The Grand Army of the Republic
John E. Gilman, Commander-In-Chief, Grand Army of the Republic, 1910
At the close of the Civil War, there were over a million men in the Union armies. Nearly two and a half million had served under the Stars and Stripes during the four long years of warfare, of whom three hundred and fifty-nine thousand had died. It was essential that those still in the service should disband and retire to civilian life. This was effected after a grand parade of the armies of the Potomac, the Tennessee, and of Georgia, on May 22 and 24, 1865, when one hundred and fifty thousand men marched through the wide avenues of Washington in review before the President and the commanding generals. From the glare and glory, the power and prestige of the soldier's career, they went into the obscurity of the peaceful pursuits of American citizenship, and in a few short months the vast armies of the United States had disappeared.
The great war was ended, but it would have been strange indeed if the memories of those years of storm and stress, the sacrifices of those who had fallen, the experiences of the march, the battlefield, and the camp, and the needs of their disabled comrades, and of the widows and the orphans had been forgotten.
Even before the war had ended, organizations of veterans of the Union armies had begun to be formed. The first veteran society formed, The Third Army Corps Union, was organized at the headquarters of General D. B. Birney, commander of the Third Army Corps, at a meeting of the officers of the corps, September 2, 1863. The main object, at that time, was to secure funds for embalming and sending home for burial the bodies of officers killed in battle or dying in hospitals at the front. General D. A. Sickles was its first president.
In April, 1865, the Society of the Army of the Tennessee was formed at Raleigh, North Carolina, membership being restricted to officers who had served with the old Army of the Tennessee. The object was declared to be " to keep alive that kindly and cordial feeling which has been one of the characteristics of this army during its career in the service." General Sherman was elected president in 1869, and continued to hold the office for many years.
After the war, many other veteran societies were formed, composed not only of officers but of enlisted men of the various armies, corps, and regiments, as well as many naval organizations. Among them, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States was the first society formed by officers honorably discharged from the service. It was first thought of at a meeting of a group of officers who had met the day after the assassination of President Lincoln for the purpose of passing resolutions on his death. These resolutions were subsequently adopted, and it was determined to effect a permanent organization. This was done May 8, 1805, and a constitution and by-laws were, in part, adopted the same month. The titles of officers, the constitution, and general plan, were, in part, afterward adopted by the Grand Army of the Republic. The essential difference was that first-class membership of the Loyal Legion was restricted to officers.
Besides the foregoing organizations of veterans, there were others formed of a political nature, such as the Boys in Blue and other similar societies, and there were held in September, 1866, two political conventions of veterans of the army and navy. These political soldiers' clubs were the result of the times, for the controversy between Congress and President Johnson was at its height. In the East, after the fall elections of 1866, most of these political clubs of veterans were ready to disband. The desire for a permanent organization of veterans became strong. No post of the Grand Army had been organized east of Ohio prior to October, 1866. Posts were started, and inasmuch as eligibility to membership in the Grand Army was possessed by those who composed the membership of these political clubs, the Boys in Blue and similar clubs formed, in many places, the nucleus of the Grand Army posts.
This fact gave, in good part, a political tinge to the Grand Army during the first year or two of its existence, and to it was due, chiefly, the severe losses in membership that the order sustained for a short period. But, eventually, the political character was wholly eradicated, and the order recovered its standing and its losses.
During the winter of 1865-66, Major B. F. Stephenson, surgeon of the Fourteenth Illinois regiment, discussed with friends the matter of the formation of an organization of veteran soldiers. He had, previously, while the war was still continuing, talked over the formation of such an organization with his tent-mate, Chaplain William J. Rutledge of the same regiment, and both had agreed to undertake the work of starting such a project after the war was ended, if they survived.
At the national encampment in St. Louis, in 1887, it was stated by Fred. J. Dean, of Fort Scott, Arkansas, that in February, 1866, he, with Doctors Hamilton and George H. Allen, assisted Doctor Stephenson in compiling ritualistic work, constitution, and by-laws at Springfield, Illinois, and these four assumed the obligations of the Grand Army of the Republic at that time. It is conceded that the initiatory steps to constitute the order were taken in Illinois, and Doctor Stephenson's name is the first one connected with the systematic organization of the Grand Army. He and his coworkers were obligated in the work. Several other veterans joined with them, and a ritual was prepared.
