Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)

First organized by Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson of Decatur, IL in 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army who had served in the Civil War.

Many writers have given reference to the organization. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck allows a character to assume the stature of a great man through his involvement with the organization. Nobel prize winner Sinclair Lewis mentions the GAR in Main Street, and there is a reference to it in the patriotic song “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

The organization is based partly on the traditions of the Freemasons, but also follows military tradition. It was divided into Departments at the state level and posts at the community level.

In 1884, the Tom Nut Post of the G.A.R. Was initiated in Leando and was one of the largest organizations in town, second only to the Masons. It was an active post that aided widows and children of soldiers, kept flags on the graves of veterans in cemeteries, and post members held lively reunions in the town park, known as “the commons.”

According to Florence Morrison Moore, the charter members of the unit in Leando were: L. C. Loomis; J. W. Parsons; S. L. Creek; James Harvey; Samuel Lewis; Aaron Ratcliffe; Hugh Findley; W. C. Crawford; W. W. Jackson; A. T. Benning; Owen Nutt; O. O. Stokes; James Elrick; and Henry Bacon. Aaron’s wife and my great-grandmother, historian Charlotte (Morrison) Ratcliffe, was very active in the organization and always read or recited something at the reunions.

Belonging to the organization gave members political clout nationwide. In 1868, Order #11 of the G.A.R. called for May 30 to be designated as a day of memorial to the Union veterans; called Decoration Day, this was a forerunner of Memorial Day. The organization’s influence led to the creation of Old Soldiers’ Homes. It created the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) in 1881 and several auxiliary organizations including the National Women’s Relief Corps, Ladies of the GAR, and Daughters of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.

The only major controversy the GAR faced was over the fact that their membership badge was nearly identical to the Army’s version of the Congressional Medal of Honor, causing confusion and animosity among veterans. The issue was resolved with a redesign of the badge in 1896.

By 1890 GAR claimed almost half a million members nationwide. It held a “National Encampment” every year from 1866 to 1949. The organization formally dissolved with the death of the last member in 1956. Ninety years of records went to the Library of Congress while all of the badges, flags and the official seal went to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

(information was gathered from Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia and Four Seasons: Life on a Pioneer Van Buren County Farm, by great-aunt Lizzie Heckart Fellows, 1972)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick