The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and the Great Reunion

The official governing bodies of the northern and southern veterans were the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), respectively. This post takes a brief look at the GAR; our next will look at the UCV.

The GAR was founded shortly after the Civil War ended, in 1866. Its membership reached almost half a million Civil War veterans in the 1890s before age and death began to shrink its ranks. More than a social organization, the GAR was an advocacy group for the rights and privileges of its members and Civil War veterans in general, and one of the GAR’s chief efforts was to urge the establishment of federal pensions for veterans.

The GAR was also a strong political advocacy group – sort of a Political Action Committee (PAC) of its day, at least in part – and was closely aligned with the Republican Party.

Annual encampments – conventions, essentially – were held around the country at the national level, as well as other frequent encampments at the Department (State) level. For example, the Pennsylvania GAR Encampment of 1913 was held at Gettysburg immediately preceding the Great Reunion.

Despite planning for the Great Reunion having been underway for several years by early 1912, it was a formal invitation from its then-Commander-in-Chief, Harvey M. Trimble, to the Commander-in-Chief of the UCV, Irvine Walker, that triggered the official acceptance by the memberships of both organizations to agree to meet at Gettysburg in friendship on the 50th anniversary of the battle. Trimble’s letter to Walker, dated March 4, 1912, is reproduced in the official Pennsylvania Commission report (see our earlier blog post for information about this magnificent report).

At the GAR’s annual national encampment in Los Angeles later in 1912, a new Commander-in-Chief, Alfred B. Beers, was elected. Beers was among the speakers at the Great Reunion’s opening ceremonies on the day designated as Veterans’ Day: July 1, 1913.

The final encampment, attended by 16 VERY old Union Army veterans, was held in Indianapolis in 1949, and the organization was dissolved in 1956 – more than ten years after World War II had ended! – when its final member passed away.

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