A G.A.R. Remembrance

The Springfield, Ill. State Journal-Register ran a nice recollection of  Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, the founder of the G.A.R. He was honored last week at a gravesite ceremony in Petersburg, Ill., 146 years after he created the flagship support organization for Union Army veterans.

The Grand Army of the Republic, to use its full name, was a real landmark — the first and largest U.S. veterans’ organization, instrumental in creating an awareness of the challenges faced by returning Civil War veterans and by survivors of the fallen. The institution of the service-based Civil War pension benefit owes quite a bit to the concerns of citizens like Stephenson, a major and regimental surgeon. (So thanks for all those pension files, Dr. Stephenson!)

At its peak, the G.A.R.’s membership was nearly half a million, with 7,000 posts throughout the country. (The last member died in 1956.) With numbers like that, it’s not surprising that the G.A.R. acronym required no explanation back in the day, any more than “V.F.W.” would now. Memories fade, of course. As a reporting intern, I covered the ceremonial opening of a time capsule from the 1880s, found in a building in in New Brunswick, N.J. Among the papers inside was memorabilia from the now-mysterious G.A.R.; a local historian had to explain what it was.

G.A.R. post records can be quite illuminating for researchers with Union Army veterans in their tree. This is good to keep in mind if you ever find the “G.A.R.” insignia on an ancestor’s tombstone.

As far as I know these records aren’t collected in any centralized way, but if you know where your ancestor lived, it’s worth checking into G.A.R. post history with local research societies, or with regional chapters of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.