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.
Greenlawn 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.
The 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).