Benjamin Stephenson and the Grand Army of the Republic

A gold-colored urn, once donated to Cora English Tanner, wife of Gov. John Riley Tanner, greets visitors inside the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum in Springfield. (SCHS)

Somewhere in Mississippi in early 1864, two comrades in the 14th Illinois Volunteer Infantry agreed that, when the Civil War was over, Union Army soldiers ought to organize “some form of association to preserve the friendships and memories of their common dangers.”

Two years later, those two friends and a dozen other Union veterans created an outline for the Grand Army of the Republic, which ultimately would enroll nearly a half-million former soldiers and influence national policy and politics for decades.

According to later reminiscences, the Rev. William J. Rutledge (1820-1900) of Jacksonville, a chaplain in the 14th, first suggested the idea of a veterans organization to his friend, Major Benjamin F. Stephenson (1823-71), a regimental surgeon, during Gen. William T. Sherman’s march toward Meridian, Miss. in February 1864. Back in Illinois in 1866, Stephenson took the lead in forming the GAR.

Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, undated (Findagrave.com)

Stephenson, born in Wayne County, grew up in the Rock Creek area of Menard County. After attending Rush Medical College in Chicago, he practiced medicine in Petersburg until the war began and he volunteered to join the central Illinois-based 14th Infantry.

The 14th, attached to the western commands of U.S. Grant and then Sherman, unquestionably needed able physicians. The regiment lost half its complement during the battle of Shiloh in April 1862, then went on to participate in the sieges of Corinth and Vicksburg, Miss., among other engagements. The battered 14th was reorganized in 1864, and Stephenson was mustered out about the same time.

Stephenson moved to Springfield after his army service, and he and Rutledge continued their discussions of a possible veterans group. Stephenson apparently began sharing his ideas with a number of other ex-soldiers in late 1865, and the plans came to a head when he, Rutledge and some others gathered in Springfield in March 1866.

Rev. James Rutledge (Findagrave.com)

The Illinois State Journal recounted the founding of the GAR in an article in September 1940, when the GAR held one of its last national encampments in Springfield.

Major Stephenson became engaged in the drug business at the close of his service and later resumed his practice of medicine. But his thoughts of comrades, their future, and their organization for fraternity, charity, and loyalty, largely crowded out his thoughts of business and professional matters.

Consequently, in March 1866, Major Stephenson met with Chaplain Rutledge  in this city to formulate a ritual for the proposed order. Other comrades were drawn into conference concerning the soon to be G.A.R. and a lively interest was created. …

Meetings were first held in the offices of Doctors Allen and Hamilton, associates of Doctor Stephenson, and afterwards in the office of Col. John M. Snyder, then secretary to Governor Oglesby.

The name “Grand Army of the Republic” may have been suggested by a similarly named group in Missouri, Robert Beath (himself a former GAR commander-in-chief) wrote in his authoritative History of the Grand Army of the Republic (1889).

“There are naturally some differences in the statements of those now surviving, who participated in the preliminary work of the Grand Army of the Republic,” Beath added, “differences occasioned largely by the necessity for relying upon memory, after this lapse of time, for details of matters that did not then seem so important, and of which there are but meagre records.”

One area of present-day confusion involves whether the GAR was “founded” in Springfield or Decatur. Indeed, the GAR’s first post was in Decatur. However, the record shows that all the organizational work took place in Springfield. Even the charter for Decatur’s Post 1, which is reproduced in Beath’s book, was signed “Done at Springfield, Illinois, this sixth day of April, 1866 … B.F. Stephenson, Commander of Department”.

As Beath explained, Stephenson and his cohorts had spent much of their planning time drawing up a ritual for their association – rituals were vital elements to the myriad fraternal groups that sprang up in the U.S. in the late 19th century, and it was thought important to keep those rituals secret.