The question of printing this ritual occasioned some anxiety on account of the desire to keep it secret, but this difficulty was solved by having it printed at the office of the Decatur (Illinois) Tribune, the proprietor of which, together with his compositors, were veterans. They were accordingly obligated, and the ritual was printed by them. Captain John S. Phelps, one of the active associates of Doctor Stephenson, who had gone to Decatur to supervise the work of printing the ritual, had met several of his comrades of the Forty-first Illinois and had sought their cooperation. One of them, Doctor J. W. Routh, who was acquainted with Doctor Stephenson, went to Springfield to consult the latter about organizing, and, with Captain M. F. Kanan, called upon Doctor Stephenson. They returned to Decatur to organize a post there, and at once set to a sufficient number of signatures to an application for a charter. They returned to Springfield to present the application in person. On April 6, 1866, Doctor Stephenson issued the charter, signing it as department commander of Illinois, thus creating the first post of the Grand Army of the Republic. The ritual was revised and a constitution written by a committee from this post, at the suggestion of Doctor Stephenson. The committee reported that the regulations and ritual had been presented to department headquarters and accepted. The plan of organization consisted of post, district, department, and national organizations, to be known as the Grand Army of the Republic.
The declaration of principles in the constitution, written by Adjutant-General Robert M. Woods, set forth that the soldiers of the volunteer army of the United States, during the war of 1861-65, actuated by patriotism and combined in fellowship, felt called upon to declare those principles and rules which should guide the patriotic freeman and Christian citizen, and to agree upon plans and laws which should govern them in a united and systematic working method to effect the preservation of the grand results of the war. These results included the preservation of fraternal feelings, the making of these ties advantageous to those in need of assistance, the providing for the support, care, and education of soldiers' orphans, and maintenance of their widows, the protection and assistance of disabled soldiers, and the " establishment and defense of the late soldiery of the United States, morally, socially, and politically, with a view to inculcate a proper appreciation of their services to the country, and to a recognition of such services and claims by the American people."
To this last section, the national encampment in Philadelphia, in 1868, added, " But this association docs not design to make nominations for office or to use its influence as a secret organization for partisan purposes." The word " sailors " was added by the Indianapolis encampment. In May, 1869, the present form of rules and regulations was adopted.
Post No. 2 of the Department of Illinois was organized at Springfield, as stated by General Webber, in April, 1866.
In 1865, in Indiana, correspondence relating to the continuance of the Army Club, a society of veterans, had come to the hands of Governor Oliver P. Morton, of Indiana. He sent General R. S. Foster, of Indianapolis, to Springfield, to examine into Doctor Stephenson's plan of organization. General Foster met the latter, and was obligated by him. On his return, he obligated a number of his intimate comrades, and these he constituted as a department organization. The first post of this department was organized at Indianapolis, on the 22d of August, 1866.
Doctor Stephenson had issued, as department commander, General Orders No. I, on April I, 1866, at Springfield, in which he announced the following officers: General Jules C. Webber, aide-de-camp and chief of staff; Major Robert M. Woods, adjutant-general; Colonel John M. Snyder, quartermaster-general ; Captain John S. Phelps, aide-de-camp, and Captain John A. Lightfoot, assistant adjutant-general, on duty at the department headquarters. On June 26, 1866, a call had been issued for a convention, to be held at Springfield, Illinois, July 12, 1866. The convention was held on this date and the Department of Illinois organized, General John M. Palmer being elected department commander. Doctor Stephenson was recognized, however, in the adoption of a resolution which proclaimed him as " the head and front of the organization." He continued to act as commander-in-chief.
In October, 1866, departments had been formed in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota, and posts had been organized in Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. On October 31, 1866, Doctor Stephenson issued General Orders No. 13, directing a national convention to be held at Indianapolis, November 20, 1866, signing this order as commander-in-chief. In accordance with this order, the First National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic convened at Indianapolis on the date appointed, and was called to order by Commander-in-Chief Stephenson. A committee on permanent organization was appointed and its report nominating the officers of the convention was adopted, and General John M. Palmer became the presiding officer of the convention. The committee on constitution submitted a revised form of the constitution which, with a few amendments, was adopted. Resolutions were adopted calling the attention of Congress to the laws in regard to bounties, recommending the passage of a law making it obligatory for every citizen to give actual service when called upon in time of war, instead of providing a substitute, and suggesting, for the consideration of those in authority, the bestowal of positions of honor and profit upon worthy and competent soldiers and sailors. General S. A. Hurlbut, of Illinois, was elected commander-in-chief and Doctor Stephenson, adjutant-general.
