Civil War Blog

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The “Colored” G.A.R. Posts of Pennsylvania

Posted By on February 26, 2013


In an essay entitled, “Sites of Memory, Sites of Glory: African American Grand Army of the Republic Posts in Pennsylvania,” Barbara A. Gannon presents a list of those posts, which includes the Stevens Post in Harrisburg, previously discussed here on this blog in a connection to Gratz native, John Peter Crabb, who for a time in the late 19th century, served as commander of that post and rode on horseback at the head of most of the patriotic and veterans’ parades held in the state capital, as well as taking an active part in causes such as the extension of pension rights.  Crabb, a blacksmith, lived and worked his later days in Harrisburg, and his direct descendants remained as part of the part of the Harrisburg community well-throughout the 20th century.  At the time she wrote the essay (2001), Gannon was a doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University.  Her comprehensive study of the “colored” or African American G.A.R. posts, not only in Pennsylvania, but throughout the country, has led to a recently-published work, The Won Cause:  Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic.

In her essay, Gannon challenged the traditional view that after the Civil War, white veterans abandoned the inclusion of African Americans in the quest for equality despite the shared sacrifice that had taken place during the war – particularly in the activities of the G.A.R., which conventionally has been presented as a segregated, discriminatory organization.  She uses the concept of “memory,” a way of giving meaning to sacrifice, as an organizing principle in her work, and shows how together – whites and African Americans  – through the G.A.R., whether working separately in segregated posts or together in integrated posts, fought the idea of the “lost cause,” and kept alive the “memory” of a war that had been fought for liberty as well as union.

Officially, the G.A.R. did not exclude African Americans from membership.  But in the case of the Stevens Post in Harrisburg, an interesting story is told by Gannon.  Evidence is presented that showed that the post was created as a “colored” post because white members of the two existing posts in Harrisburg were not receptive to integration.

An African-American comrade named John Simpson, who had been elected to one of highest positions in the Pennsylvania G.A.R., the council of administration, moved from Philadelphia to Harrisburg.  Simpson recruited new black members for Harrisburg’s G.A.R. posts.  One of the two predominantly white G.A.R. posts in the city, Post 116, received one of his recruit’s applications.  According to Simpson, the application of this “honorably discharged and otherwise qualified comrade… has been virtually set aside and a withdrawal of it forced by an announcement of the fact that the application would be rejected simply on account of the color of the applicant.”  Because of this threat of rejection, Simpson proposed chartering a new post at Harrisburg that “Comrades of color might join.”  Another Harrisburg post tried to block the post’s formation.  Simpson successfully appealed to the state leadership to issue a charter for a new African-American post in Harrisburg.  Official documents  often record the unusual and the controversial – such as the formation of Harrisburg’s all-black post – while neglecting less controversial events.  The formation of this black post was recorded because it was an unusual case that merited the attention of the state G.A.R. leadership. (Blair, p. 171).

Stories such as these are buried in layers of primary sources and it is because they have not been unearthed, that the mistaken view has prevailed that the G.A.R. on the state and national level had an official policy of discrimination.  Researchers who uncover these lost facts and events are to be commended for seeing history from other perspectives and presenting those views for public analysis.  Micro-history, which includes genealogy and family history of ordinary citizens, is a most useful process in the re-interpretation of history, and in this case, the formation of the “colored” G.A.R. post in Harrisburg, can be connected with the Civil War Research Project – a study of the lives of individual veterans from the Lykens Valley area of Pennsylvania, and one of its native sons, John Peter Crabb.

The table of African American posts in Pennsylvania, 1867-1930, presented by Gannon (Blair, p. 173), gives the post number, the full post name, the location, the years in existence, and the largest number of veterans.  For the David R. Stevens Post No. 520 located in Harrisburg, the largest number of veterans was 62 and the post existed from 1886 to 1930.  All told, there are 21 African American posts in the list.  The same 21 posts are listed on Gannon’s web site, although not as much information is given about each.  However, the web site lists posts in other states, as well as a list of all integrated posts in Pennsylvania, of which she has identified 36, the closest one to the Lykens Valley probably being Shamokin, Northumberland County.

Barbara A. Gannon‘s essay first appeared in Making and Remaking Pennsylvania’s Civil War, which is a collection of essays on some not-often-written-about aspects of the Keystone state’s involvement in the Civil War – during the war and its aftermath, including some perspectives on how the war is viewed today.  The book was edited by William A. Blair and William Pencak and was published in 2001 by Pennsylvania State University Press.  Blair is Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University and Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center, organizer of a biennial conference with the Society of Civil War Era Historians, and editor of The Journal of the Civil War EraPencak, also a Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University, is the author of several books including Jews and Gentiles in Early America, published in 2005 by the University of Michigan Press.

The full list of essays included in this volume is presented below, and is from the Table of Contents:

“Introduction,” by William Blair.

1. “Keystone Confederates:  Pennsylvanians Who Fought for Dixie,” by Christian B. Keller.

2. “Avenue of Dreams:  Patriotism and the Spectator at Philadelphia’s Great Central Sanitary Fair,” by Elizabeth Milroy.

3. “‘We Were Enlisted for the War:’ Ladies’ Aid Societies and the Politics of Women’s Work During the Civil War,” by Rachel Filene Seidman.

4. “‘The World Will Little Note Nor Long Remember:’ Gender Analysis of Civilian Responses to the Battle of Gettysburg,” by Christina Ericson.

5. “The Avery Monument: The Elevation of Race in Public Sculpture,” by Henry Pisciotta.

6. “The Civil War Letters of Quartermaster Sergeant John C. Brock:  43rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops,” edited by Eric Ledell Smith. [See also:  43rd U.S. Colored Troops].

7. “Sites of Memory, Sites of Glory: African-American Grand Army of the Republic Posts in Pennsylvania,” by Barbara A. Gannon.

8. “‘A Disgrace That Can Never Be Washed Out:’ Gettysburg and the Lingering Stigma of 1863,” by Jim Weeks.

9. “‘Magnificence and Terrible Truthfulness:’ Peter F. Rothermel‘s The Battle of Gettysburg,” by Mark Thistlethwaite.

10. “The Brothers’ War: Gettysburg the Movie and American Memory,” by William Blair.


For a detailed view of the activities of John Peter Crabb as Commander of the Stevens Post No. 520, G.A.R., see:  John Peter Crabb – Gratz Native Was G.A.R. Post Commander.


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