Grand Army of the Republic History

In early 1866 the United States of America — now securely one nation again — was waking to the reality of recovery from war, and this had been a much different war. In previous conflicts the care of the veteran warrior was the province of the family or the community. Soldiers then were friends, relatives and neighbors who went off to fight–until the next planting or harvest. It was a community adventure and their fighting unit had a community flavor.

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.

State and federal leaders from President Lincoln down had promised to care for “those who have borne the burden, his widows and orphans,” but they had little knowledge of how to accomplish the task. There was also little political pressure to see that the promises were kept.

But probably the most profound emotion was emptiness. Men who had lived together, fought together, foraged together and survived, had developed an unique bond that could not be broken. As time went by the memories of the filthy and vile environment of camp life began to be remembered less harshly and eventually fondly. The horror and gore of battle lifted with the smoke and smell of burnt black powder and was replaced with the personal rain of tears for the departed comrades. Friendships forged in battle survived the separation and the warriors missed the warmth of trusting companionship that had asked only total and absolute committment.

With that as background, groups of men began joining together — first for camaraderie and then for political power. Emerging most powerful among the various organizations would be the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which by 1890 would number 409,489 veterans of the “War of the Rebelion.”

Founded in Decatur, Illinois on April 6, 1866 by Benjamin F. Stephenson, membership was limited 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 community level organization was called a “Post” and each was numbered consecutivelly within each department. Most Posts also had a name and the rules for naming Posts included the requirement that the honored person be deceased and that no two Posts within the same Department could have the same name. The Departments generally consisted of the Posts within a state and, at the national level, the organization was operated by the elected “Commandery-in-Chief.”

Post Commanders were elected as were the Junior and Senior Vice Commanders and the members of Council. Each member was voted into membership using the Masonic system of casting black or white balls (except that more than one black ball was required to reject a candidate for membership). When a candidate was rejected, that rejection was reported to the Department which listed the rejection in general orders and those rejections were maintained in a “Black Book” at each Post meeting place. The meeting rituals and induction of members were similar to the Masonic rituals and have been handed down to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

The official body of the Department was the annual Encampment, which was presided over by the elected Department Commander, Senior and Junior Vice Commanders and the Council. Encampments were elaborate multi-day events which often included camping out, formal dinners and memorial events. In later years the Department Encampments were often held in conjunction with the Encampments of the Allied Orders, including Camps of the Sons of Veterans Reserve, which at the time were quasi-military in nature, often listed as a unit of the state militia or national guard.

National Encampments of the Grand Army of the Republic were presided over by a Commander-in-Chief who was elected in political events which rivaled national political party conventions. The Senior and Junior Vice Commander-in-Chief as well as the National Council of Administration were also elected.

The GAR founded soldiers’ homes, was active in relief work and in pension legislation. Five members were elected President of the United States and, for a time, it was impossible to be nominated on the Republican ticket without the endorsement of the GAR voting block.

In 1868, Commander-in-Chief John A. Logan issued General Order No. 11 calling for all Departments and Posts to set aside the 30th of May as a day for remembering the sacrifices of fallen comrades, thereby beginning the celebration of Memorial Day.

With membership limited strictly to “veterans of the late unpleasantness,” the GAR encouraged the formation of Allied Orders to aid them in its 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 Veterans of the United States of America (later to become the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War) as its heir. A similar, but less protracted, battle took place between the Womens’ Relief Corps (WRC) and the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic (LGAR) for the title “official auxiliary to the GAR.” That battle was won by the WRC, which is the only Allied Order open to women who do not have an hereditary ancestor who would have been eligible for the GAR. But in this case the LGAR retained its strength and was made one of the Allied Orders.

Coming along a bit later, the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, similar to the SUVCW but for women, also earned the designation as an Allied Order of the GAR. Rounding out the list of Allied Orders is the Auxiliary to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which is open to women with hereditary ties to a veteran or who is the spouse, sister or daughter of a member of the SUVCW.

The final Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic was held in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1949 and the last member, Albert Woolson, died in 1956 at the age of 109 years.

