Grand Army of the Republic

Shown here: Grand Army of the Republic and Ladies of the GAR. Daughters of Union Veterans. Sons of Union Veterans and Ladies Auxiliary to the SUV. Women's Relief Corps. The officer insignia (lower left) are medal hangers.

History of the Grand Army of the Republic - GAR

The history of the GAR has been told many times. The history was first formalized,1888, in Robert Beath's History of the GAR and from this source you can trace the various short versions that were extracted and published over and over. Recently the papers of the founder, Dr. B.F. Stephenson, were uncovered. These papers were not available when the Beath history was written, because Beath assumed all of Dr. Stephenson's papers were burned by his wife, following Stephenson's death in 1871. Beath had few of the early GAR headquarter papers because the records up to 1868 "were in an imperfect condition" when turned over to Adjutant-General Chipman, and during a great fire in Boston, 1872, all the books and records up to that time were burned. The discovery of the Stephenson papers and the original letter-book of the GAR, in Stephenson's own hand, has given new insight into the early history of this great union veteran organization.

Dr. B.F. Stephenson founded the GAR in 1866. The author is convinced he was alone in it's concept, using many friends to proof read his organizational papers and constitution and to lend guidance. The story of Rev. Rutledge, as a co-founder, described by Beath, is without merit. The name of Rev. Rutledge does not appear in any of the early papers or letters. Dr. Stepenson's daughter Mary, in her book about her father, also discredits the Rutledge story. Dr. Stephenson established the first Post in a printing office at Decatur, Illinois, because this group of veterans were about to print his constitution and he wanted them to become members before seeing the document.

The Department of Illinois was established, and during the first encampment of this department many veterans from surrounding states attended. The organization spread quickly, and soon posts were formed from Mass. to California. Dr. Stephenson was not elected National Commander at the first National Encampment, Indianapolis,1866, but his early correspondence clearly shows he assumed the position prior to this encampment, as letters were signed, B.F. Stephenson, Commander of the G.A.R.U.S..

General Logan was elected Commander-in-Chief in 1869, moving the National Headquarters to Washington, D.C. At this point, Dr. Stephenson's influence had diminished, and the distance between him and the circle of influence in Washington, almost eliminated him from the GAR . He had moved back to Petersburg, Illinois, re-establishing an old practice and taking care of his parents. Both his mother and father passed away during this time and certainly dominated his attention. Dr. Stephenson was also in poor health, having financial problems with a loss of his investments, and local debts mounting. In his papers are letters pleading for more time to pay debts and a note of foreclosure from the sheriff. The sheriff was about to take his horse and buggy, and other property. In one letter, Dr. Stephenson asked that they might show some mercy, and let him keep his horse and buggy, as they were necessary to the practice. This transfer of power from the founder and those around him, to politicians in Washington, is one of the most important changes in the organization's history. This is a significant change during the early years of the GAR.

The GAR almost disappeared during the early 1870's, and many departments ceased to exist. About 1875, new leadership provided the platform for renewed growth. In 1890, the GAR reached it's largest membership, just over 490,000 members and in 1949, six surviving members permanently closed the GAR. During the active years of the GAR, the organization had a great influence on politics, law, and social areas of the United States. Memorial Day was established as a national holiday, five Presidents were elected that were GAR members, most of the Governors in the northern states were members, and veteran pensions were given to the union veterans. Over one fifth of the national budget went toward veteran pensions at one point. The National Encampments were yearly meetings that had attendance of over 25,000 veterans in 1890, 91 and 92. In many cases it was impossible to be elected to public office if you were not a veteran of the Civil War. The GAR membership was often reminded that politics were not to be a part of the organization, but politics was a major issue throughout the history of the GAR. Mary Dearing wrote the book Veterans in Politics in the mid 1950's, and it stands as the definitive work on veteran political activities.

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