Grand Army of the Republic

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of his army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA.  In earlier conflicts, and indeed, in the early years of the Civil War, neighbors, friends, and relatives went off to fight together and then returned to their community. “By the end of the Civil War, units had become less homogeneous, men from different communities and even different states were forced together by the exigencies of battle where new friendships and lasting trust was forged. With the advances in the care and movement of the wounded, many who would have surely died in earlier wars returned home to be cared for by a community structure weary from a protracted war and now also faced with the needs of widows and orphans. Veterans needed jobs, including a whole new group of veterans–the colored soldier and his entire, newly freed, family. It was often more than the fragile fabric of communities could bear.” As time passed, some soldiers began to romanticize their time in the army, to remember fondly the camaraderie and forget (at least on some level) the harshness. “Friendships forged in battle survived the separation and the warriors missed the warmth of trusting companionship that had asked only total and absolute commitment.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2tFyDUB

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2tFyDUB

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded to address these needs of caring for veterans and to provide companionship. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson (1823-1871), who had served for 2 years as chief surgeon with the 14th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, chartered the organization on April 6, 1866 in Decatur, IL. Eligibility for membership was extended to “honorably discharged veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps or the Revenue Cutter Service who had served between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865.”  (The Revenue Cutter Service is today’s Coast Guard.) The GAR adopted both military and Masonic procedures in its organization, with posts at the local level, departments at the state, and the national organization managed by a commander-in-chief. “The GAR uniform was a double-breasted, dark blue coat with bronze buttons, and a black wide-brimmed slouch felt hat, with golden wreath insignia and cord. A bronze star badge hung from a small chiffon flag. The star in relief depicted a soldier and sailor clasping hands in front of a figure of Liberty. Members wore these insignia in their lapels, so they could be easily identified. This led to them being sarcastically termed “bronze button heroes.” They referred to each other as “comrade.”” Annual national gatherings were called encampments. The first and last (83 in total) encampments were held in Indianapolis.

At its peak in 1890, the GAR had nearly 410,000 members and could eventually claim U.S. presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley as members.  It was very, very influential–it was even said that a president could not be elected without GAR support. “In its early days, the GAR limited its activities merely to fraternal activities. But soon, members began discussing politics in local gatherings. A growing interest in pensions signaled the beginning of open GAR participation in national politics. The rank and file soon realized the value of presenting a solid front to make demands upon legislators and congressmen. The GAR became so powerful that the wrath of the entire body could be called down upon any man in public life who objected to GAR-sponsored legislation.  In 1862 President Lincoln approved a bill granting pensions for soldiers who received permanent disability as a result of their military service. An 1879 act was liberalized to include conditions of payment. After that, the GAR became a recognized pressure group. The fate of some presidential elections was dependent upon the candidate’s support of GAR-sponsored pension bills. President Grover Cleveland was defeated for re-election in 1888 in large part because of his veto of a Dependent Pension Bill. President Benjamin Harrison was elected because of his definite commitment to support pension legislation. The Disability Pension Act of 1890, insured a pension to every veteran who had ninety days of military service and some type of disability, not necessarily incurred during or as a result of the War. Since most ex-soldiers were at least middle aged, the act became an almost universal entitlement for every veteran. For many decades the federal Government paid claims to all Union veterans of the Civil War and their survivors.” Eventually this led to push back by those who believed that the GAR was fully in bed with the Republican Party. The press, in the person of Horace Greeley and his New York Tribune, among others, castigated the GAR for inflaming hatreds from the war that would serve to disrupt/delay/prevent national reconciliation. GAR membership dropped until the organization wisely decided to forego its political agenda and focus solely on the ideals of charity and loyalty. “Veterans set up a fund for the relief of needy veterans, widows, and orphans. This fund was used for medical, burial and housing expenses, and for purchases of food and household goods. Loans were arranged, and sometimes the veterans found work for the needy. The G.A.R. was active in promoting soldiers’ and orphans’ homes; through its efforts soldiers’ homes were established in sixteen states and orphanages in seven states by 1890. The soldiers’ homes were later transferred to the federal government.  Loyalty… was fostered through constant reminders to those who had not lived through the war of the significance of the G.A.R. in reuniting a divided nation. The organization spent much of its time soliciting funds for monuments and memorials, busts and equestrian statues of Union soldiers and heroes, granite shafts, tablets, urns, and mounted cannon. The G.A.R. also encouraged the preservation of Civil War sites, relics, and historic documents. Cannons and field-pieces were placed in many towns or courthouse squares and parks. The members also gave battle-stained flags, mementos, and documents to local museums. “Below is local evidence of these memorial commemorations—this bas relief of the flag and eagle emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic is part of the pediment for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum at 350 Court Street. The coliseum was built in c. 1916-1917 to honor local veterans of both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War.

