A Demoralized Drumâ€?
June 25, 1887
William A. Rogers
This cartoon caricatures an angry incident between the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an influential organization of Union veterans, and the administration of President Grover Cleveland. Tensions between the GAR and the president were already high when in 1887 Adjutant General Richard C. Drum and Secretary of War William Endicott urged the return of captured Confederate battle flags to their home states. This cartoon appeared after President Cleveland initially approved the order, and it shows the hostile reaction of the GAR. General Drum is presented as a chagrined bass drum pierced by pointed flagpoles to which cling the tattered Stars and Bars of the Confederacy. The cartoonist’s sympathies are clear; the flags are “trophies won by the GAR” in the Civil War and should not be returned.
The official story of the founding of the Grand Army of the Republic is that it was established in 1866 by Dr. Benjamin Franklin Stephenson, a veteran Union army surgeon, in Decatur, Illinois, as a brotherhood of Union veterans upholding the principles of fraternity, charity, and loyalty. The actual origins are more complex. While Dr. Stephenson was probably sincere in his articulated reasons, he was further motivated to found the GAR to promote the political careers of two Illinois Republicans who were Union veterans, former generals Richard Oglesby (then governor) and John Logan (then a candidate for Congress).
The organization quickly spread across the North, and located its headquarters in Washington, D. C. In 1868, the GAR worked diligently to get out the Union vote for their hero and former commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, the Republican presidential nominee. After Grant’s reelection in 1872, however, the group floundered for several years as membership dropped dramatically. Three years later, the GAR reorganized under new leadership and a platform emphasizing its founding principles of fraternity, charity, and loyalty. By the late 1870s, it had rebounded substantially.
The administration of President Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) provoked a revival of the politicization of the GAR and its role as a lobby for veterans’ pensions. Cleveland was the first Democrat elected president since before the Civil War, and the first commander in chief since Andrew Johnson not to have served in the military during the war (although Chester Arthur did not serve in battle). While supporting the Union war effort, Cleveland had hired a substitute (as was allowed by law) to fight in his place. In the eyes of the GAR, that made the president, at best, a “slacker” who would be unsympathetic to the interests of Union veterans.
President Cleveland confirmed their fears and earned their ire by his policies on patronage and veterans’ pensions. The president came to office determined to facilitate sectional reconciliation, but he grossly underestimated the lingering animosity in both the North and South. Since the war, Union veterans had been given unofficial preference in government employment, so Cleveland’s removal of Republicans who were Union veterans and his appointment of Democrats who were Confederate veterans raised cries of disloyalty from the GAR. To Cleveland, however, he was simply doing what all presidents did by putting his partisan supporters in office, as well as trying to move beyond the Civil War.
Cleveland was also committed to efficient and limited government. He appointed John C. Black to head the Pension Bureau, giving him the mandate to clean up and reorganize that federal agency. In his first year, Black streamlined its administration so effectively that more claims were investigated more fairly and quickly than ever before. Cleveland hoped that the improved Pension Bureau would deter Congress from passing private pension bills allocating money to the veteran claimants rejected by the agency. When Congress continued the practice, Cleveland investigated the claims himself and vetoed those that he deemed illegitimate (such as the man who blamed his poor eyesight on wartime diarrhea). Although he accepted the vast majority of claims, he was the first president not to allow them automatically, which prompted loud criticism from the GAR.
The bad relations between Cleveland and the GAR reached a new low in January 1887 when the president vetoed the Dependent Pension Bill. It would have granted a pension to every disabled veteran, even if his disability was not traceable to military service in the Civil War, as well as awarded pensions to dependent widows or parents of deceased Union veterans. In his veto message, the president objected to separating pension claims from wartime service, arguing that such a change would greatly increase the likelihood of fraud and abuse of the pension system. The GAR was furious.
The final straw was the subject addressed in the cartoon: Cleveland’s “infamous” flag order. On April 30, 1887, Adjutant General Richard Drum sent a letter to Secretary of War William Endicott informing him that several captured Confederate flags were being stored in the basement of the War Department. The adjutant general broached the possibility of returning the battle standards to their home states in the South. On June 7, the secretary informed Drum that the president had agreed and issued an executive order to that effect.
The GAR’s reaction was swift, forceful, and derogatory. General Lucius Fairchild, the GAR commander, called the executive order treasonous and beseeched God to “palsy the hand” of the president who had signed it. Cleveland had earlier accepted an invitation to review the troops at the GAR’s annual Grand Encampment, but was now warned that his presence would be subject to verbal abuse and possibly physical assault. Cleveland withdrew his plan to attend the GAR event, and chastised those who would insult the occupant of “the people’s highest office.” However, on June 16, 1887 (two days after this postdated cartoon was published), Cleveland rescinded his executive order, leaving the matter to Congress. The flags remained at the War Department until the twentieth century.
The GAR continued to grow in membership–reaching its peak in 1890 with 490,000 members–and as a powerful veterans’ lobby that politicians would buck at their own risk. In the twentieth century, as members died, it lost its former stature and finally ceased to exist in 1949.