Grand Army of the Republic
GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC (GAR), founded in 1866 for veterans of all ranks of the Union Army, became the first mass organization of American veterans to exercise significant political influence. Although theoretically a non-partisan organization, it functioned, in fact, as if it were an adjunct of the Republican Party whose leaders urged veterans to "vote as you shot." Important national commanders included Senator John A. Logan (1826–1886) and Wisconsin governor Lucius Fairchild (1831–1896), both former generals who became highly partisan Republican politicians. The latter called upon God to "palsy" President Grover Cleveland for ordering some captured Confederate standards returned to the appropriate southern states.
Relatively slow to grow in the immediate postwar years, membership spurted during the 1880s, rising from 87,718 members in 1881 to a peak of 409,489 in 1890, after which an inevitable decline set in. At its final encampment, in 1949, only six members attended. The last member died in 1956.
The GAR's political influence was demonstrated by its successful advocacy before Congress of ever more generous pensions. Initially, it stressed benefits it provided for members. In many ways it resembled the proliferating fraternal benefit organizations, with which it competed for members. But by the later 1870s, its stress shifted to gaining governmental benefits for its members. At the time of the GAR's first major victory in Washington—the passage of the so-called Arrears Act of 1879—the cost of veterans benefits was about ten cents of every federal dollar; by 1893, such costs had risen to forty-three cents of every dollar. Civil War pensions were then restricted to benefits for "disabled" veterans and widows of veterans. In 1904, however, Theodore Roosevelt's commissioner of pensions issued an order declaring that old age is, ipso facto, a disability, so that, at age sixty-two, veterans were deemed 50 percent disabled, at age sixty-five, 75 percent disabled, and at age seventy disability was total. Any veteran who reached that age was entitled to twelve dollars a month, a significant amount for most Americans at a time when the average annual wage was $490. By the eve of American entry into World War I, the top pension had risen to thirty dollars a month and a veteran's widow was entitled to twenty-five dollars a month.
Most Southerners, many Democrats, and mugwumps of every variety had long condemned the GAR and its pension lobby. Carl Schurz, for example, a Union veteran himself, wrote articles about "The Pension Scandal," while Charles Francis Adams insisted that "every dead-beat, and malingerer, every bummer, bounty-jumper, and suspected deserter" sought a pension.
During World War I, largely in reaction to their memories of GAR-inspired pension abuse, two Southern-born Democrats, Woodrow Wilson and his son-in-law William Gibbs McAdoo, tried to take the pension issue out of postwar politics with a prototypical Progressive measure. It provided military personnel with family allotments and the opportunity to purchase special cut-rate "war risk insurance," which Congress approved overwhelmingly. This did not, of course, prevent postwar veteran-related legislation from becoming a political issue until well into the Great Depression.
Daniels, Roger. The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1971. Chapter 1, "Something for the Boys," surveys veterans benefits through World War I.
Davies, Wallace E. Patriotism on Parade: The Story of Veterans' and Hereditary Organizations in America, 1783–1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955. Relates the GAR to its predecessors.
Dearing, Mary R. Veterans in Politics: The Story of the GAR. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1952. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974. A history that focuses on the GAR's lobbying role.
McConnell, Stuart C. Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865–1900. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1992. A modern history, stressing the social history of the GAR.
Skocpol, Theda. "America's First Social Security System: The Expansion of Benefits for Civil War Veterans." Political Science Quarterly 108 (1993): 85–116. An imaginative interpretation.
Grand Army of the Republic
Between 1866 and 1872, the GAR operated as a virtual wing of the Republican Party, boosting the careers of soldier‐politicians such as Sen. John Logan of Illinois. After 1872, it entered a steep decline, reaching a low of 26,899 members in 1876. In the 1880s, the GAR revived as a fraternal order, emphasizing its secret initiation ritual and the provision of charity to needy veterans. It soon became an active and powerful national pension lobby, and the custodian of a conservative version of American nationalism, stressing the ideals of the independent producer and the volunteer citizen‐soldier. At its peak membership of 409,489 in 1890, the Grand Army enrolled about 40 percent of eligible Union veterans. The GAR declined in influence after 1900, acting largely as the keeper of Memorial Day, which Commander in Chief Logan had first proclaimed as gravesite Decoration Day in 1868. It held its last national encampment at Indianapolis in 1949. The GAR never became a hereditary order or admitted veterans of later wars; thus it disappeared with the death of its last member in 1956.
[See also Veterans: Civil War.]
Mary R. Dearing , Veterans in Politics: The Story of the G.A.R., 1952.
Stuart McConnell , Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1866–1900, 1992.