The Bloody Shirt

Principled soldiers of conscience, the victorious army knew they had served well, defending the Constitution to the last full measure.

May of 1865 witnessed Washington’s Grand Review of the Union Army. Smartly uniformed soldiers filed past crowds, in a river of Union blue. The guns had silenced a mere month earlier at Appomattox, Virginia; the Republic preserved.

A brilliant sun glinted off polished bayonets, and the parade route decorated with miles of silk banners, tattered company colors and patriotic bunting. Rejoicing greeted the passing soldiers in shouts and fluttering handkerchiefs. Flower petals rained down in a fragrant carpet of gratitude. 

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

One year later, near Springfield, Illinois, a group of veterans established a fraternal association, the Grand Army of the Republic. The idea caught fire nationally as other veterans founded their own local chapters; a place men could remember, share, and grieve for lost friends. Soon these war horses got busy extending their service to those they had defended.

First, survivors lent aid to disabled fellow veterans, assistance to widows and their dependents, and orphan homes. Soon preserving battle sites added to the group’s outreach. Before long members began seeking electoral office to further serve the nation.

A story has it General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman, grew extremely agitated while speechifying, and produced a torn, and bloody shirt he claimed came from the battlefield. Soon the practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking war credentials, became customary for candidates. The saying “vote the way you shot,” launched the careers of numerous politicians. 

Presidents from Ulysses Grant, (1868-1876) through William McKinley (1896-1901) had faced the rebels on the battlefield.*

War memorials and monuments mushroomed, funded with GAR donations. Reunions, benevolent societies, veterans homes, and hospitals kept local chapters busy. In fact, much of GAR efforts were eventually assumed by the Federal Government, particularly pensions for those who had served.

Over time survivors of the Civil War dwindled in number. However, the organization soldiered on until 1956 when it finally faded. Loosely related, though more a coincidence, our last five star general was serving as president when the GAR closed its doors. President Dwight David Eisenhower, who kept a farm in Gettysburg, happened to occupy the White House.

This brotherhood, this Grand Army of the Republic, rose to defend our democracy in the mid-19th Century. This model of valor, and sacrifice shaped the character of the military for years to come. 

But one truth is quite clear, no officer ever advocated for a coup, and there was not one sucker or loser in their ranks.

In 2021 we can do no less.

*Chester Arthur served in the New York Militia, Grover Cleveland did not serve.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, author and playwright. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

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