The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army who had served in the American Civil War. The GAR was among the first organized interest groups in American politics. It was succeeded by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW).
The organization wielded considerable political clout nationwide. Between 1868 and 1908, no Republican was nominated to the presidency without a GAR endorsement. In 1868, General Order #11 of the GAR called for May 30 to be designated as a day of memorial for Union veterans; originally called "Decoration Day," this later evolved into the U.S. national Memorial Day holiday. The GAR was also active in pension legislation, establishing retirement homes for soldiers, and many other areas which concerned Union veterans. The influence of the GAR led to the creation of the Old Soldiers' Homes of the late 19th century, which evolved into the current United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
The GAR created the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) in 1881 to ensure the preservation of their own mission after Union war veterans had all died. The GAR also generated several auxiliary organizations such as the National Woman's Relief Corps, Ladies of the GAR, and Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865, many of which are still active. A comparable organization for Confederate veterans was the United Confederate Veterans.
There was some controversy over the fact that the membership badge of the GAR closely resembled the Army's version of the Medal of Honor, causing confusion and animosity among veterans. The issue was resolved with a re-design of the latter in 1896.
The GAR reached its largest enrollment in 1890, with 490,000 members. It held an annual "National Encampment" every year from 1866 to 1949. At that final encampment, the few surviving members voted to retain the existing officers in place until the organization's dissolution; Theodore Penland of Oregon, the GAR's Commander at the time, was therefore its last. In 1956, after the death of the last member, Albert Woolson, the GAR was formally dissolved; two years before, as the organization's last surviving member, Woolson deeded its property over to the SUVCW. The GAR's records went to the Library of Congress, and its badges, flags, and official seal went to the Smithsonian Institution.
John Steinbeck's East of Eden features several references to the Grand Army of the Republic. Despite having no actual battle experience during his brief military career, Adam Trask's father Cyrus joins the GAR and assumes the stature of "a great man" through his involvement with the organization. At the height of the GAR's influence in Washington, he brags to his son:
I wonder if you know how much influence I really have. I can throw the Grand Army at any candidate like a sock. Even the President likes to know what I think about public matters. I can get senators defeated and I can pick appointments like apples. I can make men and I can destroy men. Do you know that?
Later in the book, references are made to the graves of GAR members in California in order to emphasize the passage of time.
The GAR is also mentioned in the seldom sung introduction to the patriotic song "You're a Grand Old Flag."