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Greene History Notes: The American Legion and the GAR

General Philip Sheridan statue in front of the New York State Capitol in Albany.
September 10, 2019 11:41 am Updated: September 10, 2019 11:53 am


Last year I wrote about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the American Legion in 2019. Legion Posts all over America have been busy observing the anniversary this year. My own Post 166 had a dinner last month commemorating the event.

Today the American Legion is the nation’s largest organization of U.S. wartime veterans.

Membership stands at 2.3 million and there are more than 13,000 posts, many here in Greene County. The Legion has always worked to obtain benefits for veterans including the GI Bill, the Post -9/11 GI Bill and dozens of health-care benefits. The Legion also supports many activities for all Americans including patriotic parades, scholarships, community programs, American Legion Baseball, Boys and Girls State and charitable and fundraising programs.

The American Legion is actually a successor to another organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) which was founded by veterans of the Union Army after the Civil War.

Perhaps you have seen GAR grave markers in local cemeteries. In some localities Legionnaires search these out along with graves of other veterans to place American flags prior to Veterans Day.

The GAR was founded on the principles of “Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty” in Decatur, Illinois on April 6, 1866, by Benjamin F. Stephenson.

By 1890 the organization reached its highest enrollment of over 400,000 members, and it has been said that no Republican candidate for President could get nominated in the later part of the 19th century without the support of the GAR. The organization met annually until 1949 when their numbers had dwindled greatly.

The last Union army soldier, Albert Woolson, died in 1956 at age 109.

While looking over some documents on the Civil War at the Vedder Research Library, I came across a pamphlet titled “The Sixty-Eighth Annual Encampment, Grand Army Republic and Allied Organization.”

It was for the 1934 encampment in Albany, June 5, 6, 7 and 8. A rough calculation would place most of these GAR members in attendance in their 80’s at that time.

In addition to the GAR, affiliated organizations included: the 51st convention of the Woman’s Relief Corps, the 51st convention of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the 44th convention of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Auxiliary, the 42nd convention of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and the 41st convention of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic. With all these other groups attending, it must have swelled the ranks and made for a much livelier affair.

The pamphlet contains this instruction for the parade on the 7th: “Grand Army men to ride in autos and Sons of Union Veterans to march as their escort.”

I recall seeing pictures of earlier encampments where the veterans were lodged in thousands of tents.

Not so in 1934. As far as I can tell, all groups stayed at the Ten Eyck or Dewitt Clinton hotels. Each group also had its own agenda for the four days except for a few events in common such as the parade on June 7 and the campfire following.

The entire encampment was dedicated to the memory of General Philip H. Sheridan. Sheridan was born in Albany in 1831 and went on to become one of the top three generals in the Union army along with Grant and Sherman.

After the war he commanded American troops on the Mexican Border until 1867 when he was made military governor of the Texas and Louisiana district during reconstruction.

He had several other assignments until in 1884 he succeeded William T. Sherman as commanding general of the entire United States army.

He died in 1888 at age 57 shortly after completing his memoirs. I encourage my readers to view the statue of Philip Sheridan astride his horse in front of the east entrance of the New York State Capitol. It was erected in 1916 and is quite imposing.

To reach columnist David Dorpfeld, e-mail or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”