Grand Army of the Republic Studies
The average age for a Union soldier according to the American Civil War Medical Museum was 25. Many were 15 to 18 and grew up in the defense of our country. They truly were the “Boys in Blue”. With the surrender of General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia to General U.S. Grant on April 9,1865, the War of Rebellion was ended. More than a million men were discharged and returned to civilian life. Most did not want to break the bonds of kinship welded from the shared experiences of war… the idea that they had shared a morsel of food in the prison camp or a few drops of water on the battlefield under scorching heat created familial bonds as close as blood kinship or marriage. Eventually, this reoccurring theme was summed up in the phrase, “ We Drank From the Same Canteen.”
On May 23 and 24, 1865, 150,000 victorious Federal troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC in a Grand Review. Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain captured the mood when he said, “ the pageant has passed. The day is over. But we linger, loathe to think we shall see them no more together – these men, these horses, these Colors afield.”
Many of these young veterans shared the desire to somehow remain together. They wondered who would care for the disabled, the widows and the orphans. And they feared that the South might try to continue the war. Would they need to reorganize as militia to protect the nation.
On April 15,1865, the Union commissioned officers formed the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the US, to serve as an honor guard for President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral, but also to stand ready to defend the nation if Lincoln’s death had been a Confederate plot. The fear was real among both commissioned and enlisted personnel.
Numerous reunion organizations formed shortly thereafter based upon their affiliation with regiments, Corps, Ex -Prisoners of War, affiliation with the navy or one of the armies. Some fought for pension rights or preferred hiring of veterans, some for political reasons and some based upon length of service.
Major Benjamin Franklin Stephenson MD, envisioned a single organization that would include all
Union veterans. This organization was the Grand Army of the Republic.
For over a year, Major Stephenson corresponded with other veterans forsaking his family and medical practice to devote his attention to the formation of the Grand Army of the Republic. On April 6,1866, the first post of the GAR was chartered in Decatur, Illinois. Twelve men were inducted using a secret ritual into this first post. Several months later Post # 2 was formed in Springfield, Illinois.
In November1866, the first national meeting ( called an Encampment) of 228 members was held in Indianapolis with representatives from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, Iowa and the District of Columbia. Stephen Hurlbut was elected the first national commander. Dr. Stephenson was elected Adjutant General. Dr. Stephenson died in 1871 at the age of 49 thus never serving as Commander-in-Chief. While a number of veterans joined, dropped out or died, the Grand Army grew to 409,489 members enrolled in over 7000 posts in June 1890. The three founding principals of the Order were Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty.
Ten veterans were needed to organize a local Post. Membership was simple. A candidate had to be of good moral character, have an honorable discharge from the Union Army stating his military service was between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865 and that he never bore arms against the federal government.
Members addressed each other as Comrades. The exception Posts consisting of largely naval veterans called each other “ Shipmate” . An applicant had to apply and be elected into membership using white and black balls. Twenty percentage black balls would result in rejection of a candidate. He was “ blackballed” and recorded in a “black list”.
In almost all cases, the applicant was a male veteran. However, various other sources state more than a hundred women had posed as male soldiers during the war and some were later accepted into the Grand Army membership.
While most of society was segregated, the Grand Army of the Republic took great pride in freeing an entire race of enslaved men. Thus 180,000 African American soldiers, 20,000 African American sailors and approximately 20,000 Native Americans had fought for the Union and thus were eligible for GAR membership. Some Posts were all white, some were all black or Native American and many were integrated.
A Post was a local chapter and named for a veteran, a political leader like Abraham Lincoln, or the name of their location. In their early days, a Post could be named for an Army Nurse like Mary Bickerdyke who they held in highest accord. Regulations later eliminated the use of women’s name by posts.. Only one post could use the same name within their Department. A number was assigned by the Department.
Departments operated under a charter from the National Organization and consisted of all the Posts located within the state or possibly several neighboring states. A yearly meeting was called the Department Encampment. In between sessions of the Department Encampment, the Department Council of Administration and elected officers could serve as a “Board of Directors”.
Posts were represented in the Department Encampment by the post commander, past post commanders, and elected delegates.
Annually a National Encampment was held to conduct the business of the Order. All authority rested with the decisions of the National Encampment.
Department Commanders, Past Department Commanders, and elected Delegates represented the Departments in this national convention. An elected Council of Administration with elected national officers could serve as a Board of Directors to operate the Order between sessions of the National Encampment.
While there was the Society of the Cincinnati for Revolutionary War Commissioned Officers, a Society of the War of 1812 Veterans and the Aztec Club for Mexican War veterans , no other organization had the impact on society as did the Grand Army of the Republic.
Although politics were strictly forbidden, five Civil War Union officers & GAR members were elected President of the United States: U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.
General John A Logan , Commander-in-Chief of the GAR, established Memorial Day as May 30th as a day to remember veterans who had died. He also created the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.
They fought for veteran’s pensions for all Union veterans who had served at least 90 days
They encouraged the singing of America or the Star Spangled Banner at public assemblies and the flying of the American flag on public buildings and in school classrooms
They were responsible for orphanages in seven states and soldiers homes in 16 states
They regularly visited schools and taught the true history of the Civil War. They often fought the “Lost Cause myths” that have grown in popularity since the GAR ceased to exist in 1949.
While segregation was the standard in most of American society, The Grand Army of the Republic determined by resolution of the National Encampment on August 7,1891 to become the first large interracial society in America.
“This organization, The Grand Army of the Republic, from its birth in Decatur, Illinois, in 1866, to this, its silver encampment, has never turned from its post doors any deserving comrade, however humble, on account of his nationality, creed, or color…..A man who is good enough to stand between the flag and those who would destroy it, when the fate of the nation was trembling in the balance, is good enough to be a comrade in any Department of the Grand Army of the Republic.”
They boycotted ” Birth of the Nation” ‘ a movie that glorified the Confederacy and justified the Ku Klux Klan and demonized African- Americans.
They erected monuments throughout the North in most villages and cities and especially on battle sites.
They fought for battlefield preservation
They created five Allied Orders to carry on their mission when they ceased to exist.
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, The Woman’s Relief Corps, Ladies of the GAR, the Auxiliary to the Sons of Union Veterans and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War
The Grand Army of the Republic held their final national encampment in 1949 with six of the last sixteen members present. All were over 100 years in age and they realized they were about to dissolve. They provided for an orderly closing: sending records, flags and banners to the Smithsonian and Library of Congress. Their final instruction as long as one member lived so would the GAR. Comrade Albert Woolson, the last combat veteran of the Civil War was also the last Union veterans and last member of the GAR died on Aug 2,1956.
Learn More About It
Grand Army Men: The GAR & Its Male Organizations
Grand Army Women : The GAR & its Female Organizations
The Won Cause : Black & White Comradeship in the Grand army of the Republic
Suggest photos of Dr Stephenson
We drank from the same canteen
Maybe final 1949 encampment