When the ritual was finally deemed ready for printing, in order that due secrecy might be secured, Governor (Richard) Oglesby, who had been consulted, suggested that it should be printed in Decatur by the proprietors of the Decatur Tribune, I.W. Coltrin and Joseph Prior, who, with their employees, had been in the military service. …

While this work was under way, Dr. J.W. Routh, of Decatur, who was intimately acquainted with Major Stephenson, went to Springfield to make personal inquiries about the proposed organization, and he interested Captain M.F. Kanan in his mission. Together they called upon Major Stephenson, and this visit resulted in their determination to at once organize a Post in Decatur. …

Accordingly, on the sixth day of April, 1866, Major Stephenson, assisted by Captain Phelps (John S. Phelps of Chicago), organized at Decatur the first post of the Grand Army of the Republic.

GAR Memorial Museum, 629 S. Seventh St. (SCHS)

Springfield became the home of Post 2, but that post lasted only a couple of years. The dominant Springfield post for most of the GAR’s existence was Post 30, known as Stephenson Post. (The early 1870s were a slow period for the GAR in general; the group revived in the 1880s and probably reached its highest membership – 400,000-some – in 1890.)

B.F. Stephenson naturally expected to be elected to lead the organization he founded, but that never came about. In July 1866, John M. Palmer – a Civil War major general and later governor – was elected the GAR’s Illinois department commander. And at a national convention in Indianapolis, former Gen. Stephen Hurlbut was chosen as the group’s overall commander-in-chief.

“(I)t was a grievous disappointment” to Stephenson, Beath wrote in History of the Grand Army of the Republic, “when the representatives of the Grand Army, assembled at Springfield to form a department organization, selected another for the highest honors of the Order he had founded. A similar disappointment awaited him at Indianapolis, when the National Encampment was formed, and though Major Stephenson then accepted a subordinate position, as Adjutant-General, he felt until his death that he had been slighted by his comrades in these instances.”

B.F. Stephenson died at Rock Creek in 1871. He is buried in Petersburg’s Rose Hill Cemetery.

Like other veterans organizations after it, the GAR became a political force following its revival in the 1880s. According to Wikipedia’s summary:

The G.A.R.’s political power grew during the latter part of the 19th century, and it helped elect several United States presidents, beginning with the 18th, Ulysses S. Grant, and ending with the 25th, William McKinley. Six Civil War veterans (Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and McKinley) were elected president; all were Republicans.  … For a time, candidates could not get Republican presidential or congressional nominations without the endorsement of the GAR veterans voting bloc.

However, GAR membership was limited to Union Army veterans, so the group’s numbers dwindled as the old soldiers died off. The GAR held its last encampment in 1949 and went formally went out of existence with the death of the last member, Albert Woolson of Minnesota, in 1956.

Perhaps the best-known reminder today of the Grand Army of the Republic is Memorial Day, observed annually in May, which GAR commander-in-chief John A. Logan (later U.S. senator from Illinois) created by a General Order in 1868.

Springfield GAR posts

Post 2 (unnamed): Apparently lasted only from 1866 until 1868. Local GAR members seem to have had no formal organization for the next several years, to the point that city residents had trouble organizing a Springfield observance of Memorial Day in 1870.

Post 30 (Stephenson Post): Named after B.F. Stephenson. There’s some confusion about Stephenson Post’s numeric identification. According to the Illinois State Journal, Stephenson Post was organized in 1875 as Post 37; it operated under that number for the next couple of years. The Journal reported on Aug. 14, 1878, however, that Stephenson Post had been ordered to surrender its charter. “Of the reason for this action, we are not advised,” the Journal said. Ten days later, according to records maintained by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Stephenson Post was re-chartered as Post 30. The reason for the change may have been numeric duplication. SUVCW records show that another Post 37 in Illinois – the James A. Jackson Post in Elmira, Stark County – was chartered in 1876.

