Considering Union Civil War veterans

Here’s another entry I wrote for the Encyclopedia of the Veteran in America on Union Civil War veterans. You may ask why I do not mention much on the GAR. Well, that is because there is an entry dedicated to that organization and I was unable to request it in time. I hope you enjoy this one and will consider emailing the editor Dr. William Pencak, as there may still be some entries available to write.

Union Civil War veterans

The Civil War, in addition to being the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, created the largest single group of veterans for eighty years. Over two million men served in the military of the Union, leaving a population of veterans who survived of well over one and a half million at a time when the population of the United States was around 35 million.

Union veterans of the Civil War were as powerful a force on the nation after the war, as the Greatest Generation was after World War II. In terms of percentage of population, Union veterans of the Civil War accounted for roughly ten percent of the population of the North during the war, while World War II veterans (approximately sixteen million) accounted for twelve percent of the population based upon the 1940 census. The contributions of Union veterans to post-Civil War America are immense and include several presidents of the late nineteenth century. They created a political and social legacy that remains with the United States today.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Union veterans were fearful of returning home. According to historian Larry Logue, the veterans were concerned that the war had changed them too much. Civilians also were apprehensive about veterans returning home for the same reasons that veterans were not excited to return. The fears of civilians of returning soldiers were founded in the fact that some veterans rioted in cities like New York.

In addition to issues relating to returning home, veterans faced elevated levels of drug and alcohol addiction. Drug addiction was linked to medical personnel dispensing morphine in greater amounts to ease suffering patients. The increased incidence of giving morphine created conditions where soldiers were at increased risk for developing an addiction to the drug.

Other social problems faced by veterans were higher unemployment immediately after the war, as the market was flooded by so many men seeking work. Eventually jobs became plentiful, with many moving West and South and taking agriculture related work. In addition, some states experienced higher divorce rates among veterans.

Not all was negative immediately after the war, as many veterans returned home, married, and began their lives again. Many states reported increased marriages with the return of the men. Overall, the experiences of Union Civil War veterans revolved around several key areas: the experience of African American veterans, social organizations, political activism, and cultural contributions. Political activism was one of the largest areas of influence where veterans made their presence known

Political Activism of Union Veterans

Union veterans were a politically active group in the late nineteenth century. They effectively lobbied for various programs to aid veterans and their families. The political allegiances of veterans changed from before the war. Before and during the war, Union soldiers represented many differing political parties, including Whigs, Know Nothings, and Democrats. However, the war united Union veterans strongly and changed their politics, as they became a solidly Republican group. This change led to dominance in national politics by the Republicans, which included the election of several Union veterans to the presidency, including Grant, Harrison, and McKinley to name a few.

One of the more important aspects of the political activism of Union veterans was their ability to lobby for causes important to them. Such was the case with the issue of pensions for disabilities. The pension system was initially very cumbersome, with many veterans unaware that they qualified. In 1879, likely due to the presence of veterans in the government, as well as their lobbying abilities, the pension system was reformed. The new system allowed more eligible veterans to obtain pensions for their service. Another area where veterans were politically active was in the creation and reform of soldiers’ homes. Some veterans resented the discipline within these homes and on at least two separate occasions led protest for better conditions.

Overall, the political activism of Civil War veterans was significant. Veterans served as a lobbying group for their interests. They transformed late nineteenth century politics, ensuring Republican dominance for much of that time. They also paved the way for their comrades to achieve the presidency several times in the post-war period.

Social Organizations

One consequence of the increased political activity of veterans was the increased interest in social organizations for them. The largest of the organizations available to veterans was the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR (see Grand Army of the Republic). Many veterans never joined the GAR, but those that did enjoyed membership in an organization that combined military traditions with the rituals of fraternal organizations such as the Masons. The GAR was an active group in terms of lobbying and political activity during the 1880s. It also changed its rituals to increase it accessibility by citizens seeking to know more about the war.

Other veterans’ groups existed in conjunction with the GAR, but these were more exclusive. Some veterans joined the Union Veteran Legion or the Service Pension Association. The Union Veteran Legion restricted membership to those who served at least two years, or were wounded, while the Service Pension Association was primarily a lobbying group. With increased pension activity in the 1880s and onward, interest in veterans’ groups rose, with membership in the GAR peaking around 400,000. With so many involved in these organizations, the cultural contributions of Union veterans became apparent.

Contributions of Union veterans to American society and culture

There are three major contributions made by Union veterans to American society and culture that remained long after the last veteran’s death. Increased patriotism, battlefield commemoration and preservation, and the Memorial Day holiday are all legacies of Union Civil War veterans and their efforts.

Union veterans were a catalyst for increased patriotism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Groups like the GAR provided patriotic instruction in many communities. Also, as they reached old age, many veterans were looked upon to keep the patriotic traditions of the communities they lived in. In addition, this increased patriotism led to increased appreciation for the veterans, especially with new veterans joining the population from both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Within this increased patriotism arose movements by Union veterans to establish Flag Day as a holiday and urge the use of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. Union veterans sought to make the flag a cherished icon and were largely supportive of the Spanish-American War.

