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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.