It was 1866, and the men of the US Army, Navy, and Marines had destroyed the rebellion on the battlefield and ushered in a “new birth of freedom.” Their work done, they hoped to return to lives filled with the fruits of their blood and toil. That year, they formed a veterans’ organization called “The Grand Army of the Republic,” most commonly referred to as the GAR. It was a fraternal organization that also lobbied for better care for veterans and served in some cases as a powerful political and labor machine. But it had another purpose, too; one that became more and more relevant as the years passed: to remind the nation of the causes of the Civil War in order for their children and their children’s children to never endure something so horrible ever again. In their regular meetings – that also rang of Masonic rituals – the post commander would ask the officer of the day, “What should be the doom of all traitors?” To which the response was, “The penalty of treason is death!”
You know, in case you were wondering how they felt on the matter.
While they had been successful on the battlefield, these old veterans soon found themselves embattled in another contest – this one was a war for the memory of the Civil War. And it was one that they would lose for over a century.
The Stone Mountain Issue
By 1923, the Civil War was well in the nation’s past, it was thought. Reconstruction had ended in 1876, and the period of so-called Reconciliation had brought the nation back together, unified through the conflict of 1898 with Spain and further through World War I. Unified, that is, as long as you were able to overlook the horrible and near slave-like conditions of African-Americans living in the south and parts of the west. But with a “healed” nation, the time had come to make amends. And so, plans were made for Federal money to help pay for a massive monument to the Confederacy carved into the side of Stone Mountain, Georgia.
While much of the populace failed to bat an eyelid, there was one group that could not believe what they were seeing: the aged, elderly, swiftly dying out veterans of the US military from the Civil War. “We forgave the rebels, but we did not forgive their rebellion nor their treason,” thundered the Illinois Grand Army of the Republic in 1923, “which time has not changed any more than it has changed the treason of Benedict Arnold or Judas Iscariot…such treason and such traitors cannot be so honored without dishonoring and insulting the men, living and dead, who fought to maintain the Union and who crushed the slaveholders’ rebellion.”
Illinois was not alone. At the National Encampment of the GAR in 1925, the remaining leaders of the “boys in blue,” appealed to the nation for common sense: “I believe this is the first time in the history of the Republic that the Government of the United States has been called upon to aid in the construction of a monument to those who were leaders in the great rebellion against it…It is plainly to be seen that the title of the act is a cunningly woven fable with intent to deceive. The project was conceived and carried forward by those who practice a cult of glorifying the lost cause and idolizing the heroes thereof.” And yet, Stone Mountain exists today as a glorification of the Confederate cause – and as one of the birthplaces of the KKK.
The Rise of the Lost Cause
For the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps veterans of the Civil War, this was hardly the first time they had spoken up to remind the nation of why they had fought and sacrificed so much. From the very outset of peace, the war for the narrative of the monumental contest had begun. Far from being repentant, the rebels were demanding the return of their rights and privileges as Americans. To U.S. veterans, this was taking advantage of their magnanimity. “War is not a game where there is everything to win and nothing to lose,” Maj. Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain, speaking as the governor of Maine, said in 1867. “Those who appeal to the law of force should not complain if its decision is held as final. When men stake their cause on their strongest arguments and fail, it is poor logic to urge weaker ones. And when men make arms their arbiter and are defeated, they can neither expect to dictate terms to the victor, nor to plead with effect the original rights and privileges which they abandoned for a more decisive trial. What they may claim are the terms which honor may ask of valor or mercy of power.”
Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, himself a Virginian who had remained loyal, summed up the swift change that was occurring in a letter to Grant in 1868: “[T]he greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality, and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war, and of nations, through the magnanimity of the government and people—was not exacted from them.”
But, by and large, U.S. veterans were content to return to their lives and let the south do as it wanted. They would even meet their former foes at veterans’ reunions and be cordial, as long as the topic of the causes of the war did not come up. But when former rebels attempted to insert their own narrative into the larger one, then the GAR began to lose its friendly side. During the centennial celebrations of the U.S. in 1876, when some national voices called for a recognition of Confederate heroes, the Massachusetts GAR thundered forth, “ask us not to elevate the cause of the Confederacy to the plane of our own, by recognizing its organized supporters or fallen defenders as entitled to the same meed of praise and grandeur of elegy as the martyred comrades of ours, whose sacrifice was otherwise causeless and in vain.”
