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
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
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
Through the years the Library of Congress has acquired and incorporated
into its general collections large numbers of published journals
of the national and state encampments of the GAR. When the national
office of the GAR closed in 1956, its collection of journals was
added to those already donated to the Library. Physical mementos
other than books and publications such as badges, flags, and things
of that sort were donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
Each office of a GAR post or department was responsible for maintaining
its own files. Most of the local records are not available. Selected
ones, however, were ultimately placed in manuscript and archival
repositories. The location of extant GAR records can be determined
by referring to A Guide to Archives and Manuscripts in the
United States, edited by Philip M. Hamer (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1961; CD3022.A45), and the National Union
Catalog of Manuscript Collections (Washington: Library of
Congress, began with 1959/61; ceased with index 1991-1993; Z663.74.A43).
The possible subjects for research in the Grand Army of the Republic
collection in the general collections of the Library of Congress
are many: the founding and growth of veterans' societies; social
aspects and charitable activities of Civil War veterans; the establishment
and development of orphans' and veterans' pensions, and the post-war
political activity of Union veterans. Also, the collection has abundant
information about the basic motivation and attitudes of Union Civil
War veterans. Researchers and scholars can study the organization
and activities of the GAR as a pension lobby. They can trace the
attitudes of Union veterans toward government and the civil service.
Represented in the collection are the general orders, and encampment
proceedings of the national and state departments and published
documents of various posts. These publications highlight the GAR's
inner workings and place them in post-Civil War American culture.