History of the
Grand Army of the Republic
Museum and Library
Nestled amid row homes on a small street in Northeast Philadelphia
, the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum and Library has often been referred to
in newspaper articles as “one of the hidden treasures of Philadelphia.” The museum, which
occupies a three story brick building built by Dr. John Ruan in 1796, is home to a unique
and historic collection of Civil War and Grand Army of the Republic artifacts, books, and
memorabilia. In 1985, the building was placed on the Register of National Historic Sites
and designated as the “Ruan House.”
This treasure trove was originally the property of G.A.R. Post #2 of Philadelphia and the
G.A.R. Department of Pennsylvania.
A large and influential Post, they had maintained a collection of artifacts acquired
mainly from the contributions of individual G.A.R. members. Their holdings also included
a well-stocked library of books relating to the conflict and early activities of the G.A.R.
A full time curator inventoried and displayed the collection as well as overseeing the
operations of the library.
Inevitably, time took its toll on the membership and in 1926, the aging veterans of Post 2,
realizing they could not continue, formed a Pennsylvania corporation entitled
“Philadelphia Camp Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War”, designating their descendants
as governing members. (Despite the wording of the title of the Corporation, it is a
separate entity from the National Organization of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil
War). Although still incorporated under this name, the Board of Directors decided to use
the name “G.A.R. Civil War Museum and Library” as being more explanatory of our role in the
In the years following 1926, investments left by G.A.R. Post 2 to assist with the upkeep of
the artifacts and building lost their value. For many years, due to the lack of funds and
staff, the building was used chiefly for meetings of Civil War hereditary groups. Unable
to maintain the original very large building, in 1958 the Corporation moved to the current
premises. Again, limited finances curtailed the service they could offer the public.
In 1982, a new Board of Directors was elected and immediately faced difficult decisions as
to the best method to save the collection. Artifacts had not been accessioned in many years
, additional display cases were needed, portraiture and pictures were in stacks on the third
floor, the library required cataloging, and the building had not had any repairs or
renovations in many years. Obviously, preservation efforts had to be mounted on many
fronts as the museum faced the same problems being encountered by similar repositories of
history around the country, particularly those functioning solely with volunteer help.
Of foremost importance was the need to set up a supporting membership program to raise
funds to pay routine expenses. Volunteers were then enlisted to make basic physical
improvements to the interior of the building to make it more aesthetically appealing.
Under guidance and advice sought from preservationists and historians, we began
accessioning and labeling hundreds of artifacts, with some of this information being
computerized. This was a fascinating project as volunteers looked at the blood-stained
strip of the pillowcase on which Lincoln lay dying and the handcuffs found in John Wilkes
Booth’s suitcase which were originally intended to be used to kidnap President Lincoln.
There were tree trunks from the Battle of Chickamauga imbedded with cannon balls;
Confederate canvas shoes with wooden soles found on the Gettysburg battlefield; a dented
quarter from the breast pocket of Gen. Gideon Clarke which absorbed the impact of a bullet
fired during battle; hand-painted drums; swords; pikes; 6th PA Cavalry lances; Gen. George
G. Meade’s hat and headquarters chair; flags; and a porthole from the U.S.S. Maine, the
list is endless. A rare artifact is a post from the stockade at Andersonville Prison.
The collection includes some oddities giving one pause to wonder how they found their way
to Post 2. A piece of epidermis from the back of President James Garfield removed during
his autopsy resides in a glass container; a framed display of small items included a piece
of John Paul Jones britches and Madam Lafayette’s cloak.
Basic measures were taken to protect the artifacts through special shields on light
fixtures and window coverings to protect them from damaging light and the procurement of
donations of artifact cases to display items safely.
Many paper items including original letters, photo albums, CDVs, and cabinet cards, are
presenting another challenge. We are currently sorting and encasing them in archival
material and scanning them as an aid to research. A grant enabled us to replace the
bindings of original copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer printed each day during the war.
Another grant provided funds to begin to rebind some of the volumes in the library, a
project that we are continuing on our own. All of these items will eventually be cataloged
in our computer.
G.A.R. Post information is difficult to find. We are fortunate to have the minutes of Post
2 meetings, partial information on a few other Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Posts, copies
of National and Pennsylvania Department encampment proceedings, and descriptions of
Memorial Day ceremonies in the area.
The condition of our historic building, listed on the National Register of Historic sites
since October 1985, continues to be important as a safe haven is needed for the collection.
Many fund- raisers, donations, and several grants have financed roof replacement, window
restorations and repair of the outside brick walls. To enhance the comfort of our visitors,
air conditioning in the second floor meeting room and ceiling fans throughout the building
were recently installed.
The Board of Directors consists of nine persons, one third of them elected to three year
terms each year at the annual meeting of the membership. Many of the members are also
descendants, of veterans although anyone can join. We have five classes of supporting
memberships; Individual for $20 per year; Family $30; Colonel’s Guard $40 (includes a
premium); and General’s Staff $50 (includes a premium); and Commander-in-Chief of the
Grand Army $100 (includes a premium). A newsletter is mailed three times a year to members
across the United States to keep them informed of activities and decisions made by the
In keeping with our mission to help preserve our history, our slogan is “Where the Civil
War Comes Alive”. The museum is open the first Sunday of each month from 12 to 5 p.m. when
a program on some aspect of the Civil War is offered at 1:30 p.m. Uniformed guides will
offer personal explanations of the exhibits to all visitors and assist them in research.
We also now have volunteers who open the museum on Tuesdays from 12 noon to 4 p.m., other
days by appointment. It is suggested prospective visitors verify these weekday openings
before coming to the museum. Appointments can be made for individuals or groups to view
the collection and our outreach program provides speakers to schools and community groups.
Anyone interested in volunteering or seeking further information can either write to the
G.A.R. Civil War Museum, 4278 Griscom Street, Phila. PA 19124-3954; leave a message on the
tape at 215-289-6484, or e-mail us at GarMusLib@verizon.net. As a non-profit organization,
all donations are tax deductible.