The Issue of Monuments
U.S. veterans tended not to care what the former rebels were doing in the south – as evidenced by the nation’s apathy when it came to Jim Crow, lynching, and general disenfranchisement of African-Americans. But as time went on, and as the Lost Cause narrative grew in power, the GAR began to realize that it had been silent for too long. In 1885, the Indiana GAR attempted to remind the nation of what they had fought for: “The Union soldier stood embattled on the side of right and truth. The Confederate soldier was arrayed on the side of wrong and error. Under the blessing of God, the right and truth prevailed. There can be no compromise upon that. Right and wrong cannot be reconciled. Right is right and wrong is wrong to the end of the world’s reckoning.” The Massachusetts GAR in 1895 wrote, “If they are as loyal as they say they are, let them forsake the errors of the past, and not seek to perpetuate them; let them acknowledge that they were wrong, and join with us and with all true Americans in building the grandest Nation of the world upon the foundation which our fathers laid. One flag, and that the Stars and Stripes, is enough for all.”
But it was when the ex-Confederates began to erect monuments not just on their southern soil, but in the north, and on battlefields, that the U.S. veterans really began to raise a hue and cry, and in no uncertain terms. When the Massachusetts GAR found out about a memorial to the Confederate dead in Chicago, on Memorial Day, 1895, the wrote, “It is a shame and wonder that it should come now, or ever. Bad as it is, that any memorial should be raised to the perpetuation of the love of treason in any portion of our fair land, this is infinitely worse.” Chicago also spoke of holding a “Confederate Day,” in 1893, alongside “Grand Army Day.” As related in South Dakota: Its History and Its People, the South Dakota GAR caustically remarked, “The old soldiers of this department, the men who saved the nation in its hour of peril from the assault of treason which abrogated to itself the title “Confederacy” feel deeply grieved that your body has through mistaken judgment as we believe, attempted at this late day to make the rebellion respectable and destroy or mitigate the odium of treason by designating Confederate Day.” (Page 393)
Concerning putting up monuments to Confederate units at the battlefields of Chickamauga and Chattanooga: “The government of the United States…invited rebel regiments, rebel brigades, and rebel divisions to come there on equal terms with Union regiments, and Union brigades, and Union divisions, to build their alignments, and glorify their dead heroes, and perpetuate the glory of the lost cause,” remarked Brig Gen. Samuel Hurst of the Ohio GAR in 1897. “Ohio has expended $140,000, as I understand, in building monuments to the glory of her dead heroes upon the fields of Chickamauga, Mission Ridge, and Lookout Mountain, and yet not on one of these monuments dare you write ‘E pluribus unum,’ not on one of these monuments dare you write a sentiment of patriotism, for fear it will offend somebody on the other side. I scorn such patriotism – such debased northern patriotism. My boys that lie buried at Mission Ridge will turn over, I know, when they realize that they are placed upon the same ground as the men that fought against that flag, and to destroy the government for which they fought.”
Similarly, the Pennsylvania GAR said in 1900, “No Union soldiers would think of asking permission to erect National monuments in cemeteries set apart for the Confederate dead. The war of the rebellion is over, the Southern people who engaged in it have been forgiven, the flag is the flag of all, and the country is the country of all; yet thinking people cannot forget that the Confederate soldiers fought to destroy the Republic and that our country and its flag was only preserved by those who fought for the Union from 1861 to 1865.”
When the debate about Confederate monuments at Gettysburg began, the Patterson, Pennsylvania GAR Post had some very choice words: “As soldiers and citizens we have no apologies to make for calling words by their proper names, ‘traitor’ a traitor and ‘rebel’ a rebel…,” the Post wrote in an 1889 editorial. “We reiterate that we are opposed to the erection of monuments by the great or small upon the battlefields of Gettysburg or any other place that will in the slightest degree make glorious the deeds of those who trampled under foot the national ensign. We believe in making treason odious.”
