Center for Archival Collections
August 2011: Volume 30, Number 2
Gallery: The Bonds of Comradeship--The Grand Army of the Republic
End of the Civil War: Within days of the surrender at Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The mourning ribbon at left was worn to commemorate this event, probably related to the ceremonies surrounding the President's elaborate funeral train. This train took Lincoln's body from Washington, DC to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Cleveland and Columbus were two of the stops along this journey, where citizens could pay their respects formally.
Thanks to the support of Union troops, Lincoln had won re-election in 1864. Veterans considered Lincoln a brother-in-arms and continued to hold him in high esteem for the rest of their lives.
The men who had shared so much in the field found that they still had concerns in common after the war and they began to band together to achieve post-war goals, remember their fallen comrades, and reminisce about the good times as well as the bad. The Grand Army of the Republic was
founded in 1866, to serve as an organization for all Civil War veterans, regardless of their service unit, much as in today's American Legion. The GAR was disbanded in 1956 when the last Civil War veteran died.
The ribbon at right was probably worn at a smaller regional reunion. At right, is the pin worn by delegates at the Grand Encampment held in 1916 at Marion. Incorporating the five-pointed star of the GAR, the design of the pin includes palm branches and a portrait of a revolutionary war soldier. Military style ribbons and pins were popular among veterans groups. As time went on, the encampments began to include homage to the heroes of all wars.
|For special anniversary occasions, like the 25th Annual Encampment of the Department of Ohio, very special souvenirs were created. The porcelain watch-fob design was presented to delegates to the 1891 Steubenville convention. The portrait on the front of the fob was probably A. M. Warner, Department Commander (state president). Individual local posts were often named for generals or soldiers who were held in high esteem.|
|At right is a scene from the GAR encampment in Lima just after the turn of the century. In addition to flags and bunting, Roman-style columns were placed along the street to honor the veterans as they paraded through downtown. Local posts were represented by their bands and marching units. There were over 600 chapters in Ohio alone. (Original scan donated by Gloria Plummer)|
The 1908 National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic was held in Toledo, Ohio. An estimated 100,000 people converged on the city for the August 31-September 1 meeting. A special section of the Blade was printed which included the program and featuring articles about the notable guests, history of the war, and public entertainment available.
The highlight of the convention was the dedication of Fort Meigs in Perrysburg as an historic site. Politicians took the opportunity to meet and greet the veterans and their families. Senator William Howard Taft, campaigning for president, made a point of stopping by. The GAR was an influential voting bloc, working for veterans' benefits. Their endorsement could be crucial in a candidate's success.
At right, above is the "Living Flag" pageant that was part of the convention held in Toledo. Over 3,000 school children took part, according to reports. The flag stand was set up at Jefferson and Collingwood Avenues and special precautions were taken to assure the children's safety. According to the Blade, a cordon of four mounted policemen and sixteen patrolmen, supported by "an entire company of Ohio National Guard" surrounded the stand or waited nearby. One teacher for each thirty-two students stood on the stand with the children, with one adult at each end of of each stripe. Nurses were standing by in case of illness, and water and rest rooms were available. A fire engine was on site. A reserved area for parents was nearby.
A pin (above), denoting service at the Battle of Chickamauga allowed veterans from different units to identify others they may have served with.
At right, a bronze grave marker carried the distinctive design of the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR worked hard to ensure that the sacrifices of their fallen comrades would be remembered and respected for generations to come. Thanks to their work, May 30th was designated as Decoration Day,
|a special day set aside to honor those who had lost their lives in service to their country. Flags, flowers, and other markers were placed on the graves of veterans, and speeches, parades, and picnics quickly became part of a new national tradition, an occasion for the whole community to come together. The holiday continues today as Memorial Day.|
Although the Grand Army of the Republic was founded in 1866, it was not until 1883 that a women's auxiliary was established. The mission of the Woman's Relief Corps was to assist the GAR in its activities. They were particularly active in Decoration Day activities, maintaining lists of the gravesites of fallen soldiers and of the veterans to be honored each year. Made up of the wives and daughters of GAR members, they played an ever more important role as the years went by, keeping the care of veterans and their dependents as an important issue. The gold ribbon from the 1921 national WRC convention (some sixty years after the start of the war) acknowledges their importance.
Like the GAR, the pins, buttons, and ribbons of the Woman's Relief Corps were in military style. Officers were honored with portraits on these souvenirs.
The grave marker, at right, served the same purpose for WRC members as the GAR marker did for veterans.
Like the GAR and other fraternal organizations, the WRC maintained a book of "rituals," which set out a specific order for meetings and for special occasions, such as the initiation of new members or "draping the charter" in recognition of members who had died.
|In addition to the fraternal association of the Grand Army of the Republic, veterans also frequently held reunions for the units in which they had served. These, too, could be marked with elaborate festivities and parades. The most important feature was the opportunity it provided for reminiscing.|
At left is the ribbon for the 58th annual reunion of the Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry. The gathering was held in Perrysburg. The program included a memorial service for veterans who had died since the last reunion, patriotic addresses, vocal solos, and poetry recitations. Veterans shared letters from those who could not attend and spent much time recalling their days in the field. A list of over one hundred veterans and their guests appeared in the newspaper, and a complete list of surviving veterans named the company in which the veteran had served and his present address.
Like many units, the 41st Ohio Volunteer Infantry created a veterans' organization soon after the war's end. (At right, is the cover of their 1891 reunion program.) Annual reunions were held throughout the region from which the unit originally had been recruited. These contacts remained vital for the veterans, especially as they aged and became eligible for pensions and other benefits. An officer might be asked, years after the war, to confirm the honorable service and any related disability of one of his men. The collection of the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry (MS 562) documents a number of these requests.
Pictured here, the complete program for the 1890 Reunion of the 102nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
At the beginning and conclusion of each reunion, there was a formal time set aside for "hand shaking" so that each veteran would have the opportunity to connect with all his fellows.
As battlefields became national historic sites, veterans worked diligently to see that the part their units played in the war were properly documented. The placement of battlefield monuments was intended to reflect the location of the unit in the line of battle.
Thanks to the efforts of these veterans' organizations, many units produced their own histories, documenting the combat action and everyday life of the troops. They have left us a lasting written legacy.
--Lee N. McLaird
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