What is the Grand Army of the Republic?
First, let’s look at a bit of history. After the Civil War ended, a group of Union veterans got together in Springfield, Illinois and organized the Grand Army of the Republic, or G.A.R. as it was known, in 1866. Over 7,000 chapters, called posts, quickly formed around the country. It was dissolved when 106 year old Albert Woolson, the last surviving member, died in 1956 in Minnesota. With the termination of the G.A.R., the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War was formed.
Although the G.A.R. membership was primarily male (with the exception of two female members), there were two women’s allied organizations, the Woman’s Relief Corps and the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The G.A.R. was politically active, but left one long lasting accomplishment – the establishment of Decoration Day, today observed as Memorial Day.
Its membership in 1890 was 490,000.
Where can G.A.R. records be found?
Well, that is why this is an underused resource for genealogists. The answer is pretty much here, there, everywhere and nowhere. Locating extant records will take some digging, but it’s not an impossible task.
First, determine whether you have an ancestor who served for the Union. If so, where did he live after the Civil War ended? The majority of records kept by the G.A.R. were at the local post level.
Next, determine whether there was a local post in your ancestor’s neighborhood.
Your first stop should be the excellent page at the Library of Congress.
If there is a local post, next visit the FamilySearch Research Wiki. Search for an entry for your state of interest plus Grand Army of the Republic.
I have no Civil War ancestors, but let’ say I have one who lived in Calais, Maine. I checked the Library of Congress list of posts in Maine and found the Joel A. Haycock Post in Calais.
A quick check of the wiki sent me to the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War page for the GAR Records Program.
From a PDF file on the website, I learned that it was the 34th post organized in Maine, mustered (formed) on 27 January 1881 and named for Major Joel Haycock, KIA at Fredericksburg, Virginia on 3 May 1863.
Just as an aside, my grandparents had two good friend, Colonel and Mrs. Haycock, who I met once or twice. Mrs. Haycock sent my cousin and myself each a small doll on year for Christmas in the early 1960s. Undoubtedly, the colonel was related in some way to Joel Haycock, as he and my grandparents all grew up in the area.
Now I am familiar with the local post, but what next?
There is a second tab on the SUVCW website title GAR Records catalog. It again lists all the known posts PLUS the location of any known records.
A quick look at the Joel Haycock post shows – nothing. No known records.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, only that none have been located. If I had a Civil War ancestor, I would keep digging. At the local level, I would contact both the St. Croix Historical Society and the Calais Public Library, as I know from experience that residents have worked to save and document the history of Calais. I’d also check the Maine State Archives.
Another invaluable resource is the local newspaper, The Calais Advertiser, which has been in publication since the 1840s. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet available on the historical newspaper subscription websites and I have been waiting for years. It is on microfilm, but I live almost 3,000 miles from Calais Library, where it is housed. I imagine there are many mentions of the Joel Haycock Post from its 1881 formation and its activities afterwards.
If you are seeking out G.A.R. membership information for your ancestor, follow the same steps that I would:
1. Get an overview of the G.A.R. history at Library of Congress.
2. Visit the FamilySearch Wiki for more possible details.
3. Go to Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War website. View both tabs of the GAR Records Program for historical information and possible location of records.
4. Follow up with repositories noted in GAR Records Program OR
5. Check state archives and libraries.
6. Contact local historical and genealogical societies, local libraries, and universities.
7. Seek out historical newspapers for the area and browse for G.A.R. news.
8. Search HathiTrust (There is a digitized copy of the History of the George G. Meade Post in Philadelphia printed in 1889, for example), Internet Archive (Roster of the Ladies Auxiliary and state encampments found, plus many other entries) and WorldCat.
Remember that while local post records may no longer survive, there are many publications that might include historical details about members, including your ancestor.