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As the country headed into Reconstruction following the Civil War, a new generation of veterans struggled to find their place within the newly formed society. Whereas the care of wounded veterans in past wars had fallen on the shoulders of the community as a whole, the civil war had left a much vaster and diverse group in need, and it was often too much for one community to handle. Although state leaders and President Lincoln himself had promised to care for soldiers, orphans and widows of the war, little was done. As it stood, no political pressure was in place to make sure that these promises were upheld. Out of these issues and concerns emerged the Grand Army of the Republic, (GAR) founded in April of 1866 in Decatur, Illinois.
The idea for this fraternal organization came from Benjamin Franklin Stephenson of Springfield, Illinois. Stephenson had served a two-year enlistment as surgeon of the Fourteenth Illinois Infantry during the Civil War. Twelve men made up the first post, which was organized and chartered in Decatur, Illinois on April 6, 1866. Word spread rapidly to other states, and by 1890 membership had reached its peak with over 400,000 members reported. By this time, the GAR had over seven thousand posts with membership ranging from two dozen in a single town to more than a thousand in some cities. Most well known veterans were members including the presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison and McKinley.
The GAR had three main objectives: fraternity, charity and loyalty. Fraternity was demonstrated in the weekly gatherings of members. Activities such as campfires, where members sat around reminiscing about wartime experiences and singing old war songs, were also very popular. On a more national level, annual meetings, called encampments, were held in cities across the country and attracted thousands of members.
The veterans also set up funds for needy veterans, widows and orphans, which were used for medical, burial, housing and domestic expenses. The veterans were pivotal in opening several soldiers’ and orphans’ homes. Under their direction, sixteen states developed soldiers’ homes and seven states opened orphanages by 1890.
Another function of the GAR was to remind the public of their importance in bringing the nation back together. They solicited funds for memorials, monuments, and equestrian statues and worked toward the preservation of civil war sites, historic documents and other relics. Memorial cannons were placed in parks and town squares and myriad mementos were donated to local museums.
As time passed, the GAR became more active in politics and soon became powerful enough to hold sway over presidential elections. President Grover Cleveland’s failed reelection campaign was largely blamed on his veto of the Dependent Pension Bill. President William Henry Harrison, his competition, won for his support of pension legislation.
Perhaps the most well known legacy of the GAR is its creation of Memorial Day. In 1868, Commander-in-Chief John A. Logan issued a general order calling for all departments and posts to set aside the 30th of May to remember the sacrifices of fallen comrades. Originally called Decoration Day, the idea came from Logan’s wife, who had seen confederate women decorating graves with flowers in Virginia.
The organization of the GAR consisted of the following: the community level organization was called “post” and each was numbered consecutively within each department. Within each Post, officers included a Commander, a Senior Vice Commander, a Junior Vice Commander, an Adjutant, a Quartermaster, a Surgeon, a Chaplain, a Sergeant Major, and a Quartermaster Sergeant. Within each department, the officers consisted of a Grand Commander, a Senior Vice Grand Commander, a Junior Vice Grand Commander, an Assistant Adjutant General, an Assistant Inspector General, an Assistant Quartermaster General, an Assistant Surgeon General, a Chaplain, and a council of Administration. There were rules for the naming of Posts, such as the honored person had to be deceased and no two Posts could have the same name. Departments consisted of Posts within a state. At the national level, the organization was run by an elected “Commander-in Chief” who presided over National encampments and was elected in political events that rivaled national political party conventions.
The GAR also had several auxiliaries including the Women’s Relief Corps (organized nationally in 1883), the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic (1896), and the Sons of the Veterans of the Civil War (1881). These organizations continue to carry on the work of the original GAR in improving the quality of life for veterans.
GAR Post 57 held its first preliminary meeting on the evening of 19 June 1868 at the Sons of Temperance Hall in East Cambridge. Mr. Alphonse M. Lunt called together a meeting of members of different GAR posts for the purpose of establishing a post in East Cambridge. On the evening of November 16, 1868, Comrade Lunt put forth the suggestion to secure the name P. Stearns Davis for Post 57, and the motion was unanimously adopted. P. Stearns Davis was a colonel in the 39th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, mustered in on 4 September 1862. The 39th regiment was recruited in the late summer of 1862 from the Eastern towns and cities in Massachusetts. The regiment first went into camp at Lynnfield, but was eventually transferred to Camp Standton, Boxford, where Col. Davis took command. The 39th spent time guarding the north bank of the Potomac River from Seneca Creek to Conrad’s Ferry. On 14 October 1862, the 39th was assigned to Grover’s Brigade at Seneca Creek. Col. Davis commanded the brigade from 11 November 1862 until 5 January 1863. He died in battle at Petersburg, Virginia on 11 July 11 1864.
The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies: An Introduction. http://www.loc.gov/rr/main/gar/garintro.html
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “Brief History of the Grand Army of the Republic.” http://suvcw.org/gar.htm
39th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company “K” “Woburn National Rangers.” http://www.yeoldewoburn.net/39th.htm
The records of Post 57 of the GAR, East Cambridge, document the activities of its meetings and record keeping activities over the years. Records of Meetings (Series I., A) are contained in eleven leather bound volumes of various shapes and sizes that carefully document the activities of post meetings which were held weekly. Activities at meetings included the nominations of soldiers by members of the post, who were then either reported favorably and mustered in or rejected. Communications from other GAR posts were read and remarked upon, and committees were formed to organize different activities and events sponsored by the Post 57.
