The G.A.R. is Gone

The Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful veterans organization of Union veterans of the Civil War, was officially disbanded in 1956, following the death of the last Union soldier, Albert Woolson. At its peak, just before the turn of the twentieth century, the G.A.R. was an association possessed of great demographic, political, and social power. With over 400,000 members, it advocated for pensions and other veterans’ benefits at the national level and played multiple fraternal and civic roles in every city and town which had a post: over 7000 across the nation and 210 here in Massachusetts, of which Salem’s Philip H. Sheridan post (#34) was among the oldest and largest. Because of the decentralized nature of the G.A.R., its membership records are found primarily in local repositories, and its successor organization, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, maintains a register of record locations. Salem’s G.A.R. records–16 boxes in all–are in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, and so gone, with the rest of its material heritage, to a storage facility in Rowley.

G.A.R. Salem

G.A.R. Salem AtkinsonGreenlawn Cemetery in Salem, and the 2016 memorial for Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Atkinson.

It is tempting to dismiss the G.A.R. as a dusty and defunct fraternal order which only represented a certain minority of the population, but its impact was consequential: Decoration Day/ Memorial Day as well as more material forms of remembrance and veterans’ benefits are among its legacies. The Library of Congress’s guide to G.A.R. records in its possession highlights several potential subjects for research, including: social and charitable activities of Civil War veterans, the establishment and development of orphans’ and veterans’ pensions, and the post-war political activity of Union veterans as well as the attitudes of Union veterans towards government and the civil service. Many towns and cities–in our region Marblehead and Lynn come to mind immediately–have not only preserved their G.A.R. records but created museums for their interpretation. But Salem’s went to the PEM’s predecessor, the Essex Institute, like the records of most of its organizations, associations, and institutions, because the Essex Institute was Salem’s historical society. The Phillips Library’s finding aid for its G.A.R. records admits that these records create a detailed picture of an active GAR post with a large member base, yet this is a picture we can’t see—or paint—because of their inaccessibility, in apparent violation of the Massachusetts General Laws Part I, Title II, Chapter 8, Section 18:

The histories, relics and mementos of the Grand Army of the Republic of the department of Massachusetts and the records of the Massachusetts department of the United Spanish War Veterans, of The American Legion, of the Disabled American Veterans of the World War, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, of the American Veterans of World War II, AMVETS, and of the Veterans of the Indian Wars shall be accessible at all times, under suitable rules and regulations, to members of the respective departments and to others engaged in collecting historical information. Whenever any such department ceases to exist, its records, papers, relics and other effects shall become the property of the commonwealth.

G.A.R. Boston 1927 3

G.A.R. collage

historycompleter00naso_0377The Massachusetts State House festooned for a G.A.R. encampment in 1927, Leslie Jones, Boston Globe; images from the History and Complete Roster of the Massachusetts Regiments, Minutemen of ’61 who Responded to the First Call of President Lincoln, April 15, 1861, to defend the Flag and Constitution of the United States (1910).

19 responses to “The G.A.R. is Gone

  • Stephanie Publicker

    What a funny coincidence. Last night I was in Bridgton, Maine with friends and noticed the G.A.R. Hall which looks to be well maintained and now houses a local craft collective. The friends had no idea what G.A.R. stood for and I was glad that I could explain what the G.A.R. had been.

  • bonniehurdsmith

    Nelson has wonderful photos of GAR reunions at The Willows in his collection!

  • Nelson Dionne

    I have several Salem News clippings about the Salem GAR Post,,in the Military binders at the SSU Archive. The group’s building was is poor condition by the mid 30’s ( as were the members ) . The building was no longer acceptable for use as a public all. It was sold soon after.
    I believe that it became a parking lot after the War.
    Bonnie’s new book on The Military History of Salem covers the group,
    as well as the story of may other local Veterans groups & their activities
    & reunions…
    Salem Serves: Sites and Stories from the Military and Patriotic History of Salem, Massachusetts
    We hope to finally ship i off to the printers very soon. We have many unpublished photographs of Fort Pickering during the Civil War. The
    book will be another title worth buying.for military as well as local history

  • Nanny Almquist

    Thanks for this informative post and especially the bit about having the GAR’s records available to the public. When is our AG Moira Healey going to take up Salem’s history cause?


    As I remember it, Salem’s last surviving veteran of the Civil War was Thomas P. Corson, who lived on a street across from the Cogswell (Salem’s other Civil War general and Member of Congress). He was a member of General Lander G. A. R. Post No. 5 in Lynn. I believe that Corson died in the Summer of 1945.

    Two more items of interest: Does anyone remember the 20 pounder Parrott Rifle that was up in Mack (Ledge Hill) Park. As I remember it, it was mounted on a granite plinth and overlooked Goodhue Street.

    There were two more 20 pounder Parrott rifles mounted in front of the Salem Civil War Memorial at Winter Street and Washington Square West.

    The three cannon have all disappeared. I know that the US Government retains ownership of all Civil War ordnance that was loaned to the various cities and towns for use in war memorials, so they must be around somewhere. Does anyone have any ideas?

  • Bob Albert

    Nice article, but the successor to the GAR is the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Only one word off. My gr-gr-grandfather was in the Berry posy in Malden, and I joined the SUVCW in his honor.

  • Bob Albert

    Nice article, but the successor to the GAR is the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Only one word off. My gr-gr-grandfather was in the Berry posy in Malden, and I joined the SUVCW in his honor.