Source: Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War National Website (

The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies

The development of an organization of Union veterans was the postwar conception of Benjamin Franklin Stephenson of Springfield, Illinois, who had served a two-year enlistment period as surgeon of the Fourteenth Illinois Infantry during the Civil War. The first post, numbering twelve members, was organized and chartered in Decatur, Illinois, on April 6, 1866. By July 12, 1866, when a state convention was held to form the Department of Illinois, thirty-nine posts had been chartered. Interest spread rapidly to adjoining states. Ten states and the District of Columbia were represented at the first national encampment held at Indianapolis on November 20, 1866.

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) quickly became the preeminent veterans' organization formed at the close of the Civil War. Membership reached its peak in 1890, when over 400,000 members were reported. By then the GAR had well over seven thousand posts, ranging in size from fewer than two dozen members in small towns, to more than a thousand in some cities. Almost every prominent veteran was enrolled, including five presidents: Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley.

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."

The organization of the GAR was based upon three objectives: fraternity, charity, and loyalty. The first ideal was encouraged through regular, locally scheduled meetings and joint gatherings with members from other posts. Their "camp-fire" was the most popular activity. Here, a group of comrades sat in their hall or around dinner tables, singing old war songs, recounting wartime experiences, and swapping accounts of their deeds. The annual state and national meetings, called encampments, attracted thousands of members. Cities in twenty-two states from Maine to Oregon hosted the veterans. Railroads offered special discounted rates and scheduled special trains. Many members who wished to relive their war years found quarters in tents.

To promote its second objective, charity, the 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 GAR 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.

The GAR also had a number of auxiliaries: the Woman's Relief Corps (organized on a national basis in 1883); the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic (1896); and the Sons Of Union Veterans of the Civil War (1881). These three organizations along with the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and the Auxiliary to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War still carry on the work begun by the GAR in establishing and improving veterans facilities.

Loyalty, the third ideal, was fostered through constant reminders to those who had not lived through the war of the significance of the GAR 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 GAR 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.

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.

The GAR's principal legacy to the nation, however, is the annual observance of May 30 as Decoration Day, or more recently, Memorial Day. General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the GAR, requested members of all posts to decorate the graves of their fallen comrades with flowers on May 30, 1868. This idea came from his wife, who had seen Confederate graves decorated by Southern women in Virginia. By the next year the observance became well established. Members of local posts in communities throughout the nation visited veterans' graves and decorated them with flowers, and honored the dead with eulogies. The pattern thus set is still followed to the present day. It was only after the first World War, when the aged veterans could no longer conduct observances, that the Civil War character of Decoration Day was replaced by ceremonies for the more recent war dead.

Source: Library of Congress website (



by Bruce Catton, LIFE Magazine, 20 August 1956

The greatest parade in American history has finally come to an end. The Grand Army of the Republic has marched off to join the shadows, and no matter how long the nation exists there will never be anything quite like it again. This chapter in our history has been closed. Something deeply and fundamentally American is gone forever.

For the Grand Army of the Republic was the living link that bound us intimately to the great morning of national youth. As long as the Army existed – even though it was at last embodied in one incredibly old man, who stood alone without comrades – the great da of tragedy and of decision was still a part of living memory. There was an open door into the past, and what we could see through that opening was magically haunted, because everything that was visible there was strangely touched by the light of the future.

Taking a look at what we had been, we could also glimpse what we must some day be. The Civil War, the greatest single experience we ever had, was both an end and a beginning. But when the final handful of dust drifted down on Albert Woolson’s casket, and the last notes of the bugle hung against the sky, the door swung shut. It cannot be reopened.

In the beginning, of course, the Grand Army was simply a collection of old soldiers – very youthful old soldiers, mostly, for the organization was founded in 186, when the average veteran was just ripening into full voting age. But eventually, like the Civil War itself, it came to mean a great deal more than the men who started it ever intended.

What it originally meant was nothing very good. It came into being partly because various ex-soldiers wanted to keep alive the comradeship of army days, but mostly because clever politicians realized that great things could be done with a solid phalanx of war veterans. In no time at all it became and effective action arm for the dominant Republican party.

