"Frequently Asked Questions"

 

  1. Why is the SUVCW interested in finding GAR records?

  2. Where do I look for GAR records?

  3. What was the GAR?

  4. When was the GAR in existence?

  5. The GAR Records Catalog uses abbreviations for rank. What do they mean?

  6. Most GAR badges have a serial number on the edge of the star.  Is this number traceable to a member?

  7. I found a veteran who was listed in a GAR Post "Black Book."  Why would he be on this list?

  8. What's the difference between the terms "Organized," "Chartered," and "Mustered" as they relate to GAR Post start-up dates? 

 

Why is the SUVCW interested in finding GAR records?

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) is the legal heir and successor to the GAR, and we are charged with the responsibility of preserving their memory and history.  The records of the GAR are some of the most important pieces of that history.  They not only chronicle the activities of the GAR as an organization, but they also contain a wealth of genealogical information and local history.

 

Both the SUVCW Congressional Charter and the Deed of Conveyance between the GAR and the SUVCW instruct us to search for and make efforts to preserve GAR records.  Because of the importance of this project, the SUVCW established a standing committee to manage the GAR Records Project.  The mission of this committee is presented below:

 

Mission Statement of the SUVCW National Committee on GAR Records

The Congressional Charter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War states that one of the purposes of our organization is ". . . to assist in every practicable way in the preservation and making available for research of documents and records pertaining to the Grand Army of the Republic and its members; . . ."

Chapter 774 -- Public Law 605 [H. R. 3034], 20 August 1954

"An Act for the Incorporation of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War"

The mission of the National Committee on Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Records is to devise and implement a program to comply with the above purpose as stated in the National Charter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW).  That is, to collect, store and make available to the general public information relating to the location of documents and records pertaining to the activities of Posts, Departments and National Encampments of the GAR.  To accomplish this, the Committee provides leadership and direction to SUVCW Departments, Camps-at-Large, and Camps in the process of seeking, locating, physically examining, inventorying, cataloging, and promoting the preservation and conservation of GAR records.  The Committee is responsible for devising and maintaining a record keeping system in which data is gathered, combined and published (preferably in electronic form) for public benefit.

 

Where do I look for GAR records?

The great majority of GAR records were maintained by the officers of the local GAR chapters (Posts). Many records were kept in the homes of key officers such as the Post Adjutant (secretary) and the Post Quartermaster (treasurer). Other records were stored at the post headquarters or were kept by the Post Commander. Because of this, the records for a particular Post may not all be archived at the same location.

When the last member of a GAR Post died (or if the surviving members opted to disband), GAR regulations required that the post records be surrendered to the GAR Department headquarters. This often didn't happen. Many records were treated as personal property or were entrusted to other organizations to preserve. Some records were destroyed or burned by disinterested parties. Others were donated to local veterans' organizations (United Spanish War Veterans, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, etc.), or patriotic societies (Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War 1861-1865, Woman's Relief Corps, Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, etc.). Still others were passed along to historical societies, museums, colleges, archives and libraries. Private collectors or the families of the last Post officers also still hold some records.

 

What was the GAR?

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization of honorably discharged Union veterans of the American Civil War, who organized to promote the principles of "Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty."  Applicants for membership had to prove that they were honorably discharged veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard), who had served between April 1861 and April 1865.  The name of the organization comes from a popular alternative name for the Union volunteer forces of the American Civil War.  The organization came into existence during a time when fraternal organizations ("lodges") were growing rapidly in popularity in this country.  The bonds of former comrades-in-arms, who had witnessed first hand this pivotal war in American history, made the Grand Army of the Republic the most influential veterans organization of all time.  With thousands of local chapters -- called Posts -- established in cities and towns all over the county, the term GAR was immediately recognizable as the foremost association of Union veterans.

The GAR was notably different from many fraternal organizations of the day.  Although it functioned much like other lodges (and its ritual was modeled largely after that of Freemasonry), there were many aspects of GAR business that made it unique among its contemporaries.  The GAR promoted patriotism, it supported charity (especially for widows and orphans), it was a powerful lobby for pioneering veterans' benefits, and it exerted strong political influence.  Although politics was discouraged in the GAR, it was nevertheless influenced by the members of the organization.  Candidates seeking election to public offices relied on GAR support to assure their political victories.  This extended to the highest levels of government, including the President of the United States (five of which were elected thanks to GAR support).

More information on the history of the GAR may be found at the following page:

Brief History of the Grand Army of the Republic

 

When was the GAR in existence?

The first Post of the GAR was organized by Dr. Benjamin Stephenson in Decatur, Illinois, on 6 April 1866.  Interest in expanding the organization spread, and by the late 1860's the GAR had spread from coast to coast.  Disruptive internal policies (including heavy involvement in politics and the introduction of a controversial membership grade system) severely reversed the organization's growth in the early 1870's.  Recognizing the negative effects of these policies, the leadership of the GAR soon reversed them, leading to a period of expansion and prosperity of the organization that reached a peak in the 1890's when the membership exceeded 400,000.