Records of meetings were kept by the Adjutant, an elected member of the post whose job included keeping in books the rules and regulations of the GAR, including the by-laws of the post, and making sure that every new comrade signs these by-laws (Series I., C) The adjutant was also in charge of keeping descriptive books (Series I., E), which described the soldiers who had been dismissed or suspended and why. Medical descriptive books were also kept, which described the kind of wounds received by members and which battle the wound was received in. The Adjutant also kept the black lists, which featured information about applicants for membership to the post who had been rejected or dishonorably discharged from the post (Series I., B.). According to the by-laws of the GAR, the Adjutant was assisted in his duties by the Sergeant Major, which may explain the occasional change in handwriting within the records he kept.
Also included in this collection are several “Adjutant’s Quarterly Records,” which are not bound but collected and arranged chronologically. (Series I. D.) This report was made four times a year to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Department by the Commander of the each post, and attested by the Adjutant. The report records the numbers of members at last report, together with the number of new members, detailing which members were mustered in and which dropped out or passed away. It also contains a statement of the condition and prospects of the post and a record of their proceedings for that quarter.
Several applications for membership are collected here (Series I. H.), which were submitted to the Post Commander, looked over by a committee of three and voted upon. The Adjutant kept a record of which applications were elected and mustered and which were not.
Another officer of the post, the Quartermaster, was in charge of all property of the post, collected all monies due the post, paid bills and kept records of all monies received and paid. He also rendered a monthly report of the finances of the post. The quartermaster records of Post 57 (Series II. A-C) are collected here in the form of cash books, records of individual members’ dues paid, and Quartermaster reports. The Quartermaster was assisted in his duties by the Quartermaster Sergeant, which could explain the discrepancy in handwriting within the records he kept.
The majority of the records kept by the Quartermaster and the Adjutant are bound into books. Most of these books are in decent condition with minor cases of red rot and loose or, in some cases, split bindings. Two particular volumes are in bad condition, and have been placed in an oversized box to further protect their crumbling state.
Also contained in this collection is what appears to be a hand-assembled collection of pamphlets containing reports from GAR headquarters (Series III.A). The reports, titled “General Orders,” detail proceedings of meetings that include members from various departments and posts across the country, beginning in 1892 and continuing until 1911. The “General Orders” also include death notices, the election of new officers throughout the organization both nationally and locally, and general news announcements. In addition to these “General Orders,” a “Report of the Committee on Pensions to the National Encampment,” in Washington D.C., on 9 October 1902, is taped into the very front of the binder.
Also collected here are documents pertaining to the court martial of Everett Farrah and Thomas Dempsey (Series III.B). Farrah was charged with “conduct unbecoming of a comrade and a gentleman” in May of 1870, for failing to pay a bill. An announcement of his court martial and a formal charge signed by the Quartermaster and three witnesses are collected. No other information regarding the outcome is included.
Thomas Dempsey was charged with “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline” in June of 1875 for appearing drunk at an event. A letter written by Comrade John L. Chase to Post Commander A.M. Lunt calling for the charge, an announcement of a court martial, along with detailed proceedings of the court martial, and a list of witnesses are included here. The court martial found Dempsey guilty as charged and recommended a dishonorable discharge as punishment. They submitted a request to the Department headquarters in Boston, MA for his dishonorable discharge, which was rejected and sent back to them, directing that “ the within sentence is to reverse.” This document and various documents related to the proceedings are included here.
Finally, correspondence addressed to the Commander of the Post from Somerville’s Willard C. Kinsley Post 139, concerning the building of a memorial hall, as well as a notice of transfer from Post 139 to Post 57 is included here (Series III.C). Another letter written to the post from a Carolyn Saunders, dated 15 June 1926, concerns a photograph of interest, which is not included in this collection. A “Preamble and Resolution on the Death of Comrade James Dalton” is also included here. Preambles on a comrade’s death have also been included in the volumes that contain records of meetings; however, this particular preamble is loose and undated.
- United States—History—Civil War, 1861-1865—Veterans
- Veterans—United States—History
- Veterans—United States—Societies
- United States—Politics and government—1861-1865—Grand Army of the Republic
- Veterans—Massachusetts—Societies, etc.
- Patriotic societies–Massachusetts
||Series I. Adjutant’s Records (1867-1920)
||A. Meeting Minutes (1870-1920)
||B. Black Lists
||C. Rolls of Officers
||D. Adjutants Quarterly Records
||E. Descriptive Books
2|17|Medical Descriptive Book, 1876
||F. Adjutant’s Reports
||H. Applications for Membership
||Series II. Quartermaster Records
||A. Cash Books
||B. Records of Individual “Dues Paid.”
||C. Quartermaster Reports
||III. Other Materials
2|30|A. General Orders, 1892-1911
2|31|B. Court Martial Records
2|32|C. Correspondence, undated material