A Brief History
of the
Grand Army of the Republic

In early 1866 the United States was awakening to the reality of recovery from 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 a 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 commitment.

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 almost 500,000 veterans of the "War of the Rebellion."

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 consecutively within each Department, usually representing a state or region. 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 "Commander-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 bloc.

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 Women’s' 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 a 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.

A Brief History of the Grand Army of the Republic

After the Civil War had ended and the soldiers who survived the war had gone home, some of these veterans began to miss the friendships and camaraderie that they had shared during the war. Veterans’ clubs began to spring up all around the country. Many were local and most did not last very long, but a few went on to become nationwide organizations. One of these was the Grand Army of the Republic.

The Grand Army of the Republic, often referred to as the G.A.R., was founded at Decatur, Illinois on April 6, 1866. Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson founded the organization on the three cardinal principles of Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty and these principles guided the G.A.R. throughout its existence. To become a member of the Grand Army a man must have served in the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Revenue Cutter Service (today’s United States Coast Guard) between April 9, 1861 and April 12, 1865. He must have been honorably discharged from the service and have never taken up arms against the United States of America.

Local organizations were called Posts and it was to a Post that a man applied for membership in the G.A.R. The Comrades or members of the Post would vote to accept or reject each applicant and if a man was rejected from one Post he was banned from joining the organization. Posts from a state or region joined together to form Departments and the Departments formed the National Organization. At each level the three primary offices were Junior Vice Commander, Senior Vice Commander, and Commander. For the National Organization the term “in-Chief” was added to each of these titles. Departments and the National Organization held conventions called Encampments each year. Encampments were the ruling bodies of the G.A.R. and delegates would decide the business of the organization at these meetings.

What started as a veterans and fraternal organization evolved into a potent political force? The process started when Gen. John A. Logan was elected Commander-in-Chief in 1867. Gen. Logan is best remembered as the man who established May 30 as Memorial Day. His General Order Number 11, which created Memorial Day, is still read every year during many communities’ Memorial Day services.

The Grand Army’s political power grew during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century and it helped elect several United States Presidents beginning with Ulysses S. Grant and ending with William McKinley. In all six (6) post-war presidents were members of the Grand Army. By 1890 when the G.A.R. was reaching its peak years the membership of the organization reached almost 500,000 veterans.

As the veterans of the Civil War began to pass on, the membership of the Grand Army slowly dwindled away. Col. Samuel P. Town the last original member of Post #2, Philadelphia, the antecedent organization of the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library, passed away in 1937. The G.A.R. held its last National Encampment at Indianapolis, Indiana in 1949. Six surviving Comrades attended that Encampment. The last member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Albert Woolson, who died in 1956, was 107 years old.

The traditions of the Grand Army did not die with Comrade Woolson. Five Allied Orders of the Grand Army of the Republic were founded in the Nineteenth Century to carry on the work and traditions of the G.A.R. and these organizations are still actively carrying on the traditions of the old Comrades of the Grand Army. The five Allied Orders are Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Auxiliary to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Woman’s Relief Corps, Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic. Each organization welcomes new members and each has specific requirements for membership. Information about each organization can be obtained by consulting the Sons of Union Veterans website at www.suvcw.org and then proceeding to the link for each organization.

The members of the Allied Orders and the G.A.R. Museum carry on the legacy of the Grand Army and the Union Veterans of the Civil War. We invite you to join us to help preserve this legacy for our Nation and future generations. For if a Nation forgets its heritage it forgets everything. “Lest We Forget!”

The history of the GAR was first formalized in 1888, in Commander-in-Chief Robert Beath's History of the GAR and from this source you can trace the various versions that were extracted and published through the years. Dr. B.F. Stephenson founded the GAR in 1866. Dr. Stephenson established the first Post in a printing office at Decatur, Illinois, because this group of veterans were about to print his constitution and he wanted them to become members before seeing the document.

The Department of Illinois was the first to be established, and during the first encampment of this department many veterans from surrounding states attended. The organization spread quickly, and soon posts were formed from Mass. to California. Dr. Stephenson was not elected National Commander at the first National Encampment, Indianapolis,1866, but his early correspondence clearly shows he assumed the position prior to this encampment, as letters were signed, B.F. Stephenson, Commander of the G.A.R.U.S..

General John A. Logan was elected Commander-in-Chief in 1869, moving the National Headquarters to Washington, D.C.

The GAR almost disappeared during the early 1870's, and many departments ceased to exist. About 1875, new leadership provided the platform for renewed growth. In 1890, the GAR reached its largest membership, with close to 500,000 members and in 1949; six surviving members permanently closed the GAR. During the active years of the GAR, the organization had a great influence on politics, law, and social areas of the United States. Memorial Day was established as a national holiday, five Presidents were elected that were GAR members, most of the Governors in the northern states were members, and veteran pensions were given to the Union veterans. Over one fifth of the national budget went toward veteran pensions at one point. The National Encampments were yearly meetings that had attendance of over 25,000 veterans in 1890’s. In many cases it was impossible to be elected to public office if you were not a veteran of the Civil War. The GAR membership was often reminded that politics were not to be a part of the organization, but politics was a major issue throughout the history of the GAR.

Department of Pennsylvania G.A.R. Memorial day Services Ritual Manual

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