The Grand Army of the Republic, the American Legion, and Armistice Day

Confederate Civil War Veterans in 1929. Photo Credit: Stones River National Battlefield,
Confederate Civil War Veterans in 1929. Photo Credit: Stones River National Battlefield,

This morning I came across an interesting post from Elizabeth Goetsch of History and Interpretation on Veterans Day. She talks about National Park sites and social media for a while before showing a Facebook update from Stones River National Battlefield, a National Park that posted a picture of former Confederates reuniting in 1929 on Veterans day. Underneath the photo a caption reads “we join the rest of the country in paying, ‘appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this Nation’.” Such a caption puzzles me considering the fact that Confederates fought for a cause distinctly at odds with the idea of “preserving the Nation.” Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s post got me thinking about Civil War veterans and their symbolic relationship with Veterans Day.

In my research of Indiana’s Civil War veterans who joined the Grand Army of the Republic, I discovered that tensions existed between the GAR and the American Legion, a fraternal organization composed of World War I veterans which formed in 1919 and still exists today (and is now also open to women). I don’t want to give away too much information because I address several questions about these tensions in my yet-to-be-published Master’s thesis, but I think part of the these disagreements emerged thanks to the GAR’s membership standards. From its inception in 1866, GAR veterans vowed that their organization would die with the last living Union veteran. Confederate veterans were of course banned from membership, but equally significant was the notion that future members of the United States military–those who would later fight in defense of the country in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Great War–were also banned from membership. As an 1880 GAR almanac asserts (pages 26-30), the fight to defend to the Union and abolish slavery was the GAR’s legacy, a legacy that was jealously guarded by its members. Even if future soldiers went to off to battle in defense of the country, there was only one group of veterans that saved the union and brought about emancipation.

This brief history of Veterans Day cites President Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed in November 1919 that “to us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” This statement begs a question: why did the end of World War I bring about the creation of a new holiday for veterans when the nation already had Memorial Day, a day for those who died in combat? If November 11 was to be a day for solemn pride for those who died in the country’s service, then what future role would Memorial Day play in America’s commemorative landscape? Was it now necessary to have two days dedicated to the American dead? I have little evidence to back this claim, but I wonder if Veterans Day (called Armistice Day at the time) was a concerted effort by World War I veterans and political leaders of postwar America to assert their own distinct form of remembrance within America’s commemorative landscape, away from the GAR.

When GAR members began holding Memorial Day commemorations in 1868, veterans took ownership of May 30 and called it “their holiday.” Did American Legion veterans speak the same of Armistice Day on November 11? I don’t know, but I’d like to see a future historical study analyze the relationship between the GAR and the American Legion in the early twentieth century. Such a study may present new questions about the various ways in which veterans of different wars make sense of their past and choose to commemorate their time in battle.

Cheers and have a great Veteran’s Day