Countless Americans have an ancestor who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Research on these men often focuses on official records, such has pensions and compiled military service records. But the research shouldn’t stop there. The records of the Grand Army of the Republic should be part of your Civil War research.
What Was the Grand Army of the Republic?
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization for honorably discharged Union veterans founded in 1866 by B.F. Stephenson and William J. Rutledge, both veterans of the 14th Illinois Infantry. It eventually became the largest organization for Union veterans and was responsible for liberalizing military pension laws and popularization of Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day). At its peak in 1890, the GAR had more than 400,000 members across the United States.
The GAR was unique in two ways. First, the GAR was open to all honorably discharged Union veterans, regardless of their rank or length of service. Second, the GAR was open to Black veterans. This was in a time period when most organizations either denied membership to Blacks outright or had, at best, a “parallel” affiliated organization.
As a national organization, the GAR focused on lobbying for making pension requirements less restrictive. It also focused on the “proper burial” of all veterans. It isn’t uncommon to find a GAR section in larger cemeteries. While these sections were open to all veterans, the local GAR posts would also allow indigent veterans to be buried in these sections.
How the GAR Was Organized
To understand the records that the GAR created, you first need to understand how the GAR was organized.
The top level was the Department. A department was roughly equivalent to a state, although some of the southern and western states combined to make a department. (For example, Colorado and Wyoming combined into one Department.) Departments usually had an annual encampment—a gathering of the posts in that department. These were multi-day events, filled with programs, speeches, and pageantry.
Posts were the local units. This was the level that most members participated in. Posts had regular meetings (usually monthly or bi-weekly) and provided support to their members. Belonging to the GAR gave a veteran access to networking, camaraderie, and support. This support took the form of being with others who had been through the same experiences in the war, as well as practical matters of such as navigating the pension process and obtain services.
Local posts had both a name and a number, such as Ben Butterfield Post 77, Lancaster, Ohio. The number was sequential in that department (though you do sometimes find a number used twice). The post would be named either for a local soldier (often one who died in the war) or for an admired leader. (For example, many GAR posts that had exclusively Black members carried the name of Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts.) The Library of Congress has a listing of the posts in each department.
Grand Army of the Republic Records
Ok, let’s talk about the records.
Department records tend to be more administrative, with fewer details of individual GAR members. There is one notable exception: the annual encampment proceedings. These booklets give things like a synopsis of the previous year (activities, donations to veterans homes, posts created and disbanded) and who the delegates to the encampment were. But for genealogists, the best part is the “Honor Roll.” It lists all of the deaths that the individuals posts reported in the previous year. They almost always include the veteran’s name, date of death, and regiment.
It’s in the post records where family historians will find the most details about their GAR ancestor. Posts maintained rosters and had meeting minutes. The rosters details when the man joined, posts he transferred from or to, his military service, etc.
The meeting minutes reveal not only the business dealings of the post (like paying rent for the meeting room or making a donation to a charity), but also some of the support to individual members. You can find mention of members who have taken ill, moved to a veterans home, or who need some financial aid.
Some posts also maintained “personal sketch books.” These books contain biographical information and details about the man’s service.
How to Find the Records of the Grand Army of the Republic
Finding GAR records can be tricky, but it is worth the effort. Because this was a private organization, there was no requirement that the records be transferred to any archive or library when the organization disbanded. When a post disbanded, the last remaining post commander might have sent the records to a library or archive, forwarded to the Department, or piled them on the trash heap. Department records were sometimes sent to an archive or historical society (either state or in the county where the Department’s last headquarters were.)
While it is more difficult to find the original records, such as post meeting minutes and personal sketch books, something that is easier to find are the published materials. These would be things like the proceedings of the annual encampments and published post rosters. Many state historical societies and state libraries have copies of these, especially the annual encampment proceedings.
The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (the successor organization to the GAR) runs the GAR Records Project, where they document where different GAR records are located. It’s a very good place to start your search.
Other places to look include the catalogs of state libraries, archives, and historical societies. Also check with libraries and historical and genealogical societies in the county where the post was located.
You can also find some GAR materials digitized and online. FamilySearch has several GAR collections in their Historical Records Collection. They also have numerous GAR titles in their catalog. (Note: the items in the catalog may or may not be digitized.) Ancestry also has a handful of GAR collections. Also check on Google Books, Internet Archive, and DPLA (the Digital Public Library of America).