GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
MEMORIAL HALL AND MUSEUM
In early 1866 the United States of America - now a secure nation again - was awaking 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, these units had become less homogeneous; men from different communities and even different states had been forced together by the exigencies of battle where new friendships and lasting trusts were 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 also was little political pressure to see that the promises were kept.
For those who were fortunate enough to return home many emotions were experience from happiness to guilt for having survived the war; however, probably one of the most profound emotions expereiced was that of 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 horrors and gore of the battlefield with the smoke and smell of black powder were replaced with the tears for the departed comrades. Friendships forged in battle survived the separation and the veterans 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 the most powerful among the several hundred veterans’ organizations that came into existence would be the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), which by 1890 would number over 400,000 veterans of the “War of the Rebellion.”
The G.A.R. was founded in Decatur, Illinois on April 6, 1866 by Benjamin F. Stephenson. Its membership was limited to honorably discharged veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or the Revenue Cutter Service (forerunner to the Coast Guard) 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 (state) Department. Most Posts also had a name and the rules for their naming 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 consisted of the local Posts within a state and, at the national level; the organization was operated by the elected “Commandery-in-Chief.”
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. National Encampments of the G.A.R. were presided over by a Commander-in-Chief who was elected in political events which rivaled national political party conventions. As with Department Encampments, the Senior and Junior Vice Commander-in-Chief as well as the National Council of Administration also were elected at the National Encampment. During the 90-year existence of the G.A.R. over 10,000 local G.A.R. Post were created, including seven G.A.R. Posts in foreign countries (5 in Canada, 1 in Mexico City and one in Peru). National Encampments were very large sometimes bringing in between 20,000 - 30,000 veterans to the host city for an entire week. Early on during the existence of the G.A.R., United States Presidents often attended and spoke to the membership.
Although designed to be nonpartisan, the G.A.R. became quite influential in terms of national and state politics and legislative matters. Five G.A.R. members were elected President of the United States (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley) and, for a time, it was impossible to be nominated on the Republican ticket without the endorsement of the G.A.R. voting bloc. Within state government, the G.A.R. was even more influential. The G.A.R. founded soldiers’ homes, was active in relief work and in pension legislation.
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 annual celebration of Memorial Day across the country. The G.A.R. also was instrumental in helping to establish the Spanish-American War Veterans, American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign War. In fact, these organizations, in their infancy, often met in conjunction with the G.A.R.
With membership limited strictly to “veterans of the late unpleasantness,” the G.A.R. encouraged the formation of Allied Orders to aid them in its various works. Numerous male organizations jousted for the backing of the G.A.R. and the political battles became quite severe until the G.A.R. finally endorsed the Sons of Veterans, USA (1881 - later  name changed to Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War - S.U.V.C.W.) as its legal heir and official representative. A similar, but less protracted, battle took place between the Woman’s’ Relief Corps (W.R.C. - 1883) and the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic (L.G.A.R. - 1883) for the title “official auxiliary to the G.A.R.” That battle was won by the W.R.C., which is the only Allied Order open to women who do not have a hereditary ancestor who would have been eligible for the G.A.R. But in this case the L.G.A.R. retained its strength and was also made one of the Allied Orders. Coming along later, the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War (1885) also earned the designation as an Allied Order of the G.A.R. Rounding out the list of the five Allied Orders is the Auxiliary to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (1887), which is open to women with hereditary ties to a veteran or who is the spouse, sister, or daughter of a S.U.V.C.W. member.
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.
-----. 2020. Various Records. Michigan’s Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall and Museum, Eaton Rapids, Michigan. Beath, R.B. 1889. History of the Grand Army of the Republic. Bryan Taylor & Company, Publishers, New York, New York. 702p
Cravath, I.M. (Editor and Compiler). 1869. Manual of the Grand Army of the Republic, Containing its Principles and Objects Together with Memorial Day in the Department of Michigan, May 1869, List of Officers, etc. W.S. George & Company Steam Books and Job Printers, Lansing, Michigan. 154p.
G.A.R. 1877. Proceedings of the First to Tenth Meetings 1866 -1876 (Inclusive) of the National Encampment, Grand Army of the Republic with Digest of Decisions, Rules of the Order and Index. Samuel P. Town, Printer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 516p.
G.A.R. 1866. Proceedings of Enlistment & Muster of the Grand Army of the Republic, 1866. Unknown Printer. 13p.
G.A.R. 1866. Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Grand Army of the Republic, Adopted in General Convention at Indianapolis, Indiana, November 23, 1866. Department of Pennsylvania, Head-Quarters at Philadelphia, December 1866. Merrihew & Son Printers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 25p.
G.A.R. 1868. Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Grand Army of the Republic as Revised and Adopted in National Convention. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania January 15, 16, 17, 1868. H.J. Hallgreen, Boston, Massachusetts. 16p.