During the early years of Decoration Day (Today we call it Memorial Day) in the last part of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, in small towns and large cities, long lines of men in their dark blue dress uniforms adorned with bronze buttons proudly wore their black wide-brimmed slouch felt hat, with golden wreath insignia and hat cord, or dark blue caps, as they marched in parades or stood in long lines in cemeteries to honor fallen American soldiers of yesteryear.
Each soldier also proudly wore an official membership badge in the shape of a bronze star hung from a small silk American flag ribbon with 13 stars in the upper left blue field. The star in relief depicted a soldier and sailor clasping hands in front of a figure of Liberty. Many also wore an official round lapel pin on the left side of the coat. These were Grand Army of the Republic men, extremely proud of their service in defense of the Union and the destruction of slavery. They enjoyed their status in the celebrations. During their formal times, mostly in Post meetings and other sanctioned events, they called each other “comrade”.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a prominent feature in both the American and Effingham culture. The organization was quite important socially and politically as it brought together thousands of Civil War veterans. These were the people who gave us the special day which we today call Memorial Day.
Those old soldiers, of course, are all gone. However, local reminders of the very important veterans organization are numerous. In Effingham County cemeteries, there are gravestones with the GAR symbol on them. On some burial plots, a single stone for both husband and wife indicate GAR and WRC, the latter being the Woman’s Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary for the soldiers group. Some of the cemeteries also contain monuments placed by the GAR, as does the historic courthouse square in Effingham. Then there are the artifacts on display in the Effingham County Museum — cards and song sheets, encampment booklets, ribbons and pins, and photos of veterans in their GAR uniforms.
The GAR grew from President Lincoln’s pledge to take care of "those who have borne the burden, his widows and orphans." The pledge became a reality when two Illinois Civil War veterans, Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, MD, an army regimental surgeon, and Chaplain the Rev. William J. Rutledge in February of 1864, while serving under General Sherman, discussed how to create an organization that “would preserve the friendships and the memories of their common trials and dangers." Although the Grand Army of the Republic was founded on April 6, 1866, in Springfield, Illinois, by Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson, the first GAR Post was established in Decatur, Illinois, then quickly spread throughout the state and nation.
There were six GAR Posts in Effingham County. The earliest was the Effingham organization, Yates Post 88, chartered on Dec. 7, 1880, named after Illinois’ Civil War governor. Mason’s Ransom Post 99 was chartered on June 30, 1881. It was the namesake of an officer in the 11th Illinois Infantry. About a year later came Elliottstown’s Ed Kitchell Post 159, named after a gentleman who was in the 98th Illinois Infantry. Beecher City Post 349, named for the community in which it was based, was chartered on May 28, 1887. Watson Post 418 was named after P. Schooley, a local Civil War soldier, when it was chartered May 5, 1884. The last Effingham County Post 632 was chartered in Altamont on June 12, 1887, and was named after Robert Anderson, the commander of the garrison at Fort Sumter when it was bombarded at the outset of the Civil War. All of these posts were based upon three ideals: fraternity, charity and loyalty.
The first ideal was encouraged through regular, locally scheduled meetings and joint gatherings with members from other posts. In the early part of the 20th century, the Effingham group, for instance, met on the first and third Monday of the month; The Mason Post met “Tuesday on or before full moon;” Elliottstown’s vets met on Saturdays after the full moon; while Watson’s group met on the second Saturday of the month; and Altamont’s met on the first and third Saturdays. The most popular activity at each post was known as “The Campfire,” a meeting consisting of a group of veterans sitting in their hall, singing old war songs, recalling and reminiscing about their wartime experiences.
Fraternity was also encouraged by annual state and national “Encampments,” events which attracted thousands of members. These were held across the United States, from the East Coast to the West Coast. Railroads offered special discounted rates and scheduled special trains.
