Veterans Organizations

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Veterans Organizations

The American Civil War, like many other wars, created a bond of brotherhood between the men who fought it. Comradery formed from shared privation, fear of battle, and the boredom of camp life helped soldiers cope with the war. Understandably, when the conflict ended former soldiers formed veterans' organizations to remember the fallen, record their history, and support one another during the peace. Eventually two levels of organizations were formed: local groups that usually focused on participation in a local regiment during the war, and national organizations.

Veterans began to establish regimental associations for the purpose of "strengthening and preserving those kind and fraternal feelings which bound soldiers together" (Wittenberg 2007, pp. 238–239). These associations also were intended to help former comrades-in-arms who needed "help and protection, and to extend needful aid to the widows and orphans of our comrades who have fallen in the discharge of our duties" (Wittenberg 2007, pp. 238–239). In addition to these local organizations, a national, centralized organization was needed to bring veterans together and serve as a political tool for veterans' benefits.

The largest and best-known Union veterans' organization was the Grand Army of the Republic. In 1866, the former army surgeons Benjamin Franklin Stephenson and William Rutledge founded Post 1 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in Decatur, Illinois, to reunite men who formed the "greatest comradeship that ever knit men together" (Wilson 1905, pp. 9–15). Unlike regimental associations, which tended to be in a particular city or county, chapters of the GAR could be found coast to coast, allowing veterans who had relocated since the end of the war to join a veterans' organization. The GAR quickly became the largest veterans' group in the country, necessitating the formation of state departments and a national head (a structure similar to the Union army's). The large influx of members was due to the GAR's role in veterans' affairs. Since its formation, the GAR had kept tabs on state and national legislation affecting veterans' pensions. Its large membership commanded the attention of savvy politicians, and as a result GAR proposals were "adopted by Congress to a very great extent" (Miller 1911, pp. 294–296).

In addition to the GAR, there was a national veterans' organization made up of former Union officers. Like the Order of Cincinnati, which was formed by American officers immediately after the Revolution, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS) was formed just days after the assassination of President Lincoln, amid rumors of conspiracies to destroy the federal government. The original purpose of MOLLUS was to thwart any attempts to overturn the government, but over time, the organization evolved to promote the same objectives advanced by the regimental associations and the GAR. Membership was restricted to commissioned officers who had served honorably in the war, their sons or heirs, and "gentlemen who, in civil life, during the Rebellion, were specially distinguished for conspicuous and constant loyalty to the National Government" (Military Order of the Loyal Legion 1909, p. 11).

There was no national organization for former Confederate soldiers until 1889. Confederate veterans in some states, most notably Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana, had formed state-level organizations but like their regimental counterparts, these organizations had little influence except in particular geographic areas. In addition to state organizations, Confederate veterans had created associations based on the regiments in which they had served. In order to meld all these local units into a national organization, Colonel J. F. Shipp proposed "a general organization of Confederates on the order of the Grand Army of the Republic" (Miller 1911, p. 296). Shipp's proposal circulated all over the South, and at a meeting in New Orleans on June 10, 1889, it was agreed to create the United Confederate Veterans (UCV). All pre-existing organizations were folded into the UCV, which was modeled after the GAR and had the same organizational objectives—fraternity and help with veterans' benefits. The first national encampment of Civil War veterans occurred July 3–5 in Chattanooga, with "reunion invitations extended 'to veterans of both armies and to citizens of the Republic,' and the dates purposely included Independence Day (Miller 1911, p. 298). The UCV's constitution forbade "discussion of political or religious subjects nor any political action shall be permitted in the organization, and that any association violating that provision shall forfeit its membership" (Miller 1911, p. 298).

Aside from the UCV, another, informal, national Confederate organization existed. In 1893 Sumner A. Cunningham established the Confederate Veteran, a monthly journal that was "intended as an organ of communication between Confederate soldiers and those who are interested in them and their affairs" (Confederate Veteran Magazine 1988, p. 1). The journal provided a forum in which Confederate veterans could relate stories from the war and also read about the successes and failures of other Confederate veteran groups across the South. Publication of the Confederate Veteran was discontinued after 1932 because there were few veterans still living.

As the early twentieth century progressed there were fewer and fewer Civil War veterans left. The GAR, which had more than 400,000 members at its height in the decade 1880–1890, by 1910 had been reduced to just over 200,000 members. It finally faded out of existence in 1956. Sensitive to their own mortality, GAR members believed that someone should continue to honor Civil War soldiers after they had passed on, so in 1881 the GAR had established the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, which evolved into the present-day Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW). Likewise, the UCV, which faded into history in 1951, had created in 1896 an organization similar to the SUVCW to carry on their memory, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Both the SUVCW and SCV are the direct descendents of the Civil War veteran organizations.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beath, Robert B. History of the Grand Army of the Republic. New York: Bryan, Taylor, 1889.

The Confederate Veteran Magazine: Volume I, January 1893–December 1893. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot, 1988.

Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Constitution and By-laws. Philadelphia: Author, 1909.

Miller, Francis Trevelyan, ed. The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volume, vol. 10. New York: Review of Reviews, 1911.

Phillips, Sydney A. Patriotic Societies of the United States and their Lapel Insignia. New York: Broadway, 1914.

Wilson, Oliver M. The Grand Army of the Republic under its First Constitution and Ritual: Its Birth and Organization. Kansas City, MO: Franklin Hudson, 1905.

Wittenburg, Eric J. Rush's Lancers: The Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry in the Civil War. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2007.

William Backus

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