Grand Army of the Republic

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This article is about the U.S. veterans organization. For other uses, see Grand Army of the Republic (disambiguation).
Grand Army of the Republic
The Grand Army of the Republic badge. Authorized by the U.S. Congress to be worn on the uniform by Union Army veterans.
Abbreviation G.A.R.
Successor Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
Formation April 6, 1866 (1866-04-06)
Founder Benjamin F. Stephenson
Extinction August 2, 1956 (1956-08-02)
Type Veterans' organization
Purpose Social, literary, historical, benevolent

The "Grand Army of the Republic" (GAR) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army (United States Army), Union Navy (U.S. Navy), Marines and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service who served in the American Civil War for the Northern/Federal forces. Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, and growing to include hundreds of posts (local community units) across the nation, (predominately in the North, but also a few in the South and West), it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member, Albert Woolson (1850–1956) of Duluth, Minnesota, died. Linking men through their experience of the war, the G.A.R. became among the first organized advocacy groups in American politics, supporting voting rights for black veterans, promoting patriotic education, helping to make Memorial Day a national holiday, lobbying the United States Congress to establish regular veterans' pensions, and supporting Republican political candidates. Its peak membership, at more than 490,000, was in 1890, a high point of various Civil War commemorative and monument dedication ceremonies. It was succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), composed of male descendants of Union Army and Union Navy veterans.


After the end of American Civil War, various state and local organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Many of the veterans used their shared experiences as a basis for fellowship. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power. Emerging as most influential among the various organizations during the first post-war years, was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded on April 6, 1866, on the principles of "Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty," in Decatur, Illinois, by Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson.

The GAR initially grew and prospered as a de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. The commemoration of Union Army and Navy veterans, black and white, immediately became entwined with partisan politics. The GAR promoted voting rights for then called "Negro"/"Colored" black veterans, as many white veterans recognized their demonstrated patriotism and sacrifices, providing one of the first racially integrated social/fraternal organizations in America. Black veterans, who enthusiastically embraced the message of equality, shunned black veterans' organizations in preference for racially inclusive/integrated groups. But when the Republican Party's commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, the GAR's mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. The GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many state-centered divisions - named "departments" and local posts ceased to exist.[1]

In his General Order No. 11, dated May 5, 1868, first GAR Commander-in-Chief, General John A. Logan declared May 30 to be Memorial Day (also referred to for many years as "Decoration Day"), calling upon the GAR membership to make the May 30 observance an annual occurrence. Although not the first time war graves had been decorated, Logan's order effectively established "Memorial Day" as the day upon which Americans now pay tribute to all their war casualties, missing-in-action, and deceased veterans. As decades passed, similarly-inspired commemorations also spread across the South as "Confederate Memorial Day" or "Confederate Decoration Day", usually in April, led by organizations of Southern soldiers in the parallel United Confederate Veterans.[2]

In the 1880s, the Union veterans organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating Federal pensions for veterans. As the organization revived, black veterans joined in significant numbers and organized local posts. The national organization, however, failed to press the case for similar pensions for black soldiers. Most black troops never received any pension or remuneration for wounds incurred during their Civil War service.[3]

The GAR was organized into "Departments" at the state level and "Posts" at the community level, and military-style uniforms were worn by its members. There were posts in every state in the U.S., and several posts overseas.[3]

The pattern of establishing departments and local posts was later used by other American military veterans' organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (organized originally for veterans of the Spanish–American War and the Philippine Insurrection) and the later American Legion (for the First World War and later expanded to include subsequent World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Middle Eastern wars).

The G.A.R.'s political power grew during the latter part of the 19th century, and it helped elect several United States presidents, beginning with the 18th, Ulysses S. Grant, and ending with the 25th, William McKinley. Five Civil War veterans and members (Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and McKinley) were elected President of the United States; all were Republicans. (The sole post-war Democratic president was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th chief executive.) For a time, candidates could not get Republican presidential or congressional nominations without the endorsement of the GAR veterans voting bloc.

Reverse of the Grand Army of the Republic Badge.

With membership strictly limited to "veterans of the late unpleasantness," the GAR encouraged the formation of Allied Orders to aid them in 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 Union Veterans of the Civil War as its heir.

Women members[edit]

Although an overwhelmingly male organization, the GAR is known to have had at least two women who were members.

The first female known to be admitted to the GAR was Kady Brownell, who served in the Union Army with her husband Robert, a private in the 1st Rhode Island Infantry at the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia and with the 5th Rhode Island Infantry at the Battle of New Berne in North Carolina. Kady was admitted as a member in 1870 to Elias Howe Jr. Post #3, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The GAR insignia is engraved on her gravestone in the North Burial Ground in Providence, Rhode Island. [4]

In 1897 the GAR admitted Sarah Emma Edmonds served in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a disguised man named Franklin Thompson from May 1861 until April 1863. 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 only a member for a brief period as she died September 5, 1898; however she was given a funeral with military honors when she was reburied in Houston in 1901.[5]

It is possible that other women were members of the GAR as well.

Later years[edit]

The GAR reached its largest enrollment in 1890, with 490,000 members. It held an annual "National Encampment" every year from 1866 to 1949. At that final encampment in Indianapolis, Indiana, the few surviving members voted to retain the existing officers in place until the organization's dissolution; Theodore Penland of Oregon, the GAR's Commander at the time, was therefore its last. In 1956, after the death of the last member, Albert Woolson, the GAR was formally dissolved.[1]

GAR Parade during the 1914 Encampment in Detroit, Michigan

Memorials, honors and commemorations[edit]

There are physical memorials to the Grand Army of the Republic in numerous communities throughout the United States.

