When the Civil War ended, a huge number of men returned from the military to civilian life.
Although most prospered, others suffered due to injuries sustained in battle.
Veterans’ pensions at the time were miniscule, resulting in poverty and hardship.
A totally disabled private received only $6 per month, $8 if blind or deaf, while loss of an arm was deemed worthy of $16 per month and $24 for a lost leg.
By 1866 the Grand Army of the Republic, the GAR, had been formed by veterans eager to address the needs of their destitute comrades.
In the words of their own document, they were, “…a grand association of Union soldiers and sailors, to foster fraternal relations and keep alive the zeal of patriotism and devotion to country, and above all, for mutual support and assistance in the work of furnishing employment and aid to the needy comrades and caring for the destitute dependents of the fallen.”
For example, in an effort to retrain injured soldiers, the GAR held a national contest to find the best left handed penmanship among veterans who had lost their right arms.
They awarded 20 prizes amounting to $2,000, but the significance was the encouragement given to maimed soldiers to qualify for clerical work.
In emergency situations, food, clothing, rent money and burial expenses were provided for destitute families of veterans.
One local example is a GAR area in Anoka’s Oakwood Cemetery, on west Main Street, where veterans could be buried, and a stone erected, at no cost to their families.
Several of the graves are unmarked, perhaps because the deceased was a drifter, was without family, or was unknown to the community beyond his status as a veteran.
To my mind, the GAR’s most significant contribution to history is the manner in which they embraced their former enemies and helped to heal the nation’s wounds.
One can be certain that such an attitude was not always shared among all the veterans, and I do not believe that Confederate soldiers were ever admitted as GAR members.
Still, respected Confederate veterans were given committee positions within the organization, when elected by popular vote, despite their non-member status.
Ceremonies were held on former battlefields to honor the fallen from both sides.
In Richmond, Va., GAR members shared a building with a similar group of Confederate veterans and on alternate days, it was decorated with both flags.
When an earthquake hit Charleston, S.C., in 1886, the national headquarters of the GAR ordered all local posts to aid in the relief efforts.
The GAR built the “old soldiers’ homes” that were the forerunners of our modern VA hospitals.
Next week we’ll take a look at the GAR home in Anoka, which was quite different from all the rest.
Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society.