Arthur Bull and the GAR in the late 1880s

Sepia Saturday 403: Third in a series on my Union Army great-great grandfather Arthur Bull and his final years in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, N.Y.

When my great-great grandfather Arthur Bull joined the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1886, the Civil War veterans’ group had recently reorganized — which led to an explosion in recruitment.

114th Regimental Reunion, May 30, 1897, Norwich, N. Y.
The 114th Regimental Reunion in Norwich, Chenango Co., N.Y. (30 May 1897). G.A.R. is penciled on the back of this photo. My ancestor Arthur Bull, a Union Army veteran of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery, might have attended similar gatherings during his time in the GAR. Photo: Library of Congress

The New York State Archives online finding aid to its GAR records describes the group’s founding and metamorphosis. 1 New York State Archives, New York State Historian Grand Army of the Republic Records finding aid, webpage, accessed 20 January 2018: Administrative History.

The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a large multi-faceted organization (fraternal lodge, charitable society, special interest lobby, patriotic group, and political club) founded in 1866 by Union Army Surgeon Benjamin Franklin Stephenson. The organization was originally envisioned as a brotherhood of veterans who were dedicated to helping other veterans.

Transformation of the GAR

The GAR initially structured itself along military lines — with sentries at the door, members transferring from post to post, and a local, state and national chain of command.

In 1869, the GAR transitioned to a fraternal group with lodges, similar to the Masons — but an unpopular internal grading system prompted a mass exodus of rank-and-file members.

So in the late 1870s, the GAR transformed itself again — and its new focus on pensions likely prompted my ancestor Arthur Bull to finally join as a pensioner in 1886. 2 Ibid.

As a result of these changes, the GAR’s membership rose sharply in the 1880’s….It was through the GAR, and the pension lobby, that many soldiers and their families received pensions. The Grand Army of the Republic also promoted patriotism through parades, national encampments, placement of war memorials, and the establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday.

An integrated fraternal order

Unlike other fraternal orders in the 1800s, the Grand Army of the Republic was racially inclusive and integrated — as befitted veterans who had fought together to end slavery — and welcomed all honorably discharged Union vets, including at least two women. 3 Wikipedia, Grand Army of the Republic, webpage,, accessed 21 January 2018: Women members. According to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War: 4 Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War National Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic History, webpage, accessed 20 January 2018.

Membership was limited to honorably discharged veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps or the Revenue Cutter Service who had served between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865.
African-American GAR veterans parading in a New York City (30 May 1912). Unique among fraternal groups of the era, the GAR was integrated and open to all honorably discharged Union Army veterans of the U.S. Civil War Photo: Library of Congress

The GAR was also quick to embrace Memorial Day — a commemoration begun on 1 May 1865 by African-American freepeople with a march of 10,000 in Charleston, S.C., to honor 257 Union soldiers who died in a Confederate prison camp there. 5 David W Blight, “Forgetting Why We Remember,” The New York Times, 29 May 2011, online archives, accessed 20 January 2018.

Because the group was indispensable to Union Army veterans and their families, my great-great grandparents Arthur and Mary (Blakeslee) Bull likely found comfort in the milieu of the GAR — and perhaps its affiliated women’s group, too. 6 Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War National Headquarters, Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, webpage, accessed 20 January 2018.

And they might have turned to the GAR for assistance as Arthur’s war-related health issues reduced his ability to work, requiring him to apply for pension increases.

More on Arthur’s life in Salamanca in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2018 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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8 thoughts on “Arthur Bull and the GAR in the late 1880s”

  1. Thanks for these comments, everyone. This was a learn-as-I-go post that helped me find out more about the GAR, which my ancestor belonged to, so I could place his membership in context. Much more to learn, of course…especially since I discovered that there’s a GAR Museum and Library in Philadelphia!

  2. Fascinating. Thank You. Obviously, as a Brit, I am unusually ignorant of your Civil War. What I do know,is confined to battlefield stories…which (of course) miss out the human fact of what happened afterwards.
    Incidently, (going wildly off-topic ) in a city near me (Manchester, UK) did you know we have a statue of Abraham Lincoln? You can read about it here:

  3. Excellent information, especially about how an organization changed in it’s functions and mission, in order to continue to serve those who needed it.

  4. Here in the South we don’t hear much about the GAR, so this is interesting to me. It sounds like in the early years the GAR was preparing for war.

  5. In my research reading about the G.A.R. and seeing the pictures of their reunions, I was struck by how much the veterans valued their service. The Civil War was a particularly traumatic and transformative event for the nation that wasn’t easily explained to the generations that followed. The G.A.R. gave them a voice to do that. It’s still a difficult war to understand in the 21st century.

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