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Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900.

The study of male fraternal ritual in the United States has always had some trouble being taken seriously. No matter how often historians emphasize the importance of associative relations among men, the field is still haunted by the specter of Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton, and the Raccoon Lodge. What many scholars stress is that behind the sometimes ludicrous costumes and poses were some of the most influential organizations of the Gilded Age--among them the Grange, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Grand Army of the Republic.

The GAR, founded in 1866 by Dr. Benjamin Stephenson, was the largest fraternal order of the Civil War's Union veterans, and as such, acted as a representative of veteran's ideas and interests in the post-war era. In Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900, Stuart McConnell has written the first social history of the Civil War era to explore the war's effects on its participant's later lives. Rather than ending his story at Appomatox, McConnell begins his soldiers' narratives in peacetime, thereby expanding our understanding of the interplay between the veteran and post-war society.

McConnell, like other historians of male ritual, organizes his history of the GAR by examining the places and activities that set them apart from other men--the Post Room, the parade ground, and the National Encampment. Within the fold of the lodge, veterans were free to relive and memorialize the activities of their wartimes among sympathetic compatriots. While it is too much to say that the GAR provided a kind of emotional support group for the veteran, it did allow him a place where the employment of war service within the narrative of an individual's life story could safely take place.

It was the political importance of the GAR, as well, that sets it apart from the Masons or the Improved Order of Red Men. The GAR became one of the nation's most effective lobbies for the increase and expansion of the Civil War Pension system, which became the single largest expense of the Federal government in the post-war era. Veterans, and their concerns for their pensions, could help elect Presidents as well as lodge captains. By giving organization to the post-war lives of the Union Army, the GAR perpetuated the concept of a debt that the nation would owe to its veterans, their widows, and their survivors. While McConnell does not duplicate the quantitative work of Mary Dearing's definitive Veterans in Politics,(1) he augments it by illustrating the social organization behind political influence.

Besides writing a national history of the GAR, McConnell utilizes the records and membership roles of three individual lodges--a prosperous post from Philadelphia; a post composed primarily of shoe workers from Brockton, Massachusetts; and a post from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. This preliminary examination suggests that men used GAR posts (and by implication, reinterpreted their wartime experience) for different purposes. The Philadelphia post, like other social organizations of the elite, used membership to enforce class position; the egalitarian shoemakers of Brockton established a system of social supports; and the workers of northern Wisconsin used the GAR to help establish themselves in the political life of the town. While this assessment is tantalizing, I wish that McConnell had either spent more time analyzing the position that the GAR played within the lives of the communities or that he had been more systematic in his sampling of veterans. His quantitative and qualitative comparisons of the posts tend toward the superficial here, and reinforce existing characterizations of male interaction of the Gilded Age rather than commenting upon the unique nature of the veteran's role.

But this is a small criticism. While authors as varied as Theda Skocpol and James Michener have come to realize that combat and war service change men absolutely, thereby altering their relationships to their communities and their state, social historians have almost willfully ignored the effect of war in the ongoing constructions of social order. Stuart McConnell has placed the Civil War veteran within the ongoing scholarship of ritual behavior as well as those of gender roles and community structures. As a graceful, witty study of ritual and remembrance, this is a welcome addition to the new social history of war.

Timothy Haggerty Carnegie Mellon University


1. Mary R. Dearing, Veterans in Politics: The Story of the GAR (Baton Rouge, 1952).
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Author:Haggerty, Timothy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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