U.S. Route 6 is known as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway for its entire length.[6]

The Commemoration of the American Civil War on postage stamps began during the conflict by both sides. In 1948, the Grand Army of the Republic was commemorated on a stamp.[7] In 1951, the U.S. Postal Service printed a virtually identical stamp for the final reunion of the United Confederate Veterans.[8]

State posts[edit]

With the exception of Hawaii, every state had GAR "posts" (forerunners of modern American Legion Halls or VFW Halls), even those of the former Confederacy. The posts were made up of local veterans, many of whom participated in local civic events. As Civil War veterans died or were no longer able to participate in GAR activities, posts consolidated or were disbanded.[9] Posts were assigned a sequential number based on their admission into the state's GAR organization, and most posts held informal names which honored comrades, battles, or commanders; it was not uncommon to have more than one post in a state honoring the same individual (such as Abraham Lincoln) and posts often changed their informal designation by vote of the local membership.

Many states held annual encampments based on the national encampment model. These state encampments filled both a social and political function, as state GAR leaders were elected, political platforms voted upon, and veterans' issues were discussed openly. Much like the national organization, state GAR leaders could wield strong political influence.


In popular culture[edit]

A replica of the USS Kearsarge displayed at the 1893 GAR National Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana

John Steinbeck's East of Eden features several references to the Grand Army of the Republic. Despite having very little actual battle experience during his brief military career, cut short by the loss of his leg, Adam Trask's father Cyrus joins the GAR and assumes the stature of "a great man" through his involvement with the organization. At the height of the GAR's influence in Washington, he brags to his son:

Later in the book, references are made to the graves of GAR members in California in order to emphasize the passage of time.[10]

Sinclair Lewis also refers to the GAR in his acclaimed novel Main Street,[11] as does Charles Portis's classic novel, True Grit,[12] the GAR is briefly mentioned in William Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury.[13] and Willa Cather's short story The Sculptor's Funeral briefly references the GAR.[14]

The GAR is mentioned in the seldom sung second verse of the patriotic song You're a Grand Old Flag.[15]

The GAR is referenced in John McCrae's poem He Is There! which was set to music in 1917 by Charles Ives as part of his cycle Three Songs of the War.[16]

In Ward Moore's 1953 alternate history novel Bring the Jubilee, the Confederates won the Civil War and became a major world power while the rump United States was reduced to an impoverished dependence. The Grand Army of the Republic is the name of a nationalistic organization working to restore the United States to its former glory through acts of sabotage and terrorism.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Knight, Glenn B. "Brief History of the Grand Army of the Republic". Retrieved 2011-01-18. 
  2. ^ John E. Gilman (1910). "The Grand Army of the Republic". Retrieved 2011-03-05. 
  3. ^ a b "A Brief History of the Grand Army of the Republic". Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library. Retrieved 2011-03-05. 
  4. ^ "A female comrade of the Grand Army". New York Herald. 16 September 1870. (subscription required (help)). 
  5. ^ "Sarah Emma Edmonds, Private, December 1841–September 5, 1898". Civil War Trust. Retrieved 2011-06-12. 
  6. ^ Richard F. Weingroff (July 27, 2009). "U.S. 6-The Grand Army of the Republic Highway". Federal Highway Administration. Retrieved 2011-02-14. 
  7. ^ A. Gibson, Gary (1999). "Remembering the Grand Army of the Republic Fifty Years Later". Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Retrieved 2011-03-02. 
    B. "G.A.R. Issue". National Postal Museum. Retrieved Jan 11, 2014. 
  8. ^ "U.S. Stamps 1951". Retrieved 2011-03-02. 
  9. ^ "List of posts and location by department". Library of Congress. 2001. Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  10. ^ "Steinbeck-East of Eden". Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  11. ^ Lewis, Sinclair (12 April 2006). "XXXV". Main Street (PDF). Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 2015-01-06. 
  12. ^ Portis, Charles (5 December 2010). True Grit. New York: Overlook Press. Retrieved 2015-01-16. (subscription required (help)). 
  13. ^ The Sound and the Fury-Glossary. University of Mississippi Press. 1996. p. 54. ISBN 0-87805-936-9. Retrieved 2011-04-20. 
  14. ^ "The Sculptor's Funeral". Classic Reader. Retrieved 2015-01-16. 
  15. ^ George M. Cohan (1906). "You're a Grand Old Flag (Annotated Music)". Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia. New York, NY: F. A. Mills. Retrieved 2013-04-24. 
  16. ^ "He Is There!". Song of America. Retrieved 2011-03-17. 
  17. ^ Moore, Ward (1 January 2009). Bring the Jubilee. Wildside Press. ISBN 978-1434478535. Retrieved 2015-01-16. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Ainsworth, Scott. "Electoral Strength and the Emergence of Group Influence in the Late 1800s The Grand Army of the Republic." American Politics Research 23.3 (1995): 319–338.
  • Cimbala, Paul A. Veterans North and South: The Transition from Soldier to Civilian after the American Civil War (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015). xviii, 189 pp.
  • Dearing, Mary R. Veterans in Politics: The Story of the GAR (1974)
  • Gannon, Barbara A. The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (2011) Online
  • Jordan, Brian Matthew. Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. New York: Liveright, 2015.
  • McConnell, Stuart. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865–1900. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Online
  • Marten, James Alan. Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2011).

External links[edit]