Later today I’ll be heading out to Athens, Ohio, in preparation for the 8th annual History Graduate Student Conference at Ohio University, which will be taking place on Saturday, February 16. I can’t find any program information online, so I’ll share the invitation/call for papers I received several months ago.
This is my second conference in which I am presenting a paper, but this one will be unique for me because I don’t know a soul at Ohio University. I applied because I felt that this would be friendly environment for me to share some of my thesis ideas regarding the Grand Army of the Republic. I hope to use this opportunity to network with other graduate students and faculty in the field and receive constructive criticism on my paper.
The title of my paper is “In Justice and Not in Charity”: The Grand Army of the Republic and the First National Encampment of 1866. The impetus for writing this paper, initially, was to advance my thesis and get some of my ideas on paper. In my estimation, many historians who have written about Civil War memory(ies) have skimmed over the reasoning behind the creation of the GAR. I believe that these historians have viewed the GAR’s creation in the aftermath of the Civil War as a sort of self-evident fact, something that was bound to happen given the nasty circumstances of the Civil War. Thus, its origins are not worth probing too far. David Blight covers the GAR’s creation in one page. Mary Dearing wrote a very comprehensive history of the GAR almost sixty years ago that explored its origins a bit further, but her book is one of the most effective sleeping medications I’ve ever taken in my life. Barbara Gannon had this to say about the GAR’s beginnings, pages 20-21:
One year after Richmond fell, a handful of battered survivors of the Union army formed the first GAR post in Illinois… the life of the organization had two distinct phases. During phase one, the first decade of its existence, the GAR flourished, but accusations of partisanship and the institution of an unpopular new ritual that re-created military ranks and hierarchies led to the GAR’s decline. Mary R. Dearing, in the first modern study of the GAR, characterized the GAR and its local posts as “efficient cogs in the Republican [political] machine.” Membership dropped so precipitously that in some states the GAR disappeared [including Indiana, I’ll add]; by 1876, the organization had about twenty-seven thousand members.
And that’s it. I couldn’t help but wonder why things took the shape they did in 1866. Why did the GAR support the Republican party? Why did Union veterans feel the urge to organize? What was happening socially and politically in 1866 that may have directly influenced the GAR’s creation? We must remember that prior to the Civil War there was no such thing as a “veteran’s organization” for enlisted men. George Washington’s Society of the Cincinnati (which the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, is named after) was strictly restricted to officers in the military. Oliver Morris Wilson, a member of the Indiana GAR who wrote a book about the organization in 1905, made sure to point out that the uniqueness of the GAR lied in the fact that “the only passport to fraternity was an honorable discharge” from the U.S. military. A man’s rank was moot in the GAR, and this shift in the structure of veterans organizations in America represented a profound change regarding the very nature of veteranhood and who was entitled to share their memories of war with fellow veterans in a structured organization and with the broader public. The GAR’s creation in 1866 was not self-evident.
Here is my paper abstract for the Ohio University conference:
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic emerged as the nation’s preeminent Union veterans’ organization, with membership swelling to 400,000 by 1890. The GAR has recently become a topic of great interest to historians and several monographs have been published analyzing its history. However, these studies — while mentioning the GAR and its establishment as a Republican political organization during the Reconstruction era — have focused primarily on the GAR during the Gilded Age, largely failing to explain the significance of its founding on future relations between veterans and society. This study places the GAR’s formation within the political and social context of post-war Reconstruction to explain how a small Illinois veterans’ society formed in early 1866 was able to recruit members from all over the United States and hold a “National Encampment” in Indianapolis, Indiana within a matter of months. It argues that many veterans struggled to assimilate into peacetime society and that they often dealt with homelessness, imprisonment, and alcohol abuse. The GAR was established to provide a support system for soldiers returning home, but it also advocated for financial aid and job preferences from the government. Its members believed they were “owed” these entitlements out of a sense of justice and moral obligation for their wartime sacrifices, but many civilians considered such benefits acts of “misplaced pity.” Several newspapers around the country also expressed fears of a military organization functioning during times of peace. Despite these concerns, an increasing number of veterans who disagreed with President Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction policies joined the GAR in order to promote veterans’ interests and vote Radical Republicans into office in order to nullify the “treasonous” supporters of Johnson. This paper is part of a thesis project analyzing Indiana Civil War veterans and the GAR.
Ironically enough, my thesis research has now shifted to looking at the GAR from roughly 1890-1920, so I’m not even focusing on what took place in 1866 anymore. I’ll make sure to explain why in the future. Regardless, the GAR’s creation would prove to be an important moment in American’s history, and I’m glad that I have the chance to speak further about it on Saturday.
I’d also like to thank Bob Pollock at Yesterday…and Today for looking at my paper beforehand and providing some much needed criticism and advice that greatly enhanced the quality of the paper.