MSS 184-0159

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum statues in Evansville, Indiana, 1970. Source: Brad Awe collection (MSS 184-0159).

The primary legacy of the GAR that still impacts us today is Memorial Day.  In 1868, GAR Commander-in-Chief John A. Logan asked that all GAR posts decorate the graves of lost comrades with flowers to honor them and celebrate their sacrifice. May 30 was chosen because that was not an anniversary of a specific battle, and the original observance was called Decoration Day. It was not until 1971 when it became a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May, but by then the tradition was long established, although the name did morph from Decoration Day to Memorial Day over the years.  The end of WWI brought about a wider outlook to the holiday for a couple of reasons.  First, there were no longer a sufficient number of Civil War veterans to perform these ceremonies, and second, there were 116,516 American lives lost in World War I who were clearly worthy of honor (International Encyclopedia of the First World War online). World War I was unfortunately not the “war to end all wars,” so the celebration of Memorial Day continues. Here are two photos from GAR gatherings, the first on Memorial Day.

MSS 012-003

1888 Memorial Day gathering of GAR members in Nashua, NH. Source: Henry Shafer collection (MSS 012-003).

Undated gathering of Evansville GAR members. The man in the back row with an X over his head is believed to be August F. Illiing (1848-1917), a 4-time president of the Germania Maennerchor and colloquially known as the “mayor of Lamasco.” (Lamasco is a portion of the west side originally founded as a separate city but in 1857 incorporated into Evansville.)

Undated gathering of Evansville GAR members. The man in the back row with an X over his head is believed to be August F. Illiing (1848-1917), a 4-time president of the Germania Maennerchor and colloquially known as the “mayor of Lamasco.” (Lamasco is a portion of the west side originally founded as a separate city but in 1857 incorporated into Evansville.)

John Christian Adams, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2R0hE79

John Christian Adams, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2R0hE79

The Indiana Department of the GAR began in 1866 at the instigation of Governor Oliver P. Morton. In the early 1870’s membership declined precipitously until there was only one post in Spencer County, which also soon folded.  The year 1879 saw a revival with 12 posts chartered, and with interest once again engaged, eventually every county had at last one post, with a state total of 592. Indianapolis had 8 of these. As was true on the national level, membership peaked 1889-1890. Indiana Civil War veterans served in a number of national posts, including 4 Commanders-in-Chief. The last Indiana GAR member was John Christian Adams (1847-1949) who died at the age of 101 in Jonesboro, IN. A West Virginia native, he served as drummer boy in Company C, 17th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry, from August 31, 1864 to June 30, 1865.

Evansville’s longest lasting (1881-1936) GAR post was Farragut Post No. 27 (The post was named for Admiral David Farragut, U.S. Navy, probably best known for purportedly saying, at the Battle of Mobile Bay, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”). One of the charter members of this post was William A. Warren, 1842-1937. Warren was a member of Company F, 24th Indiana Volunteers, fought in the battle at Shiloh in 1862, and lost an arm near Vicksburg in 1863. He was the next to the last surviving member of this post.  Warren’s picture is seen below. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery here in Evansville.

William A. Warren in Evansville, IN, 1876. Source: Schlamp-Meyer Family collection (MSS 157-0051).

William A. Warren in Evansville, IN, 1876. Source: Schlamp-Meyer Family collection (MSS 157-0051).

4. Sarah Edmonds

Headshot of Sarah Edmonds, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2FwDev2

As you might expect, GAR membership was overwhelmingly male, but not exclusively.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was only woman known to have been admitted to full membership in the G.A.R., because she had served in the 2nd Michigan Infantry disguised as a man named Franklin Thompson from May 1861 until April 1863, and continued to live as a man in the post war period. 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 a member until she died September 5, 1898, and was given a funeral with military honors when she was reburied in Houston in 1901. A small number of women who had served as volunteer nurses during the war were awarded ‘honorary’ membership, including the war time nurse Clara Barton. The official war time Army nurse corps formed its own veterans’ organization called the Association of Army Nurses, founded in Philadelphia. The Army Nurses met along with the Grand Army men at department and national ‘encampments,’ but were not accepted as official members.” Two more auxiliaries for women were established in the 1880’s—the Woman’s Relief Corps in 1883 and the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1896. There were also organizations for daughters and sons of veterans.

