical memorials in numerous communities throughout the United States:

G.A.R. Commemorative issue of 1948
The Chicago Cultural Center (1893), built on land donated by the GAR, maintains a memorial hall to the Grand Army
  • Decatur, Illinois: GAR section with approximately 570 graves and monument in Greenwood Cemetery[19]
  • Hoopeston, Illinois: GAR memorial and many gravesites Floral Hill Cemetery.
  • Minier, Illinois: GAR monument erected in 1888 by the John Hunter GAR Post 168[20]
  • Murphysboro, Illinois: A cemetery with the graves of several GAR members who were former slaves originally from Tennessee is southwest of the town.
  • Palatine Township, Illinois: re-dedicated the Grand Army Memorial Plot at Hillside Cemetery on August 16, 2015.[21]
  • River Forest, Illinois: Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Woods which is part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
  • Springfield, Illinois:
    • Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum, located at 629 South 7th Street is owned and maintained by the Woman's Relief Corps Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic.[22]
    • The Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War donated a sundial that was dedicated on the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol September 8, 1940, during the 74th Encampment of the GAR.[23]
  • Watseka, Illinois: GAR Cemetery, established for the Williams Post 25, has a memorial and statue as prominent features at the entrance.[24]
  • Valparaiso, Indiana: The Memorial Opera House was constructed by the local GAR chapter in 1893.[25]
  • Des Moines, Iowa: In 1922, a banner created for the GAR encampment was declared a permanent memorial and suspended in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol.[26] A sundial was dedicated to the GAR on grounds of the Iowa State Capitol during the 1938 encampment.[27]
  • Eldora, Iowa: GAR memorial of a metal soldier atop a granite base costing $3,000 was erected in 1885 in the center of the town square. It was relocated on the site in 1890 to accommodate construction of the courthouse. It has since been relocated to a site east of the courthouse and restored in 1985.[28]
  • Red Oak, Iowa: GAR memorial of a bronze soldier atop a granite base was dedicated in 1907 near grave sites in Evergreen Cemetery.[29]
  • Mt. Pleasant, Iowa: GAR monument and grave sites in the pioneer Hickory Grove Cemetery, junction of Hwy 218 & 185th St.[30]
  • Redfield, Iowa: The Marshall GAR Hall was restored in 2008 and houses a small museum.[31]
  • Waterloo, Iowa: The Grand Army of the Republic meeting hall has been restored and is operated as a meeting hall and museum by the City of Waterloo. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.[32][33]
  • Baxter Springs, Kansas: GAR monument and 163 gravesites in the Baxter Springs City Cemetery[34]
  • Topeka, Kansas: The GAR Memorial Hall at 120 SW 10th Avenue was dedicated May 27, 1914, housed the Kansas State Historical Society until 1995 when the society moved to larger quarters. After restoration, the structure became home to the Attorney General and Secretary of State offices in 2000.[35]
  • Covington, Kentucky: GAR Monument in the Linden Grove Cemetery erected in 1929.[36]
  • Chalmette, Louisiana: Chalmette National Cemetery in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve contains a monument and the graves of approximately 12,000 Union Soldiers from the Civil War[37]
  • Baltimore, Maryland: A sundial at Warren Avenue and Henry Street in the Federal Hill neighborhood was dedicated in 1933.[38]
  • Rockland, Massachusetts: Hartstuff Post 74 was dedicated January 30, 1900. Portions of the wooden structure were restored between 1990 and 1999 and the structure is currently home of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Camp 50.[39]
  • Algonac, Michigan: Bronze statue of a soldier on a granite base was erected in 1905 in Boardwalk Park on St. Clair River Drive.[40]
  • Bay City, Michigan:
    • A monument of Whitney granite on a base of the same was erected in 1893 in Pine Ridge Cemetery in a section dedicated as Soldier's Rest. Pine Ridge Cemetery is located on the SE corner of Tuscola and Ridge Rd[41]
    • In 1902, an 8-inch Howitzer siege gun cannon was added to the Soldier's Rest section of Pine Ridge to guard the soldiers.[42]
  • Detroit, Michigan: Grand Army of the Republic Building was completed in 1890 as a meeting place for the local chapter of the GAR. When membership dwindled in the 1930s, the group deeded the property to the City of Detroit who paid a portion of the construction costs. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and was vacant for many years.[43] In November 2011, the software company Mindfield acquired the building and, through the summer of 2013, spent over $1,000,000 on restoration.[44] In addition to Mindfield, the building now houses an upscale restaurant.[45]
  • Flint, Michigan: Two Parrott rifles occupy the lawn of the Genesee County Courthouse. In 2003, the Governor Henry H. Crapo Camp of SUVCW restored the bases and held a re-dedication ceremony.[46]
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan
    • A zinc fountain depicting a soldier at parade rest atop a carved column was dedicated in 1885 at the intersection of Fulton, Monroe and Division. It was restored and rededicated in October 2003.[47]
    • Oak Hill Cemetery at 1100 Eastern Avenue, SE contains an obelisk and the graves of several members of the Custer Post No. 5.[48]
  • Bemidji, Minnesota: GAR memorial in Greenwood Cemetery.[49]
Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Opera House, Valparaiso, Indiana. c. 1898
A G.A.R. marker at Brush Creek Cemetery, near Irwin, Pennsylvania