  • Glenn McDonald

    There definitely was a cannon at Mack Park. Even though I’m a Gallows Hill (28 Albion Street) boy by birth and inclination, I spent many happy hours playing on that cannon in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

    Phil Sheridan Post No. 34 was located at 12 St. Peter Street, next to a livery stable. I don’t know when it/they were razed. All I really remember is that when I was young, the site was a Cities Service gas station. After the building was razed, Post No. 34 moved in with the United Spanish American War Veterans on Beckford ST (also on my paper route, which ended at the Public Library).

    Veering way off topic, How many bowling alleys can you remember in downtown Salem? Candlepin Lanes off Canal Street doesn’t count.

    I bowled at the tiny alleys downstairs at the Y.

    I always bowled my best at Heff’s (Heffernan’s) bowling alley inder the A&P at the NE corner of Bridge and Washington Streets. Heff always offered something like a $500 (?) bonus to anyone who could roll a score of 200, or higher in league competition.. As I remember, only Gordon Brousseau and one other got to claim the prize money.

    There were two more, defunct by the time I knew about them, But I was there, and saw what was left.

    One, name unknown, was in the basement of the Merchant’s Bank, on the SE corner of Essex and Derby Square. Entrance was from a long stairway on the Derby Square side.

    Finally, there was a bowling alley, again, name unknown, under the Old Post Office (later an Eaton’s Drug Store) on the SW corner of Essex and ST. Peter Streets. I remember that you could see the long dead pins lying on the dusty alleys if you were tall enough to look through a dirty safety wired (remember them?) window as you walked down the stairwell on St. Peter Street

    Also, there was a bowling alley on Mill Hill before WW I. It was called Hawthorne Lanes, and was at 293 Washington Street, almost exactly where the St. Mary’s Church WW I memorial is in the littlr park at the junction of Washington and Lafayette Streets,

    There was another, called Reliable Bowling Alleys, at 53 Washington ST, just East of Federal ST, but that was long gone by WW II.

    • daseger

      Wow–that’s a lot of bowling alleys. Where exactly was the G.A.R./ Spanish American Veterans post on Beckford?

    • Nelson Dionne

      Good Evening All;;

      I should have this note type by someone else. I no longer have the

      digital dexterity that I did. However, I can still research & gather today’s

      Salem , paper as it comes out. It”s free for the effort & quirky vanishes..

      Your reply as brought up many dim memories.

      II started Salem high in Sept. 1961.,after spending 9 years at St. Anne’s.

      I too delivered the Salem Evening News around the Jefferson Ave

      neighborhood. The cost was 3 cents ! I ended the route at the high

      end of Adam’s St, Back then, there was well used path on the ridge

      that hill that ended in the back of the Casino Press building…There was a

      film processing operation that used to throw away the 35 mm canisters.

      A great find for all. A few years later, the building became the “Giant –

      Valu ” super market.. I used to hang around Nick’s Variety store. My

      great uncle Ernie April as there every night to pick up the final

      edition of the Boston American. They published the Treasury balance,

      the “Number” that was eagerly awaited by the “Numbers” players !

      All the factories had a person who collected the nickle or dime bets from

      the “players” of the “N****R Pool.” The Boston bookies were the only

      real winners.!

      My father was the meat cutter at the Federal St A&P. I earned a lot about

      Salem by walking to the store from school. Unfortunately, I was juswt

      a bit too young to see the B&M steam engines, or the old depot oor

      the huge mess that had the city dug up to rebuild the tunnel I did go

      bowling downstairs now & then.

      I’m gong to end this now, more later. I can’t type anymore.

      PS I’m looking for information about the Boy Scout troops in Salem.

      • Glenn McDonald

        Hi Nelson,

        Are you kin to Ernie April, the Salem Fire Dept. Lieutenant? I went through High School with his daughter Judy.

        My grandfather used to take me down to the Salem Depot to get the early edition of the Record-American. I can still visualize the big green Railway Express carts. Tuesdays were grocery shopping days in my family, and we were First National people. My mother would do the shopping at the New Derby Street First National, where I later worked when I was at SHS, and my father and I would watch the depot demolition week by week. I can still sorta hear his remonstrances anoyr never lookind directly at the cutting torshes’ arcs as the tracks and support beams for the old tunnel were being cut up on Washington Street..



  • Nelson Dionne

    The April’s were related on my grandmothers side. I may have a photo of his wife at a family wedding in 1939. It shows All of the women & is captioned. I have extras. I do have a portrait of Ernie & Bob in their SFD uniforms.

    I also have a huge collection of rail & trolley photos at the SSU inc. the tunnel rebuilding.

  • Glenn McDonald

    Good to hear from you directly. Earlier this year, I found a Post 34 photo in ebay. It is a formal photo of the entire membership of Post 34, in their GAR uniforms, posed on the floor of the lodge room at 12 St. Peter St.

    I’m going to frame it for my office. It’s a shame that there’s no one alive today to help identify the veterans.

    My mother’s maternal grandmother’s family was in Marblehead in the 1750s, and my gr. gr. grandfather was a member of GAR Post 82 in Marblehead. His name, William H. Atkinson, is carved on one of the stones on the street, next to the building. He died in July 1899, and my grandmother remembered him well, because he lived with the family. I suppose that he’s the reason for my interest in the GAR, from around age 12.

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