“What was the Grand Army of the Republic?” by S.M. O’Connor

Founded in Springfield, Illinois by Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, whom had served in the Union Army as a surgeon, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was a fraternal organization for veterans of the Union Army (the U.S. Army), the U.S. Navy (including the U.S. Marine Corps), and the U.S. Revenue Marine (later renamed the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and still later merged with the U.S. Life Saving Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915) who had served in the American Civil War, also known as the War of the Rebellion and the War Between the States.

While he served as the third Commander-in-Chief of the G.A.R. from 1868 to 1871, General John A. Logan (1826-1886),[1] promoted Decoration Day, which became Memorial Day.  Mourners have decorated graves with flowers for thousands of years, but General Logan encouraged all G.A.R. members to decorate the graves of their fallen comrades with flowers on May 30, 1868.

The G.A.R. was an influential voting bloc within the Republic Party in the aftermath of the Civil War until roughly 1900.  It helped elect multiple Republican presidents from General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) in 1868 to William McKinley, Jr. (1843-1901) in 1896.

Securing pensions were of paramount importance to the G.A.R.  President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), a leader of the so-called Bourbon Democrats (Democrats who were classical liberals) who is best known for being the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office (1885-1889, 1893-1897), lost when he ran for re-election in 1888 in part because he had vetoed the Dependent Pension Bill.

The G.A.R. was organized with departments at the state level and posts at the municipal level.  The first G.A.R. post formed in Decatur, Illinois with twelve members and received its charter on April 6, 1866.  There were thirty-nine posts in Illinois by the time a convention was held on July 12, 1866 to form the Department of Illinois.  The high water mark for the organization was 1890, when it had over 400,000 members across the U.S.A.  There were over 7,000 G.A.R. posts, with more than 700 in Illinois alone.  In Illinois, at least, a number of G.A.R. posts were also public libraries, including the Chicago Public Library (the Central Library of the Chicago Public Library, which is now the Chicago Cultural Center) and the old Central Library of the Aurora Public Library.

Annual statewide and national conventions were called “encampments.”  A member of the G.A.R. would refer to a fellow member as “comrade” as in comrade-in-arms.

There were a number of auxiliary organizations.  The Sons of Veterans of the United States of America formed in 1881.  In 1925, it changed its name to the Sons of Union Army Veterans of the Civil War (S.U.A.V.C.W.).  At its peak, in 1904, it had 200,000 members.  The Confederate counterpart is called Sons of Confederate Veterans.  Both organizations still exist.

The G.A.R. dissolved in 1956 upon the death of Albert Woolson (1850-1956), who had been a drummer boy in the Union Army and was definitely the last surviving Union Army veteran, and possibly the last surviving veteran from either side because no-one has yet been able to verify the claims of two supposed Confederate veterans who died after him and the claims of a third man were definitely debunked.  He deeded all remaining G.A.R, property to the S.U.A.V.C.W.

When the central office of the G.A.R. closed in 1956, its collections of journals, books, and other publications went to the Library of Congress, which they were added to an existent collection of materials that had already been donated, while other mementos went to the Smithsonian Institution.  As posts and departments all across America closed, their materials were deposited in archives around the U.S.A.[2]

The Women’s Relief Corps formed in 1883.  The Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic formed in 1896.  The Auxiliary to the Sons of Union Army Veterans of the Civil War is open to women who are lineal or collateral descendants of U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Revenue Marine vets who served in the Civil War.  These three organizations and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War are “Allied Orders” of the S.U.A.V.C.W.

Unfortunately, these days most people are more familiar with a fictional “Grand Army of the Republic” than the real organization.  When he made the second Star Wars prequel, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), George Lucas had Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiamrid), who would go on to become the evil unnamed Emperor from the original trilogy, proclaim a clone army the “Grand Army of the Republic.”[3]


Figure 1 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is a Grand Army of the Republic altar, as seen in the lobby of the Harold Washington Library Center on November 2, 2010.


Figure 2 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall on Stolp Island on the Fox River in downtown Aurora.


Figure 3 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: The entrance to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall in Aurora faces Downers Place.


