Tag Archives: Destitution

What Can We Learn from GAR Records?

Surprisingly, Civil War historians have made relatively little use of the records of the largest northern veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.  Until last year, when Barbara Gannon’s elegantly written and well argued book The Won Cause appeared, the only modern work of scholarship that made any sustained attempt to analyze the records generated by the organization was Stuart McConnell’s two decade-old Glorious Contentment.  Most students of the Civil War know nothing about Philadelphia’s Grand Army of the Republic Museum, housed in an unassuming two-hundred year old building in a residential neighborhood on the city’s northern fringe.  In the attic are piled seemingly endless rows of Hollinger boxes containing Grand Army records, minute books, black lists, and registers.  These sources are also scattered across the country – in local history rooms at public libraries, at state historical societies, and in public archives.  And they are, for the most part, neglected.  

But there are tantalizing pieces of information to be gleaned from these sources. Take, for instance, the black book of Webster, Massachusetts’s Nathaniel Lyon Post No. 61, now housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.  A quick scan of the book reveals the names of “hard case” veterans dismissed from the Grand Army for “disreputable character” or “alcoholism.” Grand Army post court martial records also reveal “misbehavior” and rules violations that help us get a sense of the troubled lives and experiences of Union veterans.

Financial records of individual posts are similarly telling.  Each post operated a “relief fund,” which functioned as social welfare for Union veterans and their families well into the twentieth century.  By using the extant account books, receipts, and ledgers of these relief funds, one can assemble an amazingly cogent picture of the depth and breadth of destitution and homelessness experienced by blue-coated veterans.  Relief fund ledgers report expenditures for medical procedures, artificial limbs, coal (for winter heating), clothing, and prescriptions.  In 1870 alone, a GAR post in the anthracite coal region of southwestern Pennsylvania expended $30,000 caring for indigent comrades; in Chicago that same year, several urban posts shelled out $27,000 to help veterans heat their homes.  When a fire ravaged Oskosh, Wisconsin, rendering scores of ex-soldiers homeless, the GAR stepped in to care for him who had borne the battle.

These are only a few examples of what we can learn from the enormous paper trail left by the post commanders of the Grand Army.  At first glance tedious minutiae and trivial procedure, the records of the Grand Army contain clues with infinite possibilities for re-writing the history of Union veteranhood.

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