State posts

With the exception of Hawaii, every state had GAR "posts" (forerunners of modern American Legion Halls or VFW Halls), even those of the former Confederacy. The posts were made up of local veterans, many of whom participated in local civic events. As Civil War veterans died or were no longer able to participate in GAR activities, posts consolidated or were disbanded.[87] Posts were assigned a sequential number based on their admission into the state's GAR organization, and most posts held informal names which honored comrades, battles, or commanders; it was not uncommon to have more than one post in a state honoring the same individual (such as Abraham Lincoln) and posts often changed their informal designation by vote of the local membership.

Many states held annual encampments based on the national encampment model. These state encampments filled both a social and political function, as state GAR leaders were elected, political platforms voted upon, and veterans' issues were discussed openly. Much like the national organization, state GAR leaders could wield strong political influence.


In popular culture

John Steinbeck's East of Eden features several references to the Grand Army of the Republic. Despite having very little actual battle experience during his brief military career, cut short by the loss of his leg, Adam Trask's father Cyrus joins the GAR and assumes the stature of "a great man" through his involvement with the organization. At the height of the GAR's influence in Washington, he brags to his son:

Later in the book, references are made to the graves of GAR members in California in order to emphasize the passage of time.[88]

Another Nobel Prize winning author, Sinclair Lewis, refers to the GAR in his acclaimed novel Main Street.[89]

Charles Portis's classic novel, True Grit, makes reference to the GAR.[90]

The GAR is briefly mentioned in William Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury.[91]

Willa Cather's short story The Sculptor's Funeral briefly references the GAR.[92]

The GAR is mentioned in the seldom sung second verse of the patriotic song You're a Grand Old Flag.[93]

The GAR is referenced in John McCrae's poem He Is There! which was set to music in 1917 by Charles Ives as part of his cycle Three Songs of the War.[94]

The clone troopers of Star Wars and the army they composed, the Grand Army of the Republic, are both first mentioned in George Lucas's film Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The title of "Grand Army of the Republic" for the clone army appears across various other Star Wars media. This clone army first fought in a war that was also their namesake, the Clone Wars, as the largest military force for the Galactic Republic in a civil war against the Confederacy of Independent Systems, who themselves employed a mass-produced army, the Separatist Droid Army.

In Ward Moore's 1953 alternate history novel Bring the Jubilee, the South won the Civil War and became a major world power while the rump United States was reduced to an impoverished dependence. The Grand Army of the Republic is a nationalistic organization working to restore the United States to its former glory through acts of sabotage and terrorism.[95]

A replica of the USS Kearsarge displayed at the 1893 GAR National Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana

See also


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Further reading

  • Ainsworth, Scott. "Electoral Strength and the Emergence of Group Influence in the Late 1800s The Grand Army of the Republic." American Politics Research 23.3 (1995): 319–338.
  • Dearing, Mary R. Veterans in Politics: The Story of the GAR (1974)
  • Gannon, Barbara A. The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (2011) Online
  • Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (2015)
  • McConnell, Stuart. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865–1900 (U of North Carolina Press, 1997) Online

External links