Membership in the Grand Army of the Republic was limited to Union Civil War veterans. Therefore, it was an organization that was destined to eventually go extinct.  With an aging membership, the Twentieth Century saw a gradual decline in the organization as time took its course.  By 1940, the membership had dropped to about 1,000 members.  In 1949, when the last National Encampment (annual convention) was held, the membership had dropped to just 16.  In 1956 with the death of its last member, Albert Woolson, the charter was vacated and the GAR came to an end.

 

The GAR Records Catalog has abbreviations for rank. What do they mean?

The namesakes of GAR Posts were often men who carried a military rank (i.e., General, Captain, Private, etc.).  For consistency, the GAR Records Catalog uses standard abbreviations to denote rank when it was a part of the Post name.  Below is a list of abbreviations used:

1LT . . . .  First Lieutenant

2LT . . . .  Second Lieutenant

ADM . . .  Admiral

BG . . . . . Brigadier General

CDR . . . . Commander

COL . . . . Colonel

CPL . . . . Corporal

CPT . . . . Captain

GEN . . . . General

LCDR . . .  Lieutenant Commander

LT . . . . . . Lieutenant

LTC . . . . . Lieutenant Colonel

MAJ . . . .  Major

MG . . . . . Major General

PVT . . . .  Private

SGM . . . . Sergeant Major

SGT . . . .  Sergeant

 

Most GAR badges have a serial number on the edge of the star.  Is this number traceable to a member? 

Many trying to learn more about GAR badges in their collections think that the number stamped on the star pendant should be traceable, like the number on the badge of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS).  Although the GAR had around 1/3 to 1/2 of the Union Army in its membership over the years (probably around 1 million men), it never cross-referenced or tracked  the pendant numbers to members.  The purpose of the number was simply to verify that the badges were authentic and had been purchased from the Quartermaster General, rather than from an unauthorized source.  One of the duties of Department Inspectors was to check badges to verify that they were issued by headquarters.  A discovery of a fake badge during an inspection could result in the dishonorable discharge of the GAR Comrade who wore it.

The numbering system used the first letter of the last name of the current Commander-in-Chief of the GAR, followed by a number (starting with 1 each year).

[Information courtesy Robert J. Wolz, PDC, National Historian of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, July 2013]

 

I found a veteran who was listed in a GAR Post "Black Book."  Why would he be on this list?
The Black Book (or Black List) was a record of men who were either temporarily or permanently prohibited from applying for membership in the GAR.  There were numerous reasons for a person's name being placed on this list.  Some were more serious than others.

In most cases, a person was placed on the list because a Post had voted to reject his application for membership.  Under the GAR regulations, a rejected applicant could not re-apply for membership in any GAR Post for 6 months after a rejection vote.  To keep track of these cases, a Post that rejected an applicant was required to notify the Department (usually a state headquarters) of his name, so that a Department Order could be issued to advise all other Posts of the 6-month black-out period for his re-applying.  It's important to keep in mind that most entries on a Black List were not permanent.  After the 6 months had elapsed, the rejected applicant could apply for membership again.

Reasons for a membership application being rejected by a vote of the Post varied.  The GAR used a "black ball" system for casting votes, based largely on the Masonic system of voting.  Votes were cast by each member placing a white or black ball in a ballot box.  A white ball signified a vote to accept the applicant for membership.  A black ball was a vote to reject.  The votes were cast secretly, so that the identities of those who cast any black balls were not made known.  Unlike the Masons, where one black ball was sufficient to reject the applicant, the GAR required more than one black ball to reject.  The number varied depending on the size of the Post.  Those casting a black ball vote did not have to reveal their reasons, and in some cases, the reasons for casting such a vote were not necessarily well intentioned.  Although the GAR strongly discouraged black-balling out of personal malice toward a membership candidate, this practice wasn't prohibited.  An 1871 GAR official opinion explained:  "No comrade ought to be influenced by personal dislike or malice, but should decide in every case upon his honest convictions.  Yet, if he does not, he cannot be restrained of his privilege.  He must answer to his own conscience."

In more serious cases, the Black Book was used to record the names of former GAR members who had been permanently banned from the organization.  These rare cases usually involved some sort of activity that was either criminal in nature or contrary to the conditions of membership in the GAR.  In cases where a GAR member was accused of a serious offense, a hearing (court-martial) was convened by the Post to hear his case.  If found guilty of his offense, the court-martial had the authority to issue a "dishonorable discharge" to the accused, which permanently barred him from membership in the GAR.

For the genealogist, finding a name in a Black Book can be a positive thing as it identifies the individual as having been in a certain place at a certain time.  It also indicates that he probably had Union wartime service of some nature, which he presented as his qualification for membership in the GAR.

 

What's the difference between the terms "Organized," "Chartered," and "Mustered" as they relate to GAR Post start-up dates?
These three terms are often seen in reference to the date of formation of a GAR Post.  Each has a slightly different meaning:

Organized - The date when a group of at least ten eligible Union veterans met to sign a petition requesting to charter a new GAR Post. This date would appear on the petition.

Chartered - The date appearing on the official Charter of a new or re-organized GAR Post.

Mustered - The date of the first Post meeting, in which an installing officer ("mustering officer") initiates ("musters in") new membership applicants, accepts transferring or honorably discharged members from other Posts, and installs the initial Post officers.

 

 

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

 

 

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