Remembering The Grand Army Of The Republic This Memorial Day Weekend

Updated: May 31

They came together from various backgrounds and different lifestyles for the same purpose, for what they believed was for the common good of the people, for freedom. They ate together, drank from the same canteen, lived together, fought together, and survived. I have never fought in a war so I can only just simply imagine the hardships and daily struggles from the stories I have read. I'm not even going to try to attempt to describe the vast emotions the soldiers may have felt. It's not my place to even assume. How could someone who wasn't there ever possibly understand it? One just simply can't comprehend such powerful emotions unless they live them first hand, in that moment. Intense sadness, heart wrenching emptiness, extraordinary joy, enormous relief. These types of emotions can only be justifiably described by those who were there and lived through them. What I have learned from my own personal experience is that profound moments in life can bring people together. Unique, everlasting bonds of friendship can be formed. When the civil war ended, the men parted ways. Some may have not even stuck around for their discharge papers before heading for what was left of their homes and families. The unique bonds they formed though were not soon forgotten.

After the civil war, promises had been made but there was little political pressure to ensure those promises were kept. The country was mourning the loss of so many and recovering from the great devastation of the war. On April 6, 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was established. The GAR was founded in Decatur, Illinois by Benjamin Franklin Stephenson. It was an organization like no other. No amount of money could buy you membership into the group. Your standing or status within society was irrelevant. It didn't matter whom you knew, where you worked, or what your family ties were. Membership was only open to those who served in the union forces during the civil war and had a military document that certified honorable discharge from the armed force. New blood was never admitted. When the last living member died, the GAR's existence ended forevermore.

The official motto of the GAR was fraternity, charity, and loyalty. The men who had fought for the love of our great country, united once again. The bonds of brotherhood they formed during the war connected them together and they advocated for the promises they had fought for to be kept. They advocated for the best interests of their fellow comrades and their families. And they advocated for the loyalty of all the country's citizens to this great nation of ours. They were a uniting and powerful force and their legacy should really be respected and honored.

The Grand Army of the Republic was organized very much like the US government. The GAR had a governing body at the national level, departments (states) and posts (cities or towns). Their rituals were based partly from military traditions and partly from freemasonry traditions. They were a systematically organized group, just like the armed forces they had served in. The first GAR post was located in Decatur, Illinois and started out with 12 members. Over time the organization grew in size. By the year 1890, there were close to 490,000 members with over 7,000 posts. They had posts located in every state except for Hawaii. The GAR was composed of everyday people as well as some influential members of society. Five United States presidents; Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley were members of the GAR. There was only one female ever to receive full membership into the organization. Her name was Sarah Emma Edmonds and she served in the 21st Michigan Infantry disguised as a man, named Franklin Thompson, from 1861 until April of 1863. In April of 1863, Sarah contracted malaria. She realized that her true gender would be exposed if she stayed so she left and sought treatment in a private hospital. After recovering, she fully intended to return using her disguise but learned that her alias, Franklin Thompson, had been listed as a deserter. Sarah used her own name and returned to the war effort as a nurse. Later in life Sarah married and had a family. After the end of the war she worked to clear her alias name and with the help of her fellow comrades she was granted honorable discharge and her eligible pension for having served.

The GAR and it's members deserve recognition for a great many things. They promoted allegiance to the United States of American and our constitution. These amazing men assisted veterans, widows, and orphans in need. They helped to build and provide homes for their fellow comrades. They are credited for developing medical facilities for US soldiers and veterans. They also set up retirement homes for their living comrades. The GAR promoted both patriotic and military education within public schools across the country. They advocated for teaching accurate accounts of the history of our country to our children. They also supported the publication and distribution of several patriotic manuals. The GAR promoted the display of the American flag at schools and in classrooms, at courthouses, and post offices. They also promoted the placement of cannons on courthouse lawns and in parks. We have them to thank for so many wonderful things. They lobbied at both a national and state level for laws to protect their fellow comrades and for proper observation of patriotic holidays. To a degree they were one of the first highly organized groups lobbying at a national level. They established both museums and libraries and encouraged the preservation of battle sites, documents, battle flags, and relics. Each state department of GAR conducted inventories of the soldier's graves and sought legislation for markers to be placed by each soldier's grave. And these are just a few of their more significant accomplishments. They continuously worked to further the interests of veterans, preserve the memory of fallen soldiers, and protect their fellow comrades morally, politically, and socially.