The Grand Army offered a forum at which vindictive orators could indulge in “waving the bloody shirt,” inviting all patriots who revered the heroes of Chickamauga and Gettysburg to maintain high tariffs, keep the carpetbaggers in power and vote steadfastly against all candidates for office who ran under the banner of the Democratic party. It fought vehemently to win pensions, first for disabled veterans and at last for all men who had ever worn the Union blue. And for two or three decades it had prodigious power.

Along with all of this the Grand Army in its early years was a rowdy, freewheeling vehicle for having fun. Each national encampment turned thousands of men loose for an unrestrained assault on the peace and dignity of some host city. The men may have lacked some of the appliances familiar to veterans of a more modern generation – the electric buzzer mounted on the end of a cane, so stimulating when applied to the posterior of a total stranger, had not yet been invented, and the G.A.R. seems not to have discovered the trick of dropping a paper bag full of water from a hotel window onto a crowded sidewalk – but the boys made out pretty well with the means available.

They had never been distinguished as soldiers for the strictness of their discipline, and he wartime habit of foraging freely on southern farms and plantation smokehouses had led to a rather carefree attitude toward the rights of folk not encompassed in the great brotherhood of arms. A G.A.R. encampment usually gave the citizens something to remember.

But the country matured, and so did the members of the Grand Army of the Republic, and around the turn of the centuryit began to move down the sunset slope. It got away from politics and self-interest and devoted itself, quite simply, to remembering the war – the great days that had been lived, the great things that had been done, the mysterious dedication that had enabled hundreds of thousands of young men to serve something greater than themselves. And at this point a strange change took place.

As the G.A.R.’s political influence died, its moral and emotional influence increased. It became the keeper of a great tradition, and at last it became the tradition itself, the incarnation of the tragedy and the truth that lay behind the shadowed years of the 1860s.

The old age of the Grand Army must have been rather lonely. The Grand Army belonged to a simple, unsophisticated time, and as simplicity departed and sophistication arrived it moved in something like a vacuum. Its home was the small town, the Odd Fellows Hall and the village park, the shaded cemetery with faded little flags waving forlornly among the headstones. When the Army marched it moved slowly to the ragged, inexpert rhythm of the amateur band, and as the ranks thinned year after year it became evident that the men were not so much parading past an observer as moving on toward some mystic goal of fulfillment and reunion in which no one else could share.

The life of the Grand Army men became a series of silent farewells, of Decoration Day observances in the warm May sunlight, of painfully recited tributes “to our departed comrades.” A haze of unreality lay across the present, and only the faraway past spoke with an authentic voice. The men lived in memories and yet in a queer way they seemed almost to live in the future as well, for implicit in all of their observances was some unimaginable get-together over on the other shore. And the younger generation, looking on with tolerant inattention, began to consider these men well-intentioned old bores.

How could it have been otherwise? These old soldiers lived under the strangest conditions men can know. They had reached the very pinnacle of human experience before they were of their ‘teens.

No matter what they might do, once they left off soldiering to become civilians again, nothing could happen to them that would be as stirring and as meaningful as what they had already had. To a man who has lived through a Pickett’s charge- on whichever side of the field – anything else is going to be anticlimax. These men were set apart not merly from their fellows but from life itself by the terrible and unforgettable days of their early youth.

You could see it, in the old days, at any meeting of the Grand Army post. There would be the aged men – stooped, gray men in moderate circumstances whose lives for half a century and more had been bounded by the close limits of the home town or the home county. To all appearances they had never been anywhere, had never done anything. But once, long ago, they had been everywhere and had done everything, and if they seemed detached from most of the things that were going on about them it was because their eyes still saw things that the other people present had not seen and could never quite comprehend.

They spent all of their adult lives in a pathetic isolation. As the Army grew older it came to seem like a mute and oddly unreachable survival of the olden days, forever passing in silent review, forever cut off from real communication with those who were reviewing it.

