"I Would Rather Shake Hands
with the Blackest Nigger in the
Land": Northern Black Civil War
Veterans and the Grand Army
of the Republic
Donald R. Shaffer
THE "ENCAMPMENT," or national convention, of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was often a contentious affair. Every year during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, members of the Grand Army, the largest and most important of all Union veterans' organizations, would assemble in some major American city, ostensibly to celebrate the continuing bonds of wartime comradeship and remind the nation of their contribution to Union victory. Yet they also gathered to organize against what they saw as subversion of the war's legacy. Since the earliest days of the organization, GAR men had seen themselves as the guardians of the Civil War, both of the public memory of the conflict and the war's actual consequences. Still, they could not always agree on how best to defend their vision of the war and its outcome, or which aspects were most worth defending.
Emancipation was unquestionably an important legacy of the Civil War, as well as the citizenship and suffrage rights for African Americans that followed during Reconstruction. Yet although virtually all GAR men supported the end of slavery, vast differences of opinion existed within the organization about the proper place of black people in postwar American society. The issue of African Americans was especially relevant because of the presence of black men in the Grand Army of the Republic. In its early years, the GAR adopted