Capt. Noah Mendell (Findagrave.com)

Post 450 (Mendell Post): Named after Capt. Noah Mendell, commander of Company I of the 7th Illinois Infantry. Mendell, age 24, was badly hurt by a falling tree two days before the battle of Fort Donelson, Tenn., in February 1862. When the battle began, however, Mendell ignored surgeons’ orders to stay out of the fight. His obituary on findagrave.com reports: “He was, on account of his injuries, unable to buckle his sword about his waist; so he carried it buckled around his neck, cheering his men, and telling them to stand by their youthful lieutenant. He was among the foremost of his men, and had just said “Come on boys, we’ll–“, when a grape shot struck him just under the right ear, and crashing through his head came out on the other side. Death was instantaneous.” Mendell Post was chartered in June 1884. Why Springfield needed another post is unclear. With membership dwindling, Mendell Post was merged into Stephenson Post in April 1910.

Post 578 (Bross Post): Like many organizations of the time, the GAR often was racially segregated, and Bross Post, chartered in 1886, was an African-American post. Its namesake, Col. John A. Bross of Chicago, was the white commander of Illinois’ 29th Colored Infantry Regiment. He was killed, along with many of the regiment’s African-American soldiers, in the botched Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., in July 1864. Lewis Martin, a member of Bross Post who is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery, was severely wounded in the same battle.

Other Sangamon County posts

Post 370, Auburn (Dodds Post): James W. Dodds of Chatham, a sergeant in the 114th Illinois Infantry, was killed in action on July 15, 1864, near Tupelo, Miss. He was 21 years old. Post chartered in 1883.

Mother Bickerdyke (Wikipedia)

Post 367, Breckenridge (Mother Bickerdyke Post): One of the few GAR posts named after a woman, albeit a famous one – Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke, who lived in Galesburg before the Civil War, was responsible for establishing some 300 field hospitals during the war; afterwards, as a lawyer, she helped veterans obtain pensions. Post probably chartered in 1883.

Post 613, Buffalo (Vlerebome Post ): James Vlerebome often told about shaking the hand of Abraham Lincoln, according to his com obituary. The incident “occurred while he was a boy on a farm in Illinois, and had gone to Springfield, Illinois, where he and a boy companion, found their way into Lincoln’s office, talked with him and shook hands with him,” according to the obituary. Vlerebome served in the 10th Illinois Cavalry. Post chartered in 1887.

Post 208, Illiopolis (Morgan Post): No information is available on this post’s namesake. Post chartered in 1883.

Post 421, Pawnee (Weber Post): Upon enlistment, Andrew Weber was elected captain of his company of Springfield volunteers, which was taken into federal service as the 1st Regiment of U.S. Rifles. Promoted three times, Weber was colonel in command of the 11th Missouri Infantry on June 29, 1863, when he was hit in the head by a cannonball in front of Vicksburg, Miss. He died the next day. Weber is buried at Oak Ridge. Post chartered in 1884.

Post 389, Riverton (Camp Butler Post): Camp Butler near Riverton was a Union Army training camp and a prison for captured Confederates. Post chartered in 1884.

Post 355, Rochester (Breckenridge/Cotton Hill Post): The names are geographical. The site of Cotton Hill is now under the waters of Lake Springfield. Confusingly, the community of Breckenridge had its own GAR post (see above). Post probably chartered in 1883.

Post 755, Williamsville (Webster Post): Oren Webster of Williamsville served as a corporal in the 130th Illinois Infantry from 1862 until 1864. He died in 1891 and is buried in Fancy Creek Cemetery near Sherman. Post probably chartered in 1893.

Hat tip and recommendation

SangamonLink thanks Chuck Hill, curator at the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum, for writing the Facebook post that inspired this entry. Thanks also to Chuck for helping research and fact-check the entry.

The GAR Memorial Museum, located in Springfield since the 1940s, has been at 629 S. Seventh St. since 1963. It is owned by the Women’s Relief Corps, formed in 1883 as an auxiliary to the GAR. Hill revamped and reorganized the museum after becoming curator in 2017, and its collection of Civil War, GAR and WRC artifacts is well worth a visit. As of 2022, the GAR Memorial Museum’s hours were 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday from April through October.

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