The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was the preeminent national organization for Union veterans. Founded in Springfield, Illinois, by physician Benjamin F. Stephenson in the spring of 1866, the GAR quickly organized posts within ten states and the District of Columbia, and the first national encampment took place in Indianapolis that November.
The GAR grew slowly at first. Many veterans quit the organization when they suspected that it was a vehicle for partisan political aims. The GAR revived and achieved its greatest growth in the 1880s, when successful agitation for a liberal pension act and other benefits for veterans spurred enrollment. At the height of its power, both political parties courted the GAR. Membership peaked in 1890, when the rolls reached 427, 981. The GAR's influence inexorably waned as the years passed, and it ceased to play a major political role after 1900.
The organization also served as a means of solidifying fraternal bonds among Union veterans. Local camps offered opportunities for veterans to socialize and reminisce about their wartime experiences. Camps often undertook projects such as monument building, either in local areas (such as in Cleveland and Greeneville in Tennessee) or on distant battlefields and cemeteries. As the ranks dwindled, GAR members became honored guests at community celebrations on national holidays. In turn, the veterans actively sought to instill patriotism in subsequent generations, especially school children. They vigilantly monitored history textbooks, condemning authors they felt misinterpreted the Civil War era.
In Tennessee the GAR went through two distinct phases. The first occurred between 1866 and 1868, when posts were comprised almost exclusively of two groups: black veterans and federal employees who were avowed supporters of Radical Reconstruction. These short-lived early posts aroused the enmity of former Confederates; Nathan Bedford Forrest told a Cincinnati newspaper correspondent that the Ku Klux Klan developed in the state to protect against Loyal Leagues and the Grand Army of the Republic.
The moribund GAR movement in the South resuscitated in the 1880s. Grand Army members in Tennessee worked diligently to deflect the lingering hostility of many of their fellow citizens. They held joint reunions with Confederate veterans and occasionally marched alongside former foes in parades. The Nashville Grand Army Sentinel continually stressed that Southern “disloyalty” had disappeared, endorsed a conciliatory policy towards former Confederates, and lauded the establishment of United Confederate Veteran camps.
The revitalized GAR also adopted southern attitudes concerning race. In 1885., the Department of Tennessee and Georgia reported 1,145 white members and 88 blacks. While the enrollments of blacks in GAR camps became a volatile issue within the national organization, the Tennessee posts remained predominantly white.
An educational mainstay of the GAR in Tennessee was Grant Memorial University in Athens, established in 1867 to serve the children of Union loyalists. The school eventually offered a free scholarship to a veteran's son in every post in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. While the attitudes of some GAR members in the South hardened once the UCV also began to scrutinize history texts, most Tennessee GAR members were keenly aware of their minority status. They walked a delicate line, extolling Union victory while generally striving not to alienate former Confederates.