These men wielded a considerable amount of clout. Probably one of their most prestigious accomplishments was the establishment of Declaration Day, which later would evolve into what we now know as Memorial Day. When the holiday was first established it occurred each year on May 30th. Decoration Day became an official holiday when NY state designated it as a legal holiday in 1873. In 1882, the GAR urged that the name of the holiday become Memorial Day. It wasn't until many years later that the passage of the Monday holiday law went into effect. Year after year the members of the GAR honored their fallen comrades by decorating their graves with flowers, flags, and wreaths. They held ceremonies with patriotic music, speeches, and prayers at cemeteries across the nation. Thanks to the GAR, Memorial Day became a nationally respected day to honor those who fought for our country and died for our freedom.

Members of the GAR wore blue. Uniform regulations varied from department to department. The members wore GAR membership badges. Only those who were bona fide members of the organization received one. They were worn at meetings, gatherings, or ceremonies. It was a symbol of pride. There is an illustration of the membership badge above. It has three parts. The top piece of the membership badge is an eagle pin or clasp. It also serves as a ribbon holder. Attached between the eagle ribbon holder and GAR metal is an American flag patterned ribbon. The GAR medal itself is a fine pointed bronze star. In the center of the medal is the face of the Goddess of Liberty, which symbolizes loyalty. On one side stands a soldier and on the other side stands a sailor. The sailor and soldier are clasping their hands together in representation of fraternity. Kneeling in the foreground are two children in need of protection. The children symbolize charity. The ax and bundle of rods represents the Union. There is also an American flag and an eagle on it to represent freedom. Each of the star's points has an emblem which represents the five different branches of service. There is a bugle for the infantry, a cannon for the artillery, a musket for the marines, a sword for the cavalry, and an anchor for the sailors. Surrounding the center of the medal you will find the words Grand Army of the Republic 1861 Veterans 1866. In order to prove that the medals were authentic, a small serial number was stamped on every official medal. They say that each Grand Army of the Republic medal was made from the metal of a cannon that was used in actual battle. It certainly would be an honor to find a part of one of these membership badges, whether it be the eagle ribbon holder or the medal itself, when out metal detecting.

Ed Merrill found the top clasp off of someone's GAR membership badge. The decorative eagle piece. A representation of defense. The eagle with outstretched wings sits on top of crossed cannon barrels and ammunition. It is pictured above.

Edward Rifenberg also dug an eagle ribbon holder pin from a GAR membership badge. You can see from the photos above that it is marked on the back side with the filing date of the patent and the grant date of the patent. All of the Eagle pins are marked in this manner. Edward Rifenberg found a GAR medal as well. The medal says "We Stand By Our Country's Defenders" and has the years 1861-1865. The reverse side has the GAR's emblem.

Danny Wodyga found the GAR membership medal piece that is pictured above. On the reverse side of the medal you will see the national shield in the center surrounded by the different military corps badges. Each of the badges are displayed on a keystone which shows that they are united and will protect the union together. Surrounding the various military corps badges are stars. In each of the stars points are laurel branches to symbolize victory.

The Grand Army of the Republic button, pictured above, was found by Daniel Gildea. It is embossed in an ornate interlocking font with the letters "GAR". These rimmed buttons were made to look similar in style to the Civil War general staff and field officer buttons.

John Kowtas found two GAR monogrammed buttons with interlocking letters. From the pictures above, you can see that John's buttons are two different sizes. The larger button would have most likely been worn on one of the member's coats. The smaller sized buttons were worn on member's coat cuffs, vest, or kepis.

