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The Grand Army of the Republic Remembered

May 28, 2012

Memorial Day, formerly ‘Decoration Day,’ evokes memories, as it should.  The holiday’s origins as a ‘look back’ in memory of Union veterans who served in the Civil War are sometimes forgotten now; even the movie scene like the one in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ where the Wiz explains to the Cowardly Lion that back where he came from there were men called ‘heroes,’ and that once a year they took their courage out of mothballs and paraded it down the main street of the city.  Surely L. Frank Baum was thinking of ‘The Grand Army of the Republic,’ or ‘GAR,’ America’s first great veterans organization, and one of the most powerful lobbies of its’ time, when he penned those lines in 1900.  The GAR, formed in 1866, became a dominant force in Republican politics by the 1880s, and used that influence to elect friendly politicians to state and national office and to  lobby successfully for veterans benefits, the latter so successfully that from originally securing pensions for those whose war woulds left them unable to work, and for the widows and orphans of Union soldiers killed in action, to, in the early years of the 20th Century, a pension for everyone who claimed Union service and who had attained 62 years of age, because, as President Theodore Roosevelt said in signing ‘Order #78,’ ‘Old age is the greatest disability of all.’  This action was lambasted as de facto vote-buying reminiscent of Roman ‘bread and circuses’ by Mark Twain and indicates that the support for payment of universal benefits was far from being universal itself.

(Confederate veterans were not eligible fort GAR membership nor for Federal benefits, but former Confederate states often provided generously for them, the more so as they were mostly mired in varying degrees of poverty after enduring combat on their soil and loss when the war concluded. Their systems were mostly in place by the 1890s, and continued to pay out benefits until 2008, in the case of the last known surviving Civil War widow, Maude Celia White Hopkins of Arkansas. )

The GAR passed into history, but traces of their existence are still to be seen, as many of their old meeting halls still stand, such as the one pictured below in Detroit.  (This building is recently purchased by an owner intending to renovate it for office space, so the old GAR hall will have a new lease on life well into the 21st Century.)

Three lessons are apparent for the student of history:  The first is that noble intent to justly relieve obvious distress can, by slow, incremental additions of only slightly less-deserving eligibility groups, morph into something entirely different:  An exercise in what the Public Choice school of political economy terms ‘rent seeking,’ a threat to public morals as much as to fiscal prudence.  The second is that the legacy cost of war often lasts a full lifetime beyond the end of hostilities.  In planning for war (as opposed to wars thrust upon an unwilling participant nation), it is almost universal to underestimate the difficulty and cost to be encountered; it is also true that a nations’ leaders rarely stop to think about the bills they leave to future generations that attend upon the care of the families of the war dead, as well as for veterans who carry the costs of battle with them, in the form of wounds visible and invisible, for the rest of their lives.  While the case of Maude Hopkins receiving a Civil War pension until her passing in 2008 is an extreme outlier, it does illustrate the point that we continue to pay for war long after the final shot is fired.

The third lesson, inherent in the story of the GAR itself, is that organizations with restrictive membership requirements are likely to enter the pages of history when the events whose memory they perpetuate recede into time out of mind.  The American Legion (to which this writer belongs) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, among others, have survived by making the care of all veterans their mission, and by opening their memberships to those who served in any war-time (American Legion) or overseas during hostilities (VFW).  Thus, they may pass us by, as they did this writer earlier today (see below), but they do not pass away, as did the Grand Army of the Republic.

The color guards of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (far left) and the American Legion (center-left) pass in parade down Cochran Avenue in Charlotte, Michigan, May 28, 2012.

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