Reader asks where to replace a G.A.R. grave maker
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    Auction Finds

    G.A.R. grave markers of Union soldiers

    You can’t sell those on eBay, the man told the dealer, referring to two cast iron Civil War grave markers that she was selling at a flea market over the weekend. The two markers were lying there flat on the pavement parking lot, their significance likely lost on the seller and others who passed by ignoring them.

    The woman was surprised when the man brought them to her attention, and she immediately walked over to where I was waiting for someone to take some gardening items off my hands. She had bought them from among a large lot of grave makers at an auction some months ago.

    I hadn’t seen the markers, and as soon as she told me about her conversation, I went right over to take a look-see. And there they were: rusty, dusty old stakes that looked like the type you’d plunge into the soil as garden decorations. That is, until you read the inscription.

    Civil War grave markers

    The head on one of two Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) grave markers sold at a flea market.

    The head was in the shape of a star with a round moon face in the center and symbols carved in relief on each point of the star. Both had inscriptions in the center:

    “Veteran. G.A.R. 1861-1865”

    “Bradbury. G.A.R. Post 149” (I found a Bradbury Post #149 based in Media, PA., along with information about its namesake and the names of some veterans who belonged to it.)

    Were these taken from some poor veterans’ graves? The idea was a little macabre – someone stealing grave markers – if the markers had actually been in a cemetery.

    Two years ago, I was at Eden Cemetery, an African American resting place outside Philadelphia, and came across several headstones of Civil War soldiers with the United States Colored Troops. Next to one of the graves was a newer G.A.R. marker.

    Civil War grave markers

    A full view of one of two Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) grave markers.

    I knew that the initials stood for the Grand Army of the Republic, but I didn’t know much more about the organization. I found out that it got started in Decatur, IL, in 1866 as a fraternal organization for Union soldiers. Membership was open to veterans of the Army, Navy, Marines and the Revenue Cutter Service (which later became the Coast Guard) who had served from April 12, 1861, to April 9, 1865, according to the website Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW). The SUVCW are male descendants of the veterans.

    At the local level, the organization was divided into posts, with commanders, rules and regulations like a Masonic lodge. The members gathered once a year for an encampment (much like a conference). The G.A.R. was an advocate for veterans, according to the SUVCW, and five members became presidents of the United States. The group also opened soldiers’ homes and endorsed Republican candidates. It credits itself with standardizing May 30 as Memorial Day, but several groups also take that claim.

    The G.A.R. fought for the rights of African American veterans to vote, and some blacks organized their own posts, in some instances because they were excluded from local white G.A.R. groups. The national organization also lobbied the government for pensions but did not include blacks among the potential pensioners. Most African American veterans received no pensions from their time as soldiers, according to Wikipedia and other sources.

    The headstone of Jacob Gardiner, who fought with the 25th Infantry of the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War.

    Although women were not members, they could join three of the affiliate groups for females. Membership was open to women with or without ancestors who fought in the war, according to the sons group.

    The G.A.R. held its final encampment in 1949, and the organization dissolved in 1956 after the death of its last member. The Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library in Philadelphia has artifacts, books and memorabilia that belonged to Post #2 in Philadelphia and the G.A.R. Department in Pennsylvania.

    The grave makers themselves seemed to have been provided by individual G.A.R. posts. The style of the markers varied, as seen in these photos of markers on Pennsylvania graves sites. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers markers or headstones for marked and unmarked graves in certain situations.

    The markers were placed near the soldier’s headstone, as described in a 2011 book about veterans from the Brothertown Indian Nation in New England. On Memorial Day, a flag was placed in the holder on the marker, according to the book. The markers were either iron, bronze or aluminum, which was used to replace originals that had disappeared (or were stolen) over the years.

    Civil War grave markers

    Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) medallion.

    As for eBay, all of the markers I found appeared to be new and unused, and most of them sold. Another one that looked to be old was up for sale. I also came across a 1999 article in which an eBay official said the site removes auctions for tombstones that are brought to its attention.

    As for the flea-market seller, all of her markers sold – without questions or comments from any of the buyers. Most were likely as surprised as her and as intrigued as me.



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    1. Every year on Memorial Day, a veteran’s flag has appeared on my great-great-grandmother’s grave and we never knew why. (She was a French farming immigrant to this Kansas county in 1873 and was buried just a few miles east of where she and her family homesteaded.) This blog post explains part of the mystery as there is one of these old, weathered metal G.A.R. markers by her headstone, so that helps explain why she’s getting a flag every year. Of course, it doesn’t explain how it got there in the first place since she wasn’t male, didn’t serve in the Civil War, and wasn’t even in the U.S. prior to 1873. However it got there, it was probably placed there long, long ago as my mother (who’s in her upper 80s) doesn’t remember a time when (her) grave didn’t receive a flag each year.

    2. Any GAR grave stars you or anyone else has are or were stolen at one time. You should NOT be auctioning these online. Shame on you and all the other disreputable thieves that traffic on these things. These are memorials to Civil War soldiers who died. You are not a legitimate business if you are trafficking in these memorials. I had one stolen off of my 2ndggfather’s grave in Florida, now the graveyard is in a crime ridden slum area. Making money off of dead people is not a good thing. You will one day reap your reward.

      • Hi, you’re talking to the choir. I never had the GAR markers, and would never buy or sell any that came from a veteran’s grave (or anyone else’s grave). I was so intrigued that I decided to write a blog post to give the history behind the markers, partly as a way to let people know their origin (maybe then they would not steal, buy or sell them). Again, I never bought any markers at auction, I never sold any markers, and I certainly don’t traffic in them. I did find in my research that you can buy new reproduction markers that were never placed on graves.

      • They are not always taken or stolen. Some people will go out and buy new one’s for there family members and keep the old one or sometimes just throw away the old one’s. So you don’t know for sure if they have been stolen or not.?. I found some of mine that I collected in junk piles at cemeteries. I do but some very old broken one’s too. That is why people sell them because something is wrong with them. They can no long serve the purpose they once held. So for you to say not to sell them is wrong. I collect them myself and put flags in them in my home. I never steal anything I find. Like I said most of them I either but on E-Bay and they are broken or I find them in junk piles at cemeteries and hey are broken. I only have one that is complete. And the only reason why I have that is because I found it out in the woods all alone. I went to the local Cemetery I see if it went to one of the burials but had no luck. I bet it did belong somewhere but I have it a good try and still no luck.

    3. Hi, I am in Southern England. I have a grave marker in cast iron very similar to the one shown on your website.I got it from a friend in Houston Texas a good 20 yrs.ago.5 pointed star, says VETEREN 61-65. They are the only markings on it. 2ft.long.bit rusty but legible. Have you any idea what I have got? Can send photos. I am a bit concerned it may have been stolen from a cemetery….But I have got it, any help you can give would be greatly appreciated. StanA

      • Hi, it seems that you have one of the markers that I wrote about in the blog post, made for soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Whether the marker was removed from a grave, that’s hard to say. If it was, it was likely made by that soldier’s local GAR post. I’d suggest contacting the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War chapter in Houston for assistance: I’m not sure if they can answer your question about whether it was stolen, but they should be able to offer some guidance about what you have and what you’d like to do with the marker.

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