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 McKinley.
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 federal government.
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 war dead.
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.