When it came to light that the United Daughters of the Confederacy were erecting a memorial to Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville where thousands of U.S. soldiers died in privation, the GAR exploded. “The rebellion of 1861-65 was conceived in iniquity, born in deception, nurtured in perjury and hypocrisy, carried on by murder and starvation,” thundered the New Hampshire GAR in 1908, speaking for most of the GAR posts across the nation, “its principle hero was Wirz and it died in ignominy and sin and 50 years later some little virus remaining was fanned into a sickly, flickering light to feebly lift its hydra head, from which emanated just a faint sibilant sound in honor of its chief murderer, Wirz, now made the peer of the once peerless Lee. This affair is bringing the wickedness of the rebellion back into the lime-light, and the honest, sober, loyal, right thinking people are seeing with a clearer vision than ever before the righteousness of the struggle of the perpetuation of the Union and the freedom of man.”
The Lee Monument
But the final straw was the news that Virginia had chosen Robert E Lee as one of its statues to be placed in Statuary Hall in Congress in 1909. The debate raged in the years running up to the placement of the statue there, with the GAR in complete and total opposition.
“There has been much frothy sentimentalism indulged in by Northern sycophants since the close of the Civil War,” wrote the Pottsville, Pennsylvania GAR post in 1903. ” It is well to bury the issues of the past and let by-gones be by-gones, but such a sentiment would not obtain in regard to placing a monument of Gen. Grant beside that of Gen. Lee in the grand Plaza of New Orleans or in the soldiers’ plat in that city, where the annual Confederate memorial services take place and which thousands of people from all over the South come to witness. No other country shows the same leniency to its foes as does the United States…To forgive is Divine, but such radical extremes can never meet if the waters of oblivion are to close over the dead issues of the past.”
“We protest against the placing in said rotunda,” wrote the Kansas GAR in 1903, “or in any other public building or ground, the statue of Robert E. Lee, or any other person who has been disloyal, to the government of the United States and has voluntarily borne arms against her.”
“We declare that this studied attempt of the younger generation of the South is an insult to every loyal person of the nation,” wrote the California and Nevada GAR in 1906. “The building of the monument to Wirz was a crime against humanity and a heinous sin in the sight of Heaven. Now to demand a place in the Capitol for a statue to Robert E. Lee calls us into line to protest and resist the brazen movement. We demand that the fruits of the awful struggle shall not be lost, nor the victory clouded nor dimmed by the craft of politics, which the chivalry and prowess of Lee and his armies could not do in the field.”
“To do this would be to extol the rebel by placing his statue alongside, or even under the same roof with those of Washington, Grant, and Lincoln,” explained the New Hampshire GAR in 1911, “thus saying to the rising generation and to the representatives of foreign countries, ‘See, we Americans commend to the world rebels against our government and we deliberately wish to glorify the doctrines of possession and to destroy years of patriotic teaching by maintaining that it is as honorable to be a traitor as it is to be a patriot.’ Therefore, let it be resolved, that we believe that treason’s uniform in the person of Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose chief claim to honor and fame is that he forsook the government that had educated him from his youth to take a position of the highest rank in the rebel army, and to destroy the very government that he had sworn to defend, shall not be placed upon a pedestal in Statuary Hall.”
The Vermont GAR demonstrated that Lee had no mythical respect in their minds: “Robert E. Lee, educated, fed and clothed by the government for the express purpose of defending her against all enemies was first a deserter and then a traitor. He said all the property and other interests of his wife and children were in Virginia, and he must protect these. Again, I say disloyal, because after the bloody war precipitated by Lee and his friends was over, he lived a traitor to the end, and died as he had lived, ‘in rebellion to recognized authority,’ for he never took the oath of amnesty.”
The Minnesota GAR, writing in 1910, stated, “I admit that our government has permitted more than one mistake. It committed a grave mistake when it permitted the return of the Confederate flags. I know what they wanted them for. If they had wanted them to burn or bury I would have given them readily, but they wanted those flags to worship, to honor and to perpetuate their act of treason. Lee was a double-dyed traitor, and Lee and Davis were the greatest traitors this country has ever seen because they had been educated to defend this country and then they turned against it in its greatest need.” The old veterans of Minnesota would no doubt be glad that their home state has still refused to give back one rebel battle flag.
Despite all this, Robert E Lee was placed in Statuary Hall in 1909 – this statue was not removed until 2020.
