African Americans gave proud service during the Civil War. More than 186,000 men served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), approximately 18,000 served in the U.S. Navy, and thousands more in segregated state regiments, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Pension records often come to mind when researching these individuals, but your research shouldn’t stop there.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was the largest organization of Union veterans. It was open to all honorably discharged veterans who had never borne arms against the United States. It was founded in Illinois in 1866; membership reached nearly 500,000 by 1890. The GAR was politically active. It was due largely to its advocacy that pension requirements were changed from being based on disability and financial hardship to being based on service. In addition, local GAR posts provided financial aid and burial benefits for its members.
The GAR was unusual. Unlike most other fraternal or patriotic societies of the nineteenth century, it was racially integrated. Black veterans could – and did – join. What is interesting is how being integrated worked in different areas. In some locations, blacks and whites joined the same posts. In other areas, posts were self-segregated. (There is debate on whether this was done because African Americans did not feel included in the other posts or if they opted to form their own posts in order to build a stronger sense of community.)
Local GAR posts kept different types of records including description books, which detailed the members’ service, birthplace, residence, occupation, and details of injuries sustained during the war. Some entries include information about the veteran’s death. GAR muster rolls contain similar information. This can be valuable information to help fill in the gap created by the missing 1890 census.
There are three large collections of GAR records on Ancestry.com: New York, Grand Army of the Republic Records, 1866-1931; Kansas, Grand Army of the Republic Post Reports, 1880-1940 ; and Kansas, Grand Army of the Republic Bound Post Records, 1866-1931.
Below, we see Edward A. Tolliver’s entry in New York Post 234’s descriptive book. He was 49 years old, born in Lexington, Kentucky, lived on 117th Street, and was a porter. He served in Company G, 20th USCT. On the next page, there is a note that Edward died 3 May 1910. (Note: when you’re looking at these records, always scroll to the next page.)
Not every Union veteran joined the GAR. However, you should explore GAR records if your ancestor served. It can give you another glimpse into his life.