An example of the attraction of such events occurred when Effingham resident, Benson Wood, was the Illinois Department commander in 1903. A Salt Lake City, Utah, newspaper reported that a huge tide of GAR members traveling through their area with 17 separate trains carrying the veterans to the San Francisco encampment came through the city during the morning hours in mid-August. All freight trains were side tracked and every locomotive was pressed into passenger service. A reception greeted the old soldiers at the Salt Lake tabernacle, with a speech, music “from the world’s largest organ, “and a great amount of hot coffee, beans, bacon, bread and other food. Similar welcomes were experienced at other locations along the route to California.
On the day of the parade, with Benson Wood commanding, the Illinois detachment led the way, followed by numerous units that passed thousands of sightseers crowding the San Francisco streets as they greeted the GAR vets. The men were truly a brotherhood bound together by their wartime experiences.
The group’s second objective, charity, was accomplished when veterans set up funds for the relief of needy veterans, their widows and orphans. The GAR was active in promoting soldiers' and orphans' homes. Money was used for medical, burial and housing expenses, as well as for purchasing food and household goods. The veterans sometimes arranged loans for their colleagues’ families, or finding work for the needy. GAR vets also gained seats in state and national legislative bodies to push for better pensions and care for veterans’ families.
Loyalty, the third ideal, was encouraged by “monuments and memorials, busts and equestrian statues of Union soldiers and heroes, granite shafts, tablets, urns and mounted cannon.” These types of items located throughout the county were and are constant reminders to the public of the significance of the GAR in reuniting a divided nation. Cannons and field pieces were placed in many towns or courthouse squares and parks.
Any discussion of the GAR would be remiss if it failed to acknowledge the valuable role played by its sister organization, the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC). Although it is deserving of a museum page article all by itself, it can be summarized in this manner: Membership in this group did not rest upon kinship to Civil War veterans. The only requirements for admission as a member were loyalty and the observance of the principles of the order: A member had to be willing to “aid and assist the Grand Army of the Republic and perpetuate the memory of their hero like dead; to assist such Union veterans as needed help and protection, and extend needful into their widows and orphans, to find them homes in employment, and assure them of sympathy and friends; to cherish and emulate the deeds of the army nurses, and of a loyal woman who reaches who rendered loving service to their country in its hour of peril; to inculcate lessons of patriotism and love of country among the children and in the communities in which a person lives; to maintain true allegiance to the United States of America; and to discountenance whatever tends to weaken loyalty, and to encourage the spread of universal liberty and equal rights to all men.”
The WRC’s community involvement consisted of placing monuments on the Effingham County Courthouse square and at one of the entries to Oak Ridge Cemetery, as well as by placing numerous grave markers on the permanent resting places of Civil War vets.
The GAR’s legacy was a great one. Their focus on things like education, pensions, patriotism and respect for the flag all contributed to the high position the GAR occupied throughout the country. Specific accomplishments were the group’s call in 1890 to have its wartime marching song, "The Star-Spangled Banner," be named the national anthem, and for a national observance for Flag Day. The Grand Army created the tradition of standing during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and of saluting to the flag.
The influence of the GAR led to the creation of the Soldiers Homes for veterans in the late 19th century into the 20th century, which subsequently evolved into the modern United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
The GAR's most obvious contribution to the nation, however, is the annual observance of May 30 as Decoration Day, or more recently, Memorial Day. In 1868, General Order 11 of the GAR called for May 30 to be designated as a day of memorial and commemoration for the heroic dead who had fallen while serving the Union in the armed forces. Major General John Alexander Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the GAR, requested members of all posts to decorate the graves of their fallen comrades with flowers. Members of local posts in communities throughout the nation visited veterans' graves and decorated them with flowers, flags and wreaths, and honored the dead with eulogies and ceremonies. It was not until the First World War was over, and when the elderly Civil War veterans could no longer conduct observances, that the Civil War character of Decoration Day was replaced by ceremonies for the more recent war dead.
The Effingham County Museum encourages all who read this column to take time this Memorial Day to remember those who have sacrificed so much to protect the wonderful heritage of this nation. Visit the museum to learn more about that rich heritage.