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The story of the first veterans’ group

NORTH CANAAN — The fight for veteran’s rights is one that has persisted throughout the history of the United States. To acknowledge this ongoing effort, North Canaan’s town historian, Kathryn Boughton, gave a presentation at Douglas Library on the original veteran’s association in the nation on Friday, May 12.

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was formed. This groundbreaking organization that championed veteran’s assistance was the first of its kind.

Boughton informed the group of 20 attendees that the GAR first formed in Illinois in 1866. She called it, “the most significant social welfare organization of the 19th century.”

Boughton explained that many veterans of the Civil War struggled with the same challenges that face veterans today and that the GAR existed to alleviate those burdens. Living with permanent disabilities, mental health challenges, and financial difficulties all fell under the purview of the GAR.

“The veterans felt very much isolated in this pool of complacent citizens,” said Boughton. “The only other people that they had to talk to that understood what they had gone through and could help them were other veterans.”

In North Canaan, 100 men were sent to fight in the Civil War and 25 of them came home with life-altering injuries. In 1883, the Colonel David Cole GAR post was established to offer support.

The group met weekly at the old town hall’s armory. Membership of this post peaked in the 1890s with 50 members.

In addition to supporting their fellow veterans, the GAR also honored gravestones each year on Memorial Day.

“Memorial Day evolved out of the Civil War,” said Boughton. “This was the big day for the post here. They would go around and they would mark the graves.”

Over time, activity in the group faded as the initial group of veterans aged.

“Membership weaned through death, disease, and disinterest. By 1918 only four to eight veterans were showing up for meetings,” said Boughton.

“Then we reach the end in 1933. The last two members of David S. Cole’s GAR turned over the entirety of the post’s cash reserves, some 97 dollars, to the newly formed American Legion,” said Boughton. “Within months, both were dead. Their last duties had been performed.”

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