The Rebel Flag
Then, as now, the rebel battle flag was a contentious object. Writing in 1890, the Massachusetts GAR stated, “The flag of our country is a sacred symbol. It has been the shroud of many a brave boy who defended it with his life’s blood; and let us see to it that the air which floats it shall never be polluted by the “stars and bars” –emblem of treason.” The Connecticut GAR in 1893 wrote that they had heard rumors of GAR members marching “…In demonstrations where the Confederate flag was carried or displayed. And fully endorse the sentiments of said order, believing as an organization of veterans of the Union Army that one flag, and that the Stars and Stripes, under which we marched through war to victory, is the only flag that the Union veteran should march under in time of peace, and that Union veterans should not countenance by their presence the display of the emblem which was the standard of those who sought to destroy the Union we fought to save.”
In 1907, this resolution came before the Ohio GAR: “Resolved, That we view with surprise and regret the tolerance displayed by our government in allowing processions bearing arms and carrying aloft the flag of rebellion, marching to martial music through the streets of our Capital City, even to the very door of the Executive Mansion, all in memory of the glorious day when treason had grasped our Nation by the throat. We fought the war on the principle that treason must be made odious – today we are allowing it to be made glorious and dwarfing patriotism in the hearts of coming generations.”
Although the Federal government never paid any Confederate pensions, it came up many times over the years. In 1907, the Ohio GAR, wrote, “Resolved, That we the, Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Ohio now assembled, condemn in unmeasured terms the granting of a pension to the widow of Stonewall Jackson, a man who as boasted by his friends and conceded on our side wrought more injury to the Union army than any other Rebel General. If pension was given as claimed for Mexican war service we might with the same consistency resurrect the hated name of Benedict Arnold, encircle it with garlands and hang it in the galaxy of honor with our patriotic heroes; he too fought for his country and then turned traitor. Treason should ever bar a name from its country’s recognition.”
The department commander for the Indiana GAR wrote in 1914, “While I have long since forgiven my ex-Confederate brother for the terrible mistake he made in trying to destroy this Union of ours…you should remember and never forget it, that there was a right and there was a wrong…a government that fails to recognize the difference between a patriot and a traitor, a defender and a destroyer, would and should pass from the earth.” He added, “neither sympathy nor maudlin sentiment, not political aspiration, should ever induce a member of Congress…either by word, act, or intimation to lead or encourage any one at any time, now or in the future, to think or believe that any man or set of men who dare fire on the old flag, either in the present, past, or future, is anything but a traitor and need never hope to be rewarded by the government he tried to destroy.”
Early on, it became evident to the old veterans that education was going to be the key to winning this conflict. GAR posts across the country attempted to fight the literature of the Lost Cause that was abounding in southern textbooks even as northern textbooks remained apathetic on the subject. But by the turn of the century, they readily admitted that they had failed in their efforts: “And even Northern writers seem imbued with the idea that Lee was a Demi-God and Stonewall Jackson a prince of angels, and in their constant laudation of these, omit even a reference altogether to those who were their equals if not their superiors,” wrote the Pennsylvania GAR in 1900.
“There is a sentiment which endeavors more or less to place the disloyalty of the South upon the same plane with the loyalty of the North,” stated the Michigan GAR in 1903, “which aims to make an act of disloyalty less disgraceful. I have no use for such sentiment. It is only a matter of time when history will correct itself and place them in the true light on its pages as traitors.” The Scranton, Pennsylvania GAR bemoaned in 1914 that they had begun their program of patriotic instruction, “too late. We have waited until they have prepared school histories which would make you blush with shame if you read them, and those books are all over the country to-day, especially in the South. You see those men of the South began writing history forty years before we started … the people in the Southland in this school work are away ahead of us.”
On hearing that the American Legion was placing Lee’s birthday on their official calendar in 1921, the Pennsylvania GAR wrote, “If so, earnestly appeal on behalf of the Grand Army of the Republic to rescind the same and thereby show to the world that his nation does not put a premium on treason.”
In 1922, the National GAR decried the use of the phrase “The War Between the States” – invented by the former vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens – rather than the War of the Rebellion, as it had been termed for decades: “The designation the ‘war between the States’ is to us peculiarly hateful and insulting. It is false in fact. There never has been a war between the States. While there have been causes of dispute and even threats of conflict, the American people have always found a way of peaceful settlement within the law and under the Constitution which was formed with that very end in view. We as participants did not go to war at the behest of a State or against a State but under the flag of the Federal Union and for its preservation.”