In addition to increased patriotism, Union veterans contributed to the beginning of battlefield commemoration and preservation efforts. One of the best examples was Dan Sickles’s efforts in the Congress to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield. In addition to the preservation efforts, veterans sought to commemorate their service through battlefield reunions. Several “Blue-Gray Reunions” occurred at battlefields, which allowed the men on both sides to share their common experience and reconcile differences.

Perhaps the largest contribution made by Union veterans was the establishment of Memorial Day. Memorial Day was conceived by GAR member John Logan (see Logan, John). In 1868, Logan issued General Order No. 11 calling for the GAR posts in communities across the country to adorn the graves of fallen comrades and honor them with appropriate services. Annual commemoration of Memorial Day in the United States is one of the largest cultural contributions that veterans made to the nation.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Union veterans were concerned about the legacy they would leave behind. With contributions made through increased patriotic education, battlefield commemoration and preservation, and the Memorial Day holiday, veterans made great social and cultural contributions to America. Their legacy is preserved through every visit made to a Civil War battlefield park and every community observance of Memorial Day.

African American Union veterans

While many of the above experiences related to white veterans and were largely positive, the experience of African American veterans can not be ignored. African American veterans experienced adversity and hardship. Even though African Americans contributed to the Union cause, their inclusion in the Grand Review of the army was limited. Further, immediately after the war, African American soldiers were assigned to duty in the South, while whites were allowed to go home. They faced harsh treatment from both Southerners and their white officers, which led them to mutiny. The mutinies were put down, but served as an early introduction to political activism on the part of African Americans.

After their de-mobilization, African Americans faced the same difficulties as some white veterans, but with increased intensity. For instance, African Americans faced a much higher unemployment level than their white counterparts, and also faced competition from local African Americans for jobs. In addition to increased unemployment, African Americans faced attacks from whites, which included a severe incident where a Memphis mob killed forty-six soldiers. African American veterans faced poor treatment in the North as well.

A few African Americans joined the GAR, but faced discrimination. They were prevented from being post officers because of racism, or were forced to join separate posts where high populations of African American veterans lived. In the South, posts were initially prevented from chartering and then allowed, but only allowed under the condition of separate departments. Though, the national organization rejected this racism, it could not change the situation.


Union Civil War veterans were a major force for social, political, and cultural change in post-Civil War America. Their political activism led to Republican political dominance for most of the next fifty years after the war. In addition, veterans led the way for a reformed pension process that allowed many more veterans to receive compensation from the government.

Veterans also became active in social organizations that served to bring them together to remember their experiences with fellow soldiers. Organizations like the GAR, Union Veteran Legion, and Service Pension Association flourished in the late nineteenth century. These groups pressed for veterans’ political interests and provided a social outlet for them.

Veterans contributed greatly to post-war society and culture. They were the keepers and instructors in patriotic education and advocated for Flag Day, as well as being supporters of the Spanish-American War. Also, Union veterans were instrumental in beginning efforts to preserve and commemorate the fields upon which they fought, which led to the eventual establishment of battlefield parks. Finally, it was through the efforts of Civil War veteran John Logan and others that the Memorial Day holiday was established.

Unfortunately, African Americans faced harsh treatment by whites despite their fighting for the Union. From being denied greater participation in the Grand Review to being forced to serve in the Reconstruction South, African Americans were denied the initial rightful recognition due them. They also faced violence from whites and greater difficulties seeking jobs. Their experience is a sad, but important part of the overall story of Union veterans.

Union veterans were the vanguard of the veterans’ movement in America. Their political activism was copied by future organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Likewise, the organization of Union veterans into social groups like the GAR began the large-scale involvement of future veterans in their respective groups. Veterans and their groups since the Civil War have continued to serve as patriotic instructors in their communities and press for ceremonial occasions to honor their sacrifices. Fortunately, unlike their Civil War ancestors, African American veterans have turned the initial negative story into a positive, as they have now received the recognition due them. The modern veterans’ movement is a fitting legacy to the efforts and contributions of Union Civil War veterans.


Logue, Larry. To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1996.

Encyclopedia of the Veteran in America, Edited by William A. Pencak. Forthcoming 2009 by Praeger. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT.

Not to be reproduced without written permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Considering Union Civil War veterans

  1. Pingback: Your Union veteran «

  2. Last month, I was spending some time in the Library of Congress, looking at materials relating to one African-American Union Army veteran, Sgt. Major Lewis H. Douglass (son of Frederick). He took his exclusion from initial G.A.R. meetings extremely personally, as well he should have. It amazes me that any USCT veteran would show the fortitude and grace that so many eventually did.

    Thanks for all the hard work.

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