Figure 4 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall in Aurora, Illinois looks like a combination of a church and a rectory.


Figure 5 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: The main entrance to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall in Aurora is flanked by two tiny canons.


Figure 6 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: A third small canon is positioned in the small plaza outside main entrance to the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall in Aurora.  The east bank of the river is visible from the plaza.


Figure 7 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: The western part of the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall in Aurora resembles a square-shaped watch tower and has arched windows.  One corner has a corbelled turret.  The governmental building that surrounds the G.A.R. Memorial Hall on three sides has offices and a parking garage.


[1] General Logan, who had been a Democrat before the outbreak of the Civil War, had served in the Illinois House of Representatives and represented Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1850s.  In 1861, he raised the 31st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment and resigned from Congress in 1862.  Originally, he held the rank of colonel but in 1862 he received a promotion to brigadier general.  Unlike many political generals who served in the Union Army, he was actually a good battlefield commander.  As a Republican, he represented Illinois as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1867 to 1871, and the U.S. Senate, from 1879 to 1886.  He also used his prestige to keep the portion of Southern Illinois called “Little Egypt” from seceding from Illinois and joining the Confederacy, which would have caused chaos in the state and been a source of embarrassment for President Lincoln.  Logan Square (Community Area #22) on the North Side of Chicago was named in his honor.  The State of Illinois commissioned the General John Logan Memorial equestrian statue in Grant Park.

[2] To find these records, consult A Guide to Archives and Manuscripts in the United States, edited by Philip M. Hamer, published in 1961, and National Union Card Catalog of Manuscript Collections, published by the Library of Congress, from 1959 to 1993.

[3] The Republic in question was the Galactic Republic of the prequel trilogy, which Palpatine transformed into the Galactic Empire of the original trilogy.  Palpatine makes this proclamation once the Senate votes him emergency powers to deal with a rebellion by a league of planets that are trying to break away from the Galactic Republic with robot armies.  Unbeknownst to the heroes and heroines, Palpatine had engineered a crisis as he is a secret Dark Lord of the Sith (with the nom de guerre Darth Sidious).  The former Jedi Master who leads the separatist movement, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is also a secret Sith Lord (with the nom de guerre Darth Tyranus) conspiring with him.  Darth Sidious had the clone army made on the planet Kamino and ready to go as soon as the Senate learnt there was a threat and voted to give Supreme Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers.  Palpatine had either (a) duped the Jedi Master whom the Kaminoans believed had commissioned them to make over 1,000,000 clones of the Manadalorian Super Commando Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) into acting on his behalf or (b) impersonated him and placed the order himself or had an agent impersonate him and place the order.  The Jedi lead the Clone Troopers into battle in the second and third prequels and the animated film Star Wars: Clone Wars (2008), which was set between the second and third prequels.  In the third prequel, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Lucas had Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) realize Palpatine was a Sith Lord and attempt to arrest him only for Palpatine to kill them with the assistance of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and frame the act as an attempted coup d‘état  to the Senate.  He then used this as a pretext to have Anakin Skywalker (renamed Darth Vader) lead Clone Troopers to the Jedi Temple to perpetrate a massacre and issue Order 66, which had been implanted in the Clone Troopers from the beginning to turn against their Jedi generals and murder them.  There are echoes here of Octavian Caesar’s rise to be one of three leaders of the Roman Republic as a member of the Second Triumvirate to being the first Emperor of the Roman Empire; General Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to being First Consul in 1799 (and later Emperor of the French in 1804); and Chancellor Adolph Hitler’s seizure of power with the Reichstag’s passage of the Enabling Act in March of 1933 two months after President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him chancellor on January 30, 1933.  The Reichstag passed this law in the aftermath of the Reichstag building having burned in an arson attack on February 27, 1933, an event which Hitler attributed to a Communist.  Hitler solidified his dictatorship after the death of von Hindenburg in 1934 with the announcement he would merge the presidency (the German head- of-state) with the chancellorship (German chief-of-state).  Thence forward, Hitler was referred to as Führer und Reichkanzler (Leader and Realm Chancellor).  Lucas wanted to illustrate how a republic could become a dictatorship (and a dictatorship could become a monarchy).

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