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Ferncliff’s GAR Mound holds history of a movement

Civil War Union veteran’s organization espoused equality for all who held a ‘diploma of patriotism.’

Amy Crow will always have a special place in her heart for the Civil War soldiers mound in Ferncliff Cemetery.

Established by Springfield’s Mitchell Post 45 of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, it stands as “a beautiful tribute to what the GAR stands for,” said Crow, who wrote her 2007 Ohio State University honors thesis on the mound.

“Everybody’s marker is the same. You look across there and they’re all equal, regardless of their race, regardless of their rank, regardless of the branch of service they served in. They’re all equal.”

“You didn’t even have to be a GAR member to be buried,” she said. “You just had to be an honorably discharged Union veteran.”

GAR’s Ohio Department Commander Thomas Young in 1868 proudly described the honorable Union discharge as “a diploma of patriotism,” a term that defined that sense of equality and lent Crow’s paper its title.

Springfield’s own J. Warren Keifer later served in the same position.

In her thorough treatment of the history of the mound and some of its inhabitants, the professional genealogist from Reynoldsburg also discovered the expected: that this equality among the dead was not matched by equality during their lifetimes.

She also found that the GAR helped to narrow the inequality gap.

Founded in 1866, GAR membership mushroomed to 30,124 members by 1871, she writes. Ohio has 303 of its own by 1868.

Clark County had eight posts (see box), including John Bron Post 633, one of nine African-American posts in the state.

The presence of separate black posts in an organization that at least allowed or even encouraged racial integration raises “a very large, unanswered question,” Crow said.

“Was there any animosity between the posts or was there a sense among Africa-Americans of ‘Hey, we want to form our own community?”

Even with that question unanswered, the GAR “was truly one of the very, very few that would admit both blacks and whites,” Crow said. “The Masons weren’t, the Odd Fellows weren’t.”

And there’s evidence the organization advocated for all its members, both by lobbying for affordable burial grounds and to move veteran’s pension benefits beyond disability to payments to pensions based on length of service.

In Ohio, the GAR also looked after the interests of orphans of Civil War veterans by supporting the Soldiers and Sailors Orphans Home in Xenia.

But GAR support didn’t always produce equal results in pension applications for black and white soldiers, something Crow attributes to combination of bureaucratic discrimination and the fact that black soldiers born in the south often lacked birth and marriage certificates and other documents the process required.

Springfield’s Merritt Johnson, who served the 117th U.S. Colored Infantry, and is buried in the Ferncliff GAR plot, “really sort of encapsulated what I was seeing,” Crow said.

“It seems so obvious that this man had a disability and it was easily traced back to his service, but he kept having to go back through all this bureaucracy.”

Her paper cites a study by scholar Donald Shaffer, who reports that while 92.6 of white Civil War veterans who applied received pensions, the success rate for black soldiers who applied was 75.4 percent.

But Crow says the GAR may be responsible for the black soldiers’ rate for being as high as it was.

“Community support played a crucial role” in helping veterans claim their benefits.

In a study group of veterans from Springfield’s Fifth Ward, she found that “none of the nine blacks who did not apply for a pension was a GAR member” and “of the seven black veterans who drew pensions and were totally or partially illiterate, five were members of the GAR.”

That’s crucial, she said, because the “massive amount of forms and questionnaires which veterans had to file would be daunting to anyone who could not read or write.”

“The Women’s Relief Corps, the ladies auxiliary to the GAR, also disbursed aid (to veterans) which was often substantial,” Crow wrote. Most notably, “the GAR strove to prevent any indigent Civil War veteran — regardless of membership — from being buried in a pauper’s grave.”

With the help of state legislation, she writes, “by 1889, 161 local GAR posts in Ohio owned burial plots set aside for this purpose.”

This made a huge difference for Springfield’s black veterans, most of whom were born in the South, migrated to Springfield for job opportunities but often had difficulty climbing the social and economic ladder.

In her study of 21 black veterans and 24 white veterans from the Fifth Ward, “the overwhelming percentage of African American veterans buried in the GAR Section (86 percent vs. 21 percent for their white counterparts) is an indication of the more difficult economic situation of those veterans and their families.”

(A separate survey done by students at Washington CH High School, found that of 116 black Civil War veterans they found in Ferncliff Cemetery, 77, or about two-thirds, were buried in the GAR Mound.)

“Despite having served their country honorably and earned ‘a diploma of patriotism,’” Crow concludes, “black Civil War veterans could not use their military service to overcome the obstacles of illiteracy and prejudice.”

Still, even during their lifetimes, black soldiers now buried in the Civil War Soldiers Mound at Ferncliff could rest easier knowing the GAR had made arrangements for their final resting place.

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