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From the end of the Civil War up to the turn of the 20th century, the economic landscape of the United States transformed. The North had evolved from largely agricultural to heavily industrial. The transcontinental railroad tied the northeast and the midwest regions together, huge reserves of natural resources catapulted northern expansion, and spectacular innovators such as Alexander Graham Bell—who patented the telephone—and Thomas Edison—who invented the electric light—revolutionize our way of life.
Just months after the war ended, the Grand Army of the Republic was founded. Its aim was to bring proud Union veterans together, advocate for their politics, and tirelessly fight for their pensions. After all, these men fought together, camped together, and survived together. After months (and, in some cases years) of battle, an unbreakable bond was forged through the violence of war. This connection through combat replaced the screams of dying men, black clouds of gunpowder, and the red carnage of the battlefield with memories of warmth and companionship. But the GAR also fought for a whole new set of soldiers and families needing advocacy: The organization aimed to ensure the right of African-Americans to vote and provided assistance in finding them stable work.
As a whole, Erie County strongly supported abolition. The city became a terminus for the underground railroad and a refuge for escaped slaves living off the grid. As a result, over 350 black volunteers enlisted for the United States Colored Troops at the county recruiting station in Waterford, Pennsylvania. Interestingly, the 1860’s census only lists 80 military-age males of African descent.
However, even with the GAR, the moments of jubilation were short-lived for many. Numbers of Civil war veterans were haunted by the nightmares of the picket post and the razor-sharp fear of the front line. Disturbing visions of prison camp blanketed their minds; apparitions of men so thin their bones seemed as though they’d tear through their own tightly drawn skin. The GAR could provide gifts, assist in pension applications, and unite veterans together again, but it couldn’t heal the internal scars of Soldier’s Heart, a condition we know today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The war didn’t end at Appomattox [App-O-Mat-ics], and for many, the fight only continued at home. Some veterans felt a lack of purpose and were plagued with persistent fear, anger, and shame. These soldiers fell into penury, homelessness, and substance abuse. Men who were severely wounded during the war—those reckoning with their disfigurements; sporting wooden legs and donning empty sleeves—were even more susceptible to alcoholism and laudanum addictions. Thousands of Union veterans spent their remaining years in poorhouses, state insane asylums, or on the streets until they too, were lining up for final roll call.
Our nation went through an incredible transition after the Civil War ended. For most, it was a time of prosperity, pride, and patriotism. The GAR became so influential that the next five out six presidents after Lincoln were all republican veterans who were supported by the organization.
We must learn from our past, both in times of triumph and tragedy. Let us hold our hometown heroes and soldiers in our hearts; preserving their memory and repaying our civic debt by addressing the financial, physical, and emotional needs of our present day veterans.