The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic by Barbara Gannon

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The Won Cause is a thorough body of academic research detailing black and white Civil War veterans and their comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—the Union Army’s largest veterans’ organization. You may not know the GAR, but you do know its modern counterparts: the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The GAR was the precursor of these groups, the first nationwide veterans’ organization. It originated in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War when a handful of Union Army veterans formed the first GAR post, or local veterans’ group, in Decatur, Illinois. From these small beginnings, the GAR grew until it enrolled hundreds of thousands of black and white members in posts all across America. The GAR welcomed former soldiers and sailors who had received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army or Navy during the Civil War. Posts were organized by state into departments—for example, the Department of Pennsylvania—that set policy and governed the local veterans’ groups under its authority. In turn, representatives from GAR departments met yearly at conventions, which they called encampments, to elect the GAR’s leadership and set national policy.  During its heyday, the GAR was the nation’s largest social and charitable organization, with all the political power inherent in representing such a large membership. Remarkably, the largest and most powerful social organization of the nineteenth century was an interracial group.

Black and white veterans who served in the Civil War created and sustained an interracial organization in a society rigidly divided on the color line. While there were some controversies involving African American membership in Southern states, most white veterans accepted black Americans, and these men participated in the GAR’s political life at the state level. At the local level, African American veterans created their own posts; black women in the GAR’s auxiliary organizations helped maintain these organizations. Despite poverty and illiteracy, African Americans sustained their all-black GAR posts well into the twentieth century, demonstrating the value of these institutions to the African-American community. One reason these groups were important, the existence of black posts reminded white Americans of black service in a war for black emancipation. African Americans in the GAR used their participation in commemorations such as Memorial Day to remind Americans of the central role played by slavery and slaves in the war’s causes and consequences.

While African Americans created their own organizations in the GAR, these also belonged to integrated posts. Integration in the GAR was sometimes difficult, only a handful of white members could, quite literally, blackball African American applicants. Despite this selection criterion, hundreds of GAR posts in cities and town across America welcomed black and white members. It is hard to 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. Black veterans were the political and social equals of white Americans in one of the most prestigious organizations in the United States. In an era in which race trumped virtually all other social identities, black and white veterans created an interracial organization at both the national and local levels.

Black and white veterans were able to challenge nineteenth-century racial attitudes because they were comrades who suffered and sacrificed for their Won Cause. White veterans remembered the wartime exploits of the approximately 200,000 African Americans who served in the Army and Navy; therefore, white GAR members considered black veterans their comrades. Moreover, many of these men could not forget their wartime suffering both on and off the battlefield—in hospitals, prisons, and military camps—and they felt a tremendous bond with those who experienced similar agonies, even if they had not served together in the same unit. Sadly, suffering was more than a memory for many veterans. The primitive nature of medical practice in the decades after Appomattox meant that veterans lived with unhealed wounds and untreated physical and mental disorders. It was GAR members’ memory of their wartime suffering and the reality of their postwar agony that created the interracial bond of black and white veterans.

Just as these former soldiers found comfort in their comradeship, they found solace in their cause. While Northern veterans dealt with the physical and psychological toll of their wartime service, they also dealt with a more spiritual crisis—the struggle to find some larger meaning for their suffering.  Unlike Southerners, these men and women never agreed to a single term to define their cause, though they had a definite idea of what they had achieved by their service and their sacrifice. I adopted the term “Won Cause,” in contrast to the Lost Cause—the Southern cause. Northern veterans and their associates acknowledged that, initially, Union soldiers had gone to war for Union, slavery, and all, but they also understood the evolution of Northern war aims and remembered that the war had ultimately both freed the slaves and preserved the Union. The men and the women who associated with the GAR articulated their understanding of the dual nature of their Won Cause as Liberty and Union, explicitly embracing emancipation—Liberty—if for no other reason than the end of slavery guaranteed the survival of the nation—Union. While they usually cited both Union and freedom, many GAR members interpreted the horrific price paid by their generation as part of God’s plan to end slavery, quite literally echoing the refrain: “As he died to make men holy, let me die to make men free.”  Interracial comradeship epitomized the many layers and meanings of the Won Cause. White veterans embraced black veterans because their membership in the GAR demonstrated that their hard-won victory included the creation of a transcendent bond—comradeship—that overcame even the most pernicious social barrier of their era—race-based separation. Reinforcing the bonds of interracial comradeship, white veterans viewed the former slaves who sat with them in GAR meetings as living reminders of their wartime triumph, their Won Cause, which ended slavery and created a united nation of freemen and women. Finally, interracial comradeship in the GAR represented a small victory, their own won cause, for the nineteenth-century African Americans who achieved a level of political and social equality in the GAR that did not exist outside this group.