Him who shall have borne the battle

Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
Six weeks after the surrender at Appomattox, the Union soldiers who had triumphed in the Civil War participated in a two-day victory parade through the nation’s capital city. This Grand Review of the Armies lasted for two days and was attended by top northern leaders, from the President on down. It included soldiers from the eastern army on its first day and the western army on its second, May 24, 1865. Included among both groups, but more so the second, were thousands of soldiers from Illinois who had worn the blue uniform and done their part to save the republic.

In the case of some of them, it had been four long years of struggle and sadness. Others had been in the army for shorter terms. But for those who survived the war, the Grand Review was a celebratory end to what many would consider their life’s greatest adventure. For most, it also marked their last days as soldiers, as the nation and the states would muster out hundreds of thousands of volunteers over the coming weeks and return the regular army to its much smaller pre-war size.

As with the conclusion of any war, the soldiers were happy to be returning to homes and families, but also sad to leave behind old comrades alongside whom they had lived and fought for so long. It turned out, however, that they didn’t have to.

Unlike the modern Army in which soldiers from every part of the nation come together to form units, the structure of the Union Army in the Civil War was much different. State-based regiments often broke down into county-based companies, meaning that if you were a soldier in the Civil War there was a good chance that the soldiers in line of battle on either side of you were from the same home town as you. Now these men who had fought together were returning home together.

Friendships formed under fire proved to be enduring as the soldiers came home, and as the first anniversary of Appomattox approached in 1866, a group of these veterans in Decatur, Illinois, formed a fraternal group known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, a Springfield physician who had been surgeon of the 14th Illinois Infantry Regiment since the battle of Shiloh, organized the first chapter, or Post, of the GAR.

A group which would become one of the largest and most politically-powerful organizations in America began with a dozen Illinois veterans meeting in Decatur.

The idea of a formal group to advocate on behalf of veterans of the war, as well as an organization to allow these veterans to re-connect and swap stories, soon caught on in a big way. Their motto of “Fraternity, Charity, Loyalty” struck a chord with the soldiers. Posts soon sprang up all across Illinois, and the first statewide encampment of the GAR was held in Springfield that July. By then there were 39 GAR posts in the state. The first national encampment met in Indianapolis later that year.

Stephenson did not live to see the GAR become the force it would be later in the century. He died in 1871 in Menard County, and is buried in Petersburg’s Rose Hill Cemetery where the local GAR chapter took up a collection for a monument in his honor.

Meanwhile, the GAR grew from its Illinois roots to become a nationwide organization.

In his second inaugural address in March 1865, President Abraham Lincoln had promised that the nation would, “care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.” In the late 1860s, the soldiers of the GAR set about ensuring that the martyred president’s successors kept that promise.

GAR posts around the country organized themselves into regional or statewide departments and councils, then elected officers to the national body. Illinois Congressman and retired General John A. Logan of Murphysboro was the first Commander-in-Chief of the organization.

Under Logan’s leadership, the GAR fought for the rights of veterans of the war, building facilities known as “Soldiers Homes” for wounded veterans and lobbying Congress for veterans’ pensions. It was through the framework of the GAR that Logan issued his General Order Number 11 which called for the commemoration we now know as Memorial Day.

The GAR also fought for voting rights for African-Americans. Union soldiers recalled the bravery of the African-Americans who served in the Union Army and who fought so hard to save the republic. Their efforts culminated in the adoption of the 15thAmendment in 1870.

Membership in the GAR included any honorably discharged United States veteran, whether that veteran served in the Army, Navy, Marines or the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of today’s U.S. Coast Guard. Veterans from up and down the ranks of the Union joined, Generals and Privates alike. Soon the organization included men from all walks of life, farmers, business leaders, factory workers and political leaders.

GAR Members from Moweaqua.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
By the 1880s there were GAR posts in every state in the nation, including groups of Union veterans now residing in the south. GAR members were easy to spot, as they proudly wore a bronze star lapel pin, which led to the nickname “Bronze Button Heroes.” GAR members would greet fellow veterans as “comrade.”

In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant took the oath of office as the 18th President of the United States. He would be the first of four GAR members to sit in the Oval Office, though he would wait until he left office to formally join the organization. By the 1870s, the GAR was such a force that it was said to be impossible to obtain the Republican nomination without its support.

The GAR is also known to have admitted at least two female veterans to its ranks. Kady Brownell, who fought alongside her husband in the 1st and later the 5th Rhode Island, was believed to be the first female veteran to become a part of the GAR in 1870. Sarah Emma Edmonds of Michigan, who had fought for the Union for two years while disguised as a man, was admitted in 1897.

By the 25th anniversary of the end of the war, the GAR had almost 410,000 members, its peak membership. Illinois led the nation in the number of GAR posts with close to 800 out of 7000 nationwide. But time began to take its toll on the ranks of veterans. In 1896 and again in 1900, William McKinley, of GAR Post #25 in Canton, Ohio, was elected President of the United States, the last GAR member to hold the office.

Gradually, the graying ranks of veterans thinned as the years went on, though the annual encampments and parades continued into the 20th century. GAR veterans marched in Cincinnati in 1930, and some were even on hand in 1938 as President Franklin Roosevelt formally accepted a monument marking the 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

When Bloomington’s GAR post closed in 1936, the only veteran present at the ceremony was the 95-year-old post commander Joseph Fifer, a former Illinois Governor known as Private Joe for his heroism on the battlefield as an enlisted soldier at Vicksburg.

With the numbers of those able to offer first-hand recollections of the Civil War in sharp decline, the remaining members of the GAR set about working to establish the group’s legacy. A book entitled Camp Fire Chats had been published in 1888. It was compiled from stories shared by veterans at GAR encampments in the mid-1880s to record some of the many stories from the war. A successor organization was formally recognized, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, to carry on the mission. The GAR’s organizational model was picked up by veterans of future conflicts when they formed the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The last GAR encampment was held in Indianapolis in 1949. The final GAR member was Albert Woolson of Duluth, Minnesota who passed away in 1956, the last veteran of the Union Army.

Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson Memorial
in Washington DC.
Monuments to the GAR began appearing in cities and towns throughout the nation. In Illinois, these monuments include the Grand Army of the Republic Hall in Aurora and the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum in Springfield. A sundial on the north lawn of the Capitol just across the circle drive was placed in honor of the GAR by the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War during a GAR encampment in 1940.

Countless Illinois cemeteries, from Chicago to Watseka to Murphysboro have set aside sections for GAR members and their families. Dr. Stephenson is honored with a GAR memorial outside the National Archives building in Washington DC. Driving across northern Illinois on U.S. Highway 6, a motorist will notice signs designating it as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway.

These are among the many tributes which stand to the organization of men and women who answered Abraham Lincoln’s call to save the Union, and then dedicated more than half a century to keeping his promise of caring for veterans and families of the fallen.