Gino DiCarlo found the GAR button cover pictured above. It is also embossed with the interlocking letters GAR. The button covers were designed to slip over a standard sized shirt button and had a sliding closure on the back side that secured it in place.

The piece pictured above was found by Donna Waite Moitiza. It is from the 28th National Encampment that was held in Pittsburgh, PA. in September of 1894. There were a total of 83 GAR national encampments. Various major cities across the country hosted the event each year. Both the first national encampment and the last were held in Indianapolis, Indiana. The first was in the year 1866 and the last was held in the year 1949. There were only 6 members in attendance for the last national encampment. During the organization's height, tens of thousands of members would attend the annual national encampments. It was almost always a multi day event, sometimes lasting for close to an entire week, with parades each day, banquet dinners, speeches, prayers for their fallen comrades, and nightly campfire meetings.

The badge pictured above is also from a GAR National Encampment. It was dug by Kendall Edkins and is from the 35th National Encampment held in Cleveland, Ohio in September of 1901. It's a committee badge and would have had a medal that was attached to the opening in the center of the piece. In addition to National Encampments there were also State Encampments held each year as well.

Kendall Edkins found a GAR grave marker too. It would have been used to mark the grave of a soldier who served on the Union forces during the civil war. It has an embossed eagle with a laurel wreath design and is marked with the words 'Union Defender'. Kendall was detecting near the foundation of an old outbuilding when he found the grave marker. The spike on the marker is broken off so we suspect that it was probably removed and replaced from the grave by someone, brought home, and then lost. We do not condone metal detecting in cemeteries. It is both ethically and morally wrong.

Chris O'Connor dug the GAR brass belt buckle pictured above. The GAR monogram emblem is displayed in the center of the buckle. In each corner of the buckle there is a symbol. In one corner there are crossed swords, in another crossed rifles, in a third corner crossed cannons, and lastly an anchor.

Dave Wise found a Department of Connecticut GAR medal. It would have been attached to a clasp and ribbon and worn by a GAR member who belonged to one of the posts within the state of Connecticut. It has the Latin motto "Post Nubila Phoebus" on it's reverse side, which means “after the clouds, the sun.”

The GAR ceramic crock pictured above belongs to Manny Birittieri. It only measures 2 3/4 inches in height. I've never seen another one like it so I'm not really sure what the history behind it is exactly.

Donnie Bailey dug the volunteer infantry badge pictured above. It was once a part of a ladder badge and would have belonged to a veteran of the civil war. Ladder badges came in various configurations. Most ladder badges generally have the veteran's name, the unit name and state that they served for, and the dates of their service. It was most likely privately purchased by a Veteran. Unfortunately, without the rest of the pieces we have no way of determining who wore it or if it belonged to a member of the GAR.

The Grand Army of the Republic lived to see the United States of America become a strong unified nation. As the veterans of the civil war started to pass away, the GAR's membership began to slowly dwindle away too. Posts were consolidated or disbanded over time. The organization dissolved upon the death of it's last living member. His name was Albert Wilson (1850-1956). He was a drummer boy who served in the union army during the civil war. Although the GAR limited their membership to just union soldiers who served during the civil war, they encouraged the formation of other groups to carry on their legacy such as The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW). The SUVCW is a fraternal organization that carries out activities to preserve the history and legacy of the soldiers who served on the union forces during the civil war. Only the direct descendants of soldiers who served on the Union forces during the civil war are eligible for full membership to the SUVCW.

Pictured above is a Sons of Union Veterans belt buckle that was found by Leighton Harrington. In the center of the buckle there is a shield and eagle. There are three flags to the left and three flags to the right. Between the flags are a sailor and a soldier.

Over the years Memorial Day has become less and less a day of decoration for our fallen soldiers and more of just a long weekend at the beginning of the summer. It's really rather disappointing that we as a nation have sort of forgotten what the holiday is truly about. I hope we all take some time this Memorial Day to recognize and honor those soldiers who served and gave their lives for this great country of ours. Have a great week!

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