The obituary notice of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was written on August 2, 1956. The GAR was born on April 6, 1866, at Decatur, Illinois, and died at Duluth, Minnesota with the passing of its last survivor, 109 year-old Albert Woolson. Comrade Woolson was the sole officially listed survivor of the more than 2,675,000 men of the Union armed forces. He was also the last survivor of the Grand Army of the Republic.
In 1865, at the Grand Review in Washington, D.C., soldiers going home from the paraded on Pennsylvania Avenue, 60 men abreast, for six hours one day and for seven the next. An organization was soon formed that was to make the former wearers of the blue the most potent force in their country's politics for the next twenty years. This organization was the Grand Army of the Republic, of which Comrade Woolson was a member in 1890, when it reached its peak membership of 408,489. After that, age and declining vigor took inevitable tolls of G.A.R. influence and activity.
The Grand Army wasn't intended to be a political unit. Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson, former surgeon of Illinois infantry who is honored as the founder, envisioned a great brotherhood of former soldiers, bonded together by mutual affections and memories. The instituting of Memorial Day was one of the first Grand Army projects to win popular favor. There are a dozen versions of the idea's origin, but there is no doubt that General Logan's famous General Order No. 11 gave it national status under Grand Army auspices.
During the golden years, the Grand Army was a most potent force. It has been said with reason that it was a balance of power in national politics for more than a quarter of a century. In other fields, the Grand Army became the citadel of orthodox Americanism. It scrutinized school textbooks and scolded publishers who intimated there was virtue in the South or fault in the North. It supplied "patriotic lectures" to lodges and schools.
The G.A.R. was always generous with its own funds in aiding needy and crippled veterans. As early as 1873, when the national treasury was operating on a deficit, individual Posts reported $48,000 spent in relief work.
The Grand Army had a tinge of the secret society popular in the day. There was an oath and a ritual, and the organization was ostensibly free from politics and dedicated to good works. In a few years, however, it became one of the principal instruments for keeping the Republican Party in power and for obtaining pensions and Government job preferences for Union veterans. The G.A.R. as Comrade Woolson first knew it, was dominated by such figures as Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who was a gallant general as well as a thundering orator.
Comrade Woolson and his comrades wore the blue uniform coat and slouch hat of the G.A.R. and marched in Memorial Day Parades as long as they could. Finally they became very old men sitting quietly in the sun. He was one of six Union veterans attending the last National Encampment of the G.A.R. at Indianapolis, in August 1949. Here these last survivors of the organization voted to disband it.
The 1938 meeting at Gettysburg was the last time the veterans of both sides met publicly together. They had met previously in peace at Gettysburg in 1913, the 50th anniversary of the battle. That reunion attracted 53,407 veterans. In 1938, only 1,845 were able to get there, although nearly every state was represented.
Albert Woolson's death left only three survivors of the great Civil War, all Confederates. They are John Salling, 110, of Slant, Va.; Walter W. Williams, 114, of Franklin, Texas; and William Lundy, 110, of Laurel Hill, Fla.
The spirit of the Grand Army of the Republic will never die. It lives in the minds and hearts of millions of vigorous young Americans. In that spirit, and by that spirit, the future of our Nation is forever secure.
Their ideals and traditions will be carried on by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and their Auxiliary. This heritage is not just a blessing and a privilege, but also an obligation and a trust. Let us pledge to the memory of these men of the G.A.R. that we will in time of peace or war show our appreciation of this heritage they have handed down to us by preserving it for ourselves and for future generations.
We are grateful to them for charting a course through fields of good old-fashioned American stability where every mother's son stood independent and self-reliant on his own, subscribing to the theory that honest work in honor done, whether in halls of state or at the forge, was a duty paramount.
We thank them for not wasting this Nation's wealth, we thank them for preserving this Nation's economy; we are proud that their generation never need apologize to posterity for depleting its inheritance; for this and this alone they can answer their last roll call in resonant voice and salute Old Glory for the last time with unfaltering hands.
Your house is in order, your path is straight, your record is clean, and as long as that flag blazes in God's blue firmament the gallant lads who subscribed to the constitution of the Grand Army of the Republic and wore its badge of honor will be breveted in the hearts of all decent men and women who enjoy the protection of its folds, and generations yet unborn will see in every white and crimson bar where'er unfurled the steel-tipped, ordered lines of America's sons of '61 to '65.
We salute you gallant men of the Grand Army of the Republic; may the benediction of the Supreme Commander of us all rest upon through eternal eons and may the hand that led you safely through your Gethsemane preserve this wondrous land your valor helped to save.
And now since the crucible of time has dissolved the bitterness born of conflicting thought, we like to believe that those silent hosts in gray (the only Americans ever surrendered, and then, only to Americans) along with those in blue, look down form their battlements in heaven and salute with loving hands this proud Republic built of their fathers' blood, and sanctified by their mothers' tears.
The sounding of "Taps" for the Grand Army of the Republic marks the close of a great era in American History. They have lived to see our country become a strong, unified Nation. They take their place in the ranks of the immortals who have gone before.