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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) and its connection to Memorial Day

Peter Wayne Selner was my 3x maternal great-grandfather, born in 1825 in Pennsylvania. I discovered while visiting his grave, a bronze G.A.R. (1861-1865) marker which held a small American flag. Until that day, I had never heard of the G.A.R. From this new discovery during the cemetery visit, further research of the G.A.R. led me to his Civil War pension file and I learned about his military service.

A resident of Melmore, Ohio, Peter Selner was 37 years old and a father of five children when he enlisted at Tiffin in 1864 as a private in Company C from Seneca County, 180th Regiment of the Ohio Infantry Volunteers. As part of the Army of Ohio, the 180th Regiment went on the Atlanta campaign and after the city was captured, the 180th returned Tennessee operated with the "Railroad Brigade" during Hood's invasion. The regiment was ordered to Washington City until it moved on to North Carolina. There the 180th participated in the battle at Kinston, where it lost forty-two men. It performed garrison duty until the close of the war and was mustered out July 25, 1865

Private Peter Selner was detailed as a teamster. He drove horses or supply wagon teams for his regiment much like truck drivers of today. In February 1865 at Alexandria, Virginia, he was severely injured while loading horses on a vessel. He was kicked in the breast by a horse and sustained injuries to his chest, body and back. He was honorably discharged in July 1865 at Charlotte, North Carolina and later applied for and was granted a monthly disability pension from the United States government. He died in April 1923.

I was curious to know what the Grand Army of the Republic was all about. I guessed that it might be a group similar to our present day V.F.W. or American Legion. In fact, the G.A.R. is quite interesting. After the Civil War ended surviving soldiers often missed the friendships shared during battle. Informal local groups of veterans met occasionally but it wasn’t until 1866 when the first national veteran’s organization was established. An army surgeon named Benjamin F. Stephenson from Illinois founded the fraternal organization in 1866. G.A.R. posts sprang up around the country and the organization grew to become the largest association of honorably discharged individuals who served in the Union during the Civil War.

The Grand Army of the Republic was founded on the principles of Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty and was dedicated to good works. The G.A.R. generously helped needy and handicapped veterans. Although it was not originally intended to be a political group, it became quite powerful by strongly lobbying for benefits for veterans and their dependents. It was with the assistance of the G.A.R. that many soldiers and their families received pensions.

The G.A.R. was organized in "departments" at the state level. The local chapters were called "posts". There were posts in every state and a few overseas. Veterans also referred to as “comrades” applied to their local post for membership. Members of that post would vote for acceptance or denial of the applicant. If denied by one post, the applicant would be banned from the organization. Each post was numbered consecutively within each department. Most were also named in honor of a deceased local or national Civil War soldier.

The departments published annual reports usually called Proceedings of the . . . Annual Encampment of the Department of . . ., Grand Army of the Republic. By 1880 many often recorded the death of members for the preceding year by name, rank, company and regiment or ship, date of death and the name, number and location of the post he belong to.

The Grand Army of the Republic held annual conventions called National Encampments from 1866 to 1949. The annual Encampment was presided over by the elected Department Commander, Senior and Junior Vice Commanders and the Council. Delegates would decide the organization’s business at these conventions. Veterans traveled from around the country to attend. Many encampments included a camp out, parades, formal dinners and memorial events, music, speeches, and other forms of entertainment and lasted over several days time.

A glance at a few National Encampments statistics shows how the membership numbers grew and began to decline in the 1920s.

1st Encampment, 1866
15th Encampment, 1881, Members: 85,856
25th Encampment, 1893, Members: 397,223
54th Encampment, 1920, Members: 103,258
55th Encampment, 1921, Members: 93,171
76th Encampment, 1942, Members: 518
83rd Encampment, 1949, Members: 16

The final Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic was held in Indianapolis, Indiana from 28 August to 1 September 1949. At that time there were 16 surviving members of whom only six attended the encampment. The last member, Albert Woolson died in 1956 at the age of 109 years. He was the sole survivor of the more than 2,675,000 men of the Union armed forces and the last survivor of the Grand Army of the Republic. Five presidents were members of the G.A.R.: Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.

The day we now know as Memorial Day was formerly called Decoration Day, and was established in 1868. It was first enacted to honor the memory of Union soldiers of the Civil War by an order issued by Commander-in-Chief John A. Logan of the G.A.R. The order declared the day to be “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The first national celebration of Decoration Day was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. Memorial Day is a legal federal holiday always observed on the last Monday in May and now not only honors Union veterans but also honors American casualties of any war or military action.

The G.A.R. membership records are scattered throughout the states and are not deposited in one central location. This makes it difficult to find the complete records of a specific post. When the G.A.R. ceased, some records were placed in local historical societies and libraries or the state archives, but many were thrown away or have not been found. Some records of the G.A.R. posts have been published. Some records are on microfilm and available through Family History Centers of the LDS Family History Library.

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) was created by the Grand Army of the Republic in 1881 to preserve the memory of the Grand Army of the Republic and ancestors who fought to preserve the Union. You can find more information about this group on their website at: There is also a Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library located in Philadelphia, PA. You can learn more about the museum and library at:

The following is known as the most famous poem written during WWI and widely read to commemorate fallen loved ones. It was written by Lieut. Col. John McCrae (1872-1918) on 3 May 1915, after he witnessed the death of and presided over the funeral of his friend, Lieut. Alexis Helmer.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt drawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be your to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


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