While the Grand Army of the Republic might seem like something out of a bad pulp science fiction story, it’s also something that’s fairly real to American History. The monument to it, and its founder, stand just off Pennsylvania Avenue in Penn Quarter. The Grand Army was a fraternal organization established in 1866 for retired soldiers of the Union Army, and stood in existence until 1956, when its last member died. It was super-ceded by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, founded in 1881 to preserve the mission of the original organization.
The GAR was one of the more powerful political organizations in the late 19th century, helping to establish Old Soldiers’ Homes, which would later become the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In addition, their organization was partly responsible for establishing the Memorial Day Holiday at the end of May, as part of their Decoration Day campaign.
The GAR Memorial also commemorates Benjamin F. Stephenson, founder of the GAR, and Civil War Veteran. He was the surgeon for the 14th Illinois Infantry, part of the Army of the Tennessee, and was commissioned a Major after action at the Battle of Shiloh. Following the war, Stephenson returned to the Decatur area and returned to his practice of medicine. Post 1 of the Grand Army of the Republic would be formed there in 1866.
The monument in DC was erected in 1909, about twenty years after the GAR reached the zenith of their power, with a membership base of 490,000 veterans. The statue was commissioned by Congress in 1907, and cost $35,000. According to the Smithsonian, Rankin, Kellogg & Crane designed the pink granite centerpiece of the monument, and P.R. Pullman & Co,. were responsible for the new foundation of the monument, which had to be made specially, due to the significant weight of the granite column. John Massey Rhind sculpted the bronze inlays for the statue.
While the GAR has completed its task, and the SUVCW remains mostly in symbolic reference to their predecessor organization, the legacy of the GAR continues each Memorial Day, and in the works of the Department of Veterans Affairs. As you pass the memorial on 7th Street, just north of Pennsylvania Avenue, stop and thank Dr. Benjamin Stephenson, and the memorial in his honor.