The change came, along toward the very end, when the past that spoke through these men began to get through to people once more. Here, on the 75th anniversary of the great battle, almost 2,000 Northern and Southern veterans camped once again, as they had 25 years before, on the slanting fields around the historic little Pennsylvania town, shook hands across the chasm of the dead years, and for a few days brought back to life a little of the history they had made.

It was about then that the country began to realize that it possessed in these old men a living tradition that was inexpressibly significant and precious. North and South, they stood for something: something more than just the memory of far-off battles and youthful valor, something that went to the very heart and center of the American experience.

This living tradition, obviously, was all-inclusive. When the old men in blue and gray clasped hands over the low stone wall that runs across Gettysburg’s famous high-watermark ridge, they were not simply winner and loser exchanging sportsmanlike words after a stirring game of tennis. They were men who, 75 years earlier, had tried their level best to kill one another, meeting now in the final twilight with a new perspective on the meaning of their old enmity.

The Grand Army had been wrong, in the old blood shirt days; whatever the high comradeship of the Civil War meant, whatever the war itself meant, with all of its heartbreak and suffering, the United Confederate Veterans belonged in it along with the G.A.R. They were part of the same tradition.

Which was the beginning of wisdom. For it began to be apparent that something more than a romantic swords-and-roses drama lay back of these aging veterans. The Civil War had not been just an incident. In a compelling way it was somehow a continuous process, a permanent possession of the American people, and unlimited experience which had added the enlightening and ennobling element of tragedy to American life. The heritage that derived from it went so far beyond victory or defeat that the words ceased to mean anything. Out of that gigantic struggle the nation had gained a commitment to the future, a commitment which made the old lines of sectional antagonism insignificant.

And as the long parade moved on toward its end the nature of that commitment began to be clear. By fighting the Civil War the nation had unconsciously dedicated itself to two lofty, almost unattainable ideals: to the notion that there must be a unity in human society – that no man is finally an island, that we are members one of another, that our salvation must eventually lie in the striving toward brotherhood – and to the idea that human freedom is something that goes all across the board.

That dual goal will not be reached for a very long time, but the effort to reach it is what gives American life its deepest significance. The obligation to make the effort, and to keep on with it in spite of doubt and discouragement, is the strongest moral force in the world today. It is not by accident that America during the last decades has stood as the world’s great bulwark against the rising tide of dictatorship and oppression. The ability to stand so – the built-in quality that compels us to stand so, and leads free people everywhere to gain new hope and courage because of our stand – was bought in the Civil War. If something was won then, that is what it was. Be it noted, too, that, North and South together, we did not win this from each other; perhaps we won it for each other.

To all of which the last files of the Grand Army might have assented. As the final shadows lengthened and deepened, the old men learned something, and the notion that there had been something in the war that could not be expressed in the simple words “victory” and “defeat” finally came to them.

They would at least have subscribed to the proposition that the Civil War was something to be felt rather than something to be fully understood; and it was in the realm of the emotions that their bannered parade had its greatest impact.

For the Grand Army of the Republic (precisely like the United Confederate Veterans) was above everything else a carrier of emotion. Back of it were the watch fires of a thousand circling camps, the crowds that had lined unpaved streets to cry and cheer as young men went off to war, the swift disillusionment that training camp and route march brought to adolescent innocents who had followed drums and fifes and waving flags, and the bleak boredom of comfortless bivouacs and the quick terror of battle.

What was gained and lost in all of this, and what was paid forit by the young men who lived through it, could never really be totaled up and explained; it could only be felt, and the generations which witnessed the parade of the old soldiers were touched by something beyond the bounds of their own experience. Moved by some inkling of what these old men had felt, and moved even more by the men themselves, we who looked on learned a little more about what America meant, learned to understand at least a little of the tragedy and the incomprehensible splendor of human life.

Now the parade is finished. It began in 1861 and it stopped just the other day, and in one way or another all America moved with it. The last flag has been furled and the last drum-tap has died away, and we have lost something we can never regain. One very old man died, and all of us are made a little more lonely.

Source: LIFE Magazine