The Grand Army of the Republic was the largest organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. But Barbara Gannon’s book, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, whose title stands against the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, is about much more than veterans’ affairs.
The GAR, at the height of its political power and influence in the decades after the Civil War, was the most powerful political lobby in the country, successfully winning military pensions for its members that absorbed up to 20% of the federal budget.
While working to protect war veterans’ political interests, the GAR also served as a social club and fraternal society offering friendship and mutual aid to veterans and their families. Members included presidents of the United States, leaders of business and of course, lots of ordinary folk, both Black and white. The GAR prided itself on welcoming veterans of the Union army and navy regardless of class or race. As the commander of the Arkansas GAR organization said,
I love the GAR. When I meet a man wearing the GAR button I do not stop to see if he is dressed in broadcloth or if he has on a pair of overalls, neither do I care whether he is BLACK or WHITE. I only see back of the button the man who had the courage to enlist as a soldier and risk his life in defense of our glorious country.
Gannon, a scholar of military history at the University of Central Florida, argues that the GAR stood out as a pioneering civil rights organization. The only major group to accept Black members on an equal footing with whites in an era of Jim Crow segregation, the GAR gave Black men a chance to mingle with white men, and also, sometimes, to exercise leadership. “One cannot exaggerate the importance of finding so many white Americans of this era willing to accept black veterans as their equals in their local social organizations,” Gannon writes.
Some posts were segregated, especially in the South, where a huge group of GAR men were Black and where societal pressure would have made integrated posts unwelcome. But integrated posts were found throughout the North and especially in the Midwest, where the experience of the war’s more integrated western theater informed the memories of the veterans.
Whether integrated or not, local GAR posts paid each other respect and worked together fraternally on the regional and national levels.
Sadly, but understandably given conditions in society at the time, the GAR’s commitment to equality of comrades inside the group did not extend to campaigning for civil rights outside the group. When Black members asked, occasionally a GAR group would denounce some instance of racism against Black war veterans, their comrades. But the GAR was not ready to stand for the cause of Black people in America as a whole.
Within its own ranks, the GAR stuck to a memory of the war that put Black Americans at the center. Unlike the rest of American society, most GAR members rejected the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and its call to reconciliation between white people North and South.
White Union veterans were better than most white Americans at remembering the Civil War not merely as a contest for union, but as a principled, moral fight for liberty, to end slavery and make all Americans equal.
But rather than channeling this feeling into civil rights activism, the GAR generally channelled its memory of fighting for “Liberty and Union,” as its members often quoted a famous speech by Daniel Webster, into supporting America’s wars to bring liberty to foreign nations, starting with the Spanish American War. That war brought together North and South to free Cuba and the Philippines from colonial rule. Nationally, the war was celebrated as a final reconciliation between the formerly warring sections of the U.S., a watershed moment in American history when Yankees and Southrons could shake hands and move on from the grievances of the Civil War.
GAR members generally supported war against Spain, but they insisted on remembering that southerners had started an earlier war that led to the death and suffering of so many Union men like themselves. As the white GAR man remembered slavery as the cause of that war, so he also would not forget that the slaveowner unleashed havoc on his fellow countrymen. While willing to accord respect to southern veterans as fellow men tested by the dangers of wartime service, the men who wore the blue were not ready to forgive southern insurrectionists.
So, at the much ballyhooed North-South reunion events at Gettysburg in the early 20th century, many white GAR men remained lukewarm at best in clasping hands with the southerners who had shot at them after those same traitors had fired on Fort Sumter — a reticence to reconcile that was observed and commented upon with approval by Black GAR men.
Gannon’s book is filled with fascinating and surprising quotes from GAR men (and the women who staffed their ladies’ auxiliary organizations) showing a high level of solidarity between Black and white. The quotes alone are worth the price of the book. For example, a report by white GAR leaders spoke out against forcing Black comrades into segregated groups:
During that fierce struggle for the life of the nation, we stood shoulder to shoulder as comrades tried. It is too late to divide now on the color line. A man who is good enough to stand between the flag and those who would destroy it when the fate of the nation was trembling in the balance is good enough to be a comrade in any Department of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Some GAR posts in the North were all-Black because their members wanted it that way. But that didn’t stop Black GAR men from showing friendship for their white comrades or from honoring white heroes of the Civil War.
For example, when President Grant was dying of throat cancer in the 1880s, the women’s auxiliary of one Black post presented flowers to Grant’s son Frederick along with a resolution, which read in part:
While it has pleased the almighty to visit our illustrious Gen. U.S. Grant with sore and stressing illness and unit death, [we] hereby offer our sympathy…and pray to the Father of all to send strength and comfort to the sufferer to enable him to fight the battle with heroism so worthy a great man.
The GAR was an island of equality and cross-racial fraternity in a sea of segregation and racial violence. Its bond of comradeship among soldiers proved strong enough to offer its own Black members a version of a free and equal America that would not be found in the larger society for another century or more.
Perhaps most importantly, the GAR’s focus on the war as about slavery and not only about union preserved a memory of the “Won Cause,” a coinage of Gannon’s, to counter the much more popular and successful narrative of the Southern Lost Cause. For decades, seduced by the Lost Cause and its promise of sectional reconciliation through white solidarity, northerners forgot about the Won Cause. The GAR helped keep that cause alive through those dark decades until the civil rights movement could take it up again.
The last GAR member died in 1956, consigning the organization literally to memory.
But two years earlier, the Supreme Court had decided Brown vs. Board of Education, overturning legal segregation.
This would lead to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and ultimately, to the election of Barack Obama as America’s first Black president. Gannon argues that the steadfastness of GAR men, Black and white, to remember the Won Cause, deserves some credit for America’s later progress on civil rights.