First Veterans Organization to Accept African American Members

image003In January 1890, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—the largest veterans organization in America at the time—accepted its first African American as members.

The GAR was founded on April 6, 1866, as a fraternal organization comprised of and for men who served in the Union military forces during the American Civil War. Over 200,000 African Americans served in segregated units, known as the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), during the war. Former USCT veterans tried for years to be included as members of the GAR, but were denied.

In 1890, after an internal rift among GAR members over the funeral of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Capt. Jacob Gray, Commander of the GAR’s Louisiana and Mississippi departments, and General Russell A. Alger, GAR Commander-in-Chief, approved accepting former USCT as members, organization-wide, for the first time.

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The first GAR post for African American veterans was established in New Orleans and named after Capt. Andre Cailloux, one of the first African American casualties of the Civil War. Cailloux was killed at the Battle of Port Hudson and received a hero’s funeral months after his death. The New York Times reported: “The coffin was draped in the American flag, and around it flowers were strewn in the greatest profusion, while the band of one of our white volunteer regiments performed the dirges and other customary solemn music. It was not because he was a negro, but because he was a brave man—a man who had fallen fighting for our flag, and had sealed with this blood his devotion to liberty—that these honor were conferred upon Capt. Andre Cailloux.”

Many members of that GAR Andre Cailloux Post No. 9 served with the Louisiana Native Guard or Corps d’Afrique under General Benjamin Butler during the war. Their units were considered unofficial until after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, when their units became part of the official U.S. (Union) Army’s volunteer forces. Within a few short months nine (9) GAR posts for African Americans were established and accepted 840 former USCT veterans into their fold. Their nearly 25-year fight for acceptance was hard-won, despite their invaluable contributions to the Civil War.

The last USCT veteran, Joseph Clovese, was also the last African American GAR member. He was 107 when he died at the Dearborn (Allen Park), Michigan, VA hospital on July 13, 1951.

Historian, Department of Veterans Affairs

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