top of page

Ghost Soldiers

Original GAR cap with wreath badge and white leather belt with brass GAR belt buckle used by a Civil War veteran for dress parade. The white painted leather belts (or even white canvas belts) are common but the cap painted white is rather unique. In the dusk before evening, a veteran marching with these accoutrements might have seemed a “ghost soldier.” (Credit: William F. Howard Collection)

In 1866, a new organization was formed by veterans of the conflict called The "Grand Army of the Republic" (GAR). The organization was dedicated to the principles of “Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty.” The GAR was a fraternal fellowship organization made up of Civil War veterans of all branches of the United States service. Veterans who served in the Confederate forces during the Civil War were not allowed GAR membership and formed their own organization known as the United Confederate Veterans, or UCV.

The GAR became a powerful force in both politics and government. The organization supported voting rights for African-American veterans, promoted patriotic education, and lobbied to designate Memorial Day as a national holiday. The GAR also secured Congressional passage of veterans' pensions, and pushed for legislation to preserve Civil War battlefields. By 1890, with a membership of more than 490,000, the GAR was a formidable adversary in the halls of government. Republican politicians across the nation eagerly solicited endorsements and support. The GAR succeeded in supporting the election of five Civil War veterans (all Republicans) to the office of President of the United States. The association between the GAR and the Republican Party became strained in the 1870s went federal policies were relaxed to ease the transition of the former Confederate states back into the federal union. GAR membership struggled and new national leadership of the organization was needed if the group was to survive.

In the 1880s, new leadership of the GAR revived the organization as the GAR pressed Congress to approve pensions for Civil War veterans. With the revival of interest in the GAR, African American veterans joined the GAR in significant numbers and participated in both parades and reunions – even organizing local GAR posts. The GAR, however, approved a Congressional compromise that established pensions for white veterans but ignored African-American soldiers. Most African-American veterans never received any pensions for their wartime service or disabilities.

The GAR was organized into "Departments" at the state level and "Posts" at the local level. Specially designed military-style uniforms were worn by its members and could be purchased from any number of post-Civil War military suppliers. There were GAR posts in every state as well as several posts overseas, including London and Paris.

The GAR held national encampments every year from 1866 to 1949. Specific reunions were also held on the battlefields of the Civil War, with large anniversary reunions held at Gettysburg in 1915 and 1938 for the 50th and 75th anniversaries of the great battle. The GAR’s final encampment was held in Indianapolis in 1949, where the last surviving Union veterans of the war voted to dissolve the GAR. The last member of the GAR, Albert Woolson, died in 1956, ending the GAR’s great legacy and link to modern times.

With membership strictly limited to Civil War veterans, the GAR encouraged the formation of auxiliaries and the Sons of Union Veterans to continue the patriotic work of the GAR.

During its existence, enough material was produced to support the organization to challenge the most capable army quartermaster. Uniform coats, swords, belts and caps were produced in staggering numbers. Much of this material still survives and has become highly prized by collectors of military memorabilia. GAR artifacts can sometimes be difficult for some inexperienced antique dealers and collectors to identify and differentiate from equipment used during the Civil War. Great caution should be exercised by beginning collectors as there is a significant price and value disparity between GAR and original Civil War memorabilia. Still, GAR items offer an important connection to the Civil War and the items that survive help to support that connection.

Detail of the GAR hat badge on a Civil War-style forage cap painted white and worn on dress occasions by a Civil War veteran. The cap was manufactured by M.T. Lewis & Son of Philadelphia. An 1899 notice in the Clothiers and Haberdasher’s Weekly indicates that the Company was awarded a contract to produce fall and winter uniforms for the Reading Rail Road. Many outfitters produced uniforms and other items for the GAR, Railroads, and other fraternal organizations.

Related Posts
bottom of page