The old veterans continued their appeal, in near agony, knowing just how few of them were left, “If the Civil War was no more than that [a war between the states], then it was a gigantic mistake and an unspeakable crime on the Federal side; its heroism and sacrifice, its waste, its heartbreak and rivers of blood, all went for naught. What we looked upon as the defense of the national life was not worth a day nor an hour of the four years of agony. The fondest hope of our lives – that we had been useful in our day and could leave to our children’s children the example of a patriotic duty well performed and a worthy object attained by devotion and sacrifice – dissolves before our eyes into the fond delusion of old men who have had their futile day and who have need to hide away from the pity or reproach of a wiser generation.”
From this plea, the veterans who had defeated the rebellion with shot, shell, and steel went on the attack: “We recognize in the movement we deprecate an effort two generations after it was slain to revive the corpse of secession and obtain for disunion a standing that it could not win on the field of battle. Who are they who set at naught the verdict of a sovereign people and would turn back the current of national development. We protest against any phraseology in public documents that afford even so tardy a recognition of the so called Southern Confederacy.”
As a parting shot, on hearing that the United Daughters of the Confederacy were going to place the names of Lee and Jackson on the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, the veterans declared, “While it is true that both made good records as young men in the war with Mexico, yet their army service then, and even with the added opportunities of the 14 years that followed, was not of sufficient merit to raise them above the grade of colonel in the one case and captain in the other. The truth is that they worked their way into prominence by leadership in a stupendous conspiracy to destroy the Nation and not to serve it.”
In a paragraph that could equally apply to the naming of U.S. Army bases for Confederate officers, the veterans concluded, “If things have come to such a pass that at the dictation of a group of malcontents it is necessary for the Government of the United States of America publicly to condone the act of the army of officers who went over to the enemy on the eve of battle and unsheathed their swords to make effective the greatest political crime of the nineteenth century, we suggest that a decent respect for the proprieties would urge that selection be made of men who proved themselves worthy by some signal act of patriotism or by working their way up to high command in the active service of their country.”
For nearly 150 years, the Lost Cause reigned as the supreme narrative of the Civil War in the United States. By the time of the late 20th century, it had begun to falter. By now, it is under severe pressure from incredible historiography and writing from the likes of Anne Marshall (Creating a Confederate Kentucky, 2010), Karen Cox (Dreaming of Dixie, 2011; No Common Ground, 2021), Kevin Levin (Searching for Black Confederates, 2019), Adam Domby (The False Cause, 2020) Ty Seidule (Robert E Lee and Me, 2021), and many others. Confederate monuments are coming down and the U.S. Army has appointed a commission to rename the bases named for those who sought to destroy it. At long last, the veterans of the campaigns that crushed the rebellion on the battlefield are finally beginning to see victory, 65 years after the death of the last U.S. veteran of the Civil War.
Because of this, the last word belongs to Rhode Island’s eminent diarist Col. Elisha Hunt Rhodes who was remarkably prescient back in 1910 when he addressed members of the Massachusetts GAR in Boston:
“I remember standing one day looking at a monument in Athens, Ga., when a young collegian said to me, ‘I suppose you object to this monument being here.’ ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘if you people want to perpetuate your shame, I care little about it. You are simply telling the story to your children of how you tried to pull down the old flag and how you failed.’ Another day I stood by the monument in Winchester, Va., and read upon it an inscription which told how men had died for liberty, had died for constitution in that country. An old gentleman asked me what I thought of it. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘the day will come when you will put up a ladder against that monument, and you will hire a colored man who once wore the shackles to climb that ladder and efface every word of that inscription, for it is false. There is no truth in it.’ Those were brave men, and I am willing to pay tribute to their bravery; but they did not die for liberty, they did not die for their constitution, they did not die for their country.”
A word on sources: unless otherwise noted with an embedded link, all quotations came from the copies of the proceedings of GAR annual encampments, by state and year. These are available as free downloads from Google Books.
Cover Photo: Dedham, Ma. GAR, 1886