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Grand Army of the Republic.

Most people today are well aware of veterans groups like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. With the Civil War in the distant past and all of its veterans long gone, this article serves as a reminder of one influential organization that became a model for the veterans groups that were familiar with today.

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army, U.S. Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service, who served in the Civil War. After the end of the Civil War, organizations were formed for veterans to maintain connections with each other. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power. Emerging as most influential among the various organizations was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded by Benjamin F. Stephenson on April 6, 1866, in Decatur on the principles of "Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty."

GAR initially grew and prospered as a de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. GAR promoted voting rights for black veterans, as many veterans recognized their demonstrated patriotism. But when the Republican Partys commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, GARs mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many divisions ceased to exist.

In the 1880s, the organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating federal pensions for veterans. As the organization revived, black veterans joined in significant numbers and organized local posts. The national organization, however, failed to press the case for pensions for black soldiers, and most black troops never received any pension or remuneration for wounds incurred during their service.

GAR was organized into departments at the state level and posts at the community level, and military-style uniforms were worn by its members. There were posts in every state, with several posts overseas. The pattern of establishing departments and local posts was later used by other veterans organizations, such as the American Legion and VFW.

GARs political power grew during the latter part of the 19th century, and it helped elect several Republican presidents, beginning with Ulysses S. Grant and ending with William McKinley. Five of its members were elected president of the United States. For a time, candidates could not get nominated to the Republican ticket without the endorsement of the GAR voting block.

GAR reached its largest enrollment in 1890, with 490,000 members. It held an annual National Encampment every year from 1866 to 1949. In 1956, after the death of the last member, GAR was formally dissolved.

Locally, the total number of posts in Williamson County was eight, with a membership of about 200 veterans. The first GAR post organized in Williamson County was at Crab Orchard on Sept. 11, 1866, with a membership of 94. The complete listing of GAR posts as of the turn of the 20th century was as follows: J.L. Parks Post 518, Crab Orchard; Carterville Post 237, Carterville; Marion Post 319, Marion; Corinth Post 434, Corinth; Dollins Post 562, Johnston City; James Adkins Post 655, Cottage Home; B.D. Caplinger Post 677, Creal Springs; and Herrin Post 797, Herrin.

Much information about the Marion post has been lost. It is known that the post was originally organized in late 1866, but likely dissolved and reformed again in 1883. Marion GAR Post 319 met once a month in the Odd Fellows Hall, and membership ranged from 20 to 30 members. The last names of the Marion members read like a Whos Who of early Marion life names like Copeland, Hartwell, Young, Fowler, McAnally, Dunn and Hendrickson.

The post went inactive after the death in 1914 of one of the backbones of the Marion post, James P. Copeland, editor of the Marion Flag newspaper, and the impending death of local attorney George W. Young.

* SAM LATTUCA is president of Williamson County Historical Society
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Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Jan 17, 2018
Words:663
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