Caucasian men and women were not the only ones who fought in the Civil War.  In 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and authorized the raising of black regiments (See the October 10, 2018 blog to learn more about one of these regiments).  “By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy. Nearly 40,000 black soldiers died over the course of the war—30,000 of infection or disease. Black soldiers served in artillery and infantry and performed all noncombat support functions that sustain an army, as well. Black carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause. There were nearly 80 black commissioned officers.”  Long before any civil rights efforts, African American Civil War veterans were fully accepted in the GAR.  In her book, The Won Cause, Barbara Gannon says, “Black and white veterans were able to create and sustain an interracial organization in a society rigidly divided on the color line because the northerners who fought and lived remembered African Americans’ service in a war against slavery.  While there were some controversies involving African American GAR membership in southern states, most white veterans accepted black Americans, and these men participated in the GAR’s political life at the state level.  At the local level, some black veterans created their own posts, and other members of the African American community helped sustain them; black women in the GAR’s auxiliary organizations, for example, presented a critical element in a black GAR “circle.”  Despite poverty and illiteracy, African Americans maintained their all-black GAR posts well into the twentieth century, demonstrating the importance of these institutions to the entire community.  In a nation in which black Americans, either male or female, had precious little autonomy, they had it in the world they made within this interracial organization. … African Americans also belonged to integrated posts, challenging the notion that the GAR was segregated” (Gannon, p. 5-6).  There were at least two Native American GAR posts, too.

5. Albert Woolson

Headshot of Albert Woolson, n.d.

Any organization whose membership is based on participation in a specific historic event is bound to have a finite lifespan, and so it was with the GAR. The 83rd and final national encampment was held in Indianapolis in 1949, with only 6 GAR members able to attend. Most, if not all, were in wheelchairs, and the combined age of those in attendance was more than 611 years. An article in the Indiana Evening Gazette, Indiana, PA, on August 22, 1949 noted, “Of the 3,500,000 men who comprised the Union Army, there are believed to be only 23 still living.”  In attendance was 100-year-old Commander in Chief Theodore A. Penland, who was almost 16 when he left Goshen, IN to join the Union Army. The Grand Army of the Republic officially dissolved in 1956 with the death of Albert Woolson at age 109, the last officially listed survivor of the Union forces.  According to his Find-a-Grave entry, he was the son of a Union soldier who died of wounds received at the Battle of Shiloh. He enlisted as a Drummer Boy in Company C, 1st Minnesota Volunteer Heavy Artillery in October 1864. The unit performed garrison frontier duty, and never saw action during the war. He was honorably discharged on September 7, 1865. (NOTE: there is some discrepancy about his birth date—1847 or 1850?).

The work and legacy of the Grand Army of the Republic continues through its legal successor, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “In 1881 the GAR formed the Sons of Veterans of the United States of America (SV) to carry on its traditions and memory long after the GAR had ceased to exist. Membership was open to any man who could prove ancestry to a member of the GAR or to a veteran eligible for membership in the GAR. In later years, men who did not have the ancestry to qualify for hereditary membership, but who demonstrated a genuine interest in the Civil War and could subscribe to the purpose and objectives of the SUVCW, were admitted as Associates. This practice continues today.

In Evansville, the GAR met at the Coliseum, and many of its documents remained there.  “The problem is that the Coliseum is a drafty, old building and not the proper place to store historical documents. A couple of years ago, a group called the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War complained that the documents and artifacts were going to be lost. A deal was brokered between that group, Vanderburgh County officials, the county veteran’s council and USI to move some of the documents to USI for preservation and storage.” In October 2019, USI archivist, Jennifer Greene, and graduate assistant, Alex Hall, went “Coliseum-diving” and brought many documents back to USI. It will be several years before this material can be archived, restored, and digitized and accessible to the public. Who knows what treasures await discovery?

Resources Consulted:

Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War.  Educator Resources, National Archives.

Gannon, Barbara A.  The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.   E462.1.A7 G36 2011  also available electronically: ebrary Academic Complete  Online Access

The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies.  Library of Congress.

Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Records Project. Indiana.  Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Grand Army of the Republic History.  Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War National Headquarters.

Waskie, Anthony.  “The Grand Army of the Republic.”  Essential Civil War Curriculum: Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

This entry was posted in American history, Civil War, Local history. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Grand Army of the Republic

  1. wabashcountymuseumillinois says:

    Wonderful informative article. We have a few pieces of memorabilia from the GAR and Women’s Relief Corps at the Wabash County Museum. The local GAR was named for T.S. Bowers, the local newspaper editor before the war, who became an aide de camp to Grant who was killed just after the war trying to board a moving train after retrieving a bag left at the rail station at West Point, NY. He was a great friend of the Grant family and Grant had a large memorial built at the burial site at West Point.

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