The national organization of the Grand Army of the Republic was thus fairly started. The Second National Encampment was held at Philadelphia, January 15, 16, and 17, 1868, when General John A. Logan was elected commander-in-chief. At the Third National Encampment at Cincinnati, May 12 and 13, 1869, General Logan was reelected commander-in-chief. It appears from Adjutant-General Chipman's report at this encampment that, at the Philadelphia encampment in 1868, there were represented twenty-one departments, which claimed a total membership of over two hundred thousand. But there had been very few records kept, either in departments or at national headquarters, and there seems to have been very little communication between posts and headquarters. At the Cincinnati encampment, the adjutant-general reported that the aggregate number of departments was thirty-seven, and that the number of posts, reported and estimated, was 2050. At the encampment at Cincinnati, in 1869, the grade system s adopted, establishing three grades of recruit, soldier, and veteran. This system met with serious opposition and was finally abandoned at the encampment at Boston, in 1871. It was claimed that to this system much of the great falling-off in membership was due. It is a fact that, at this period, there had been a large decrease in the numbers in the order, particularly in the West. But the cause of this may be laid to a variety of reasons. The order, at first, seems to have had a rapid growth. Because of the incompleteness of the records, it is impossible even to estimate what the strength of the membership in those early days was. But the real solidity of the order was not established until some years had passed.
On May 5, 1868, Commander-in-Chief Logan, by General Orders No. 11, had assigned May 30, 1868, as a memorial day which was to be devoted to the strewing of flowers on the graves of deceased comrades who had died in the defense of their country during the Civil War. The idea of Memorial Day had been suggested to Adjutant-General Chipman in a letter from some comrade then living in Cincinnati, whose name has been lost. At the encampment at Washington, in 1870, Memorial Day was established by an amendment to the rules and regulations. It has been made a holiday in many of the States, and is now observed throughout the country, not only by the Grand Army but by the people generally, for the decoration of the graves of the soldiers.
The first badge of the order was adopted in 1866. A change was made in October, 1868, in its design, and a further change in October, 1869. At the national encampment of 1873, the badge was adopted which is substantially the one that exists to-day, a few minor changes being made in 1886. It is now made from captured cannon purchased from the Government. The bronze button worn on the lapel of the coat was adopted in 1884.
The matter of pensions has, in the nature of things, occupied much of the time of the Grand Army encampments, both national and departmental. The order has kept careful watch over pension legislation ; its recommendations have been conservative, and of late years have been adopted by Congress to a very great extent. Aid has been given to veterans and widows entitled to pensions, by cooperation with the Pension Office in obtaining and furnishing information for the adjudication of claims.
The Grand Army has been assisted in carrying out its purposes by its allied orders, the Woman's Relief Corps, the Sons of Veterans, the Daughters of Veterans, and the Ladies of the G. A. R. These organizations have adopted the principles and purposes that have actuated the Grand Army and have given much valued aid in the achievement of the results obtained.
The Grand Army of the Republic before the end of the nineteenth century had passed the zenith of its career. Its membership remained about the same in numbers after its first great leap and subsequent subsidence, varying between 25,000 and 50,000 from 1870 to 1880. During the decade between 1880 and 1890 it rose to its highest number of 409,489. Since then it has decreased, through death, in very great part, until, at the national encampment of 1910, at Atlantic City, it had diminished to 213,901. Its posts exist throughout the length and breadth of the country, and even outside, and nearly every State has a department organization. Its influence is felt in every city, town, and village, and it has earned the good-will and support of the entire American people. Among its leaders have been some of the most prominent men of the country. Its commanders-in-chief have been :
B. F. Stephenson Illinois 1866 S. A. Hurlbut Illinois 1866-67 John A. Logan Illinois 1868-70 Ambrose E. Burnside Rhode Island 1871-72 Charles Devens Massachusetts 1873-74 John F. Hartranft Pennsylvania 1875-76 John C. Robinson New York 1877-78 William Earnshaw Ohio 1879 Louis Wagner Pennsylvania 1880 George S. Merrill Massachusetts 1881 Paul Van Dervoort Nebraska 1882 Robert B. Beath Pennsylvania 1883 John S. Kountz Ohio 1884 S. S. Burdett Dist Of Columbia 1885 Lucius Fairchild Wisconsin 1886 John P. Rea Minnesota 1887 William Warner Missouri 1888 Russell A. Alger Michigan 1889 Wheelock G. Veazey Vermont 1890 John Palmer New York 1891 A. G. Weissert Wisconsin 1892 John G. B. Adams Massachusetts 1893 Thomas G. Lawler Illinois 1894 Ivan N. Walker Indiana 1895 T. S. Clarkson Nebraska 1896 John P. S. Gobin Pennsylvania 1897 James A. Sexton Illinois 1898 W. C. Johnson Ohio 1899 Albert D. Shaw New York 1899 Leo Rassieur Missouri 1900 Ell Torrence Minnesota 1901 Thomas J. Stewart Pennsylvania 1902 John C. Black Illinois 1903 Wilmon W. Blackmar Massachusetts 1904 John R. King Maryland 1904 James Tanner Dist Of Columbia 1905 Robert B. Brown Ohio 1906 Charles G. Burton Missouri 1907 Henry M. Nevius New Jersey 1908 Samuel R. Van Sant Minnesota 1909 John E. Gilman Massachusetts 1910 Hiram M. Trimble Illinois 1911
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