- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

At the end of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans returned to the civilian population. About 3 million men served in the combined armies of North and South, and tens of thousands of them were permanently disabled — blind, lame, missing limbs, or with deformities — and often psychologically scarred, as well. Though the Veterans Administration was not founded until 1930, the efforts of the federal government and private citizens during and immediately following the Civil War set the stage for many major disability reforms of the 20th century.

By some estimates, there were as many as 400,000 disabled veterans by the time the war ended. Up to 100,000 of them were amputees, while the rest suffered from a variety of ailments that ranged from rheumatism to blindness contracted or incubated during service.

The records of surgeon Alfred Hasbrook, a Union doctor, were typical in recording dozens of permanent cases of disability, each with a slight variation: “Pain in wrist resulting from gunshot wound, disability, probably permanent; gun shot wound left arm near shoulder, total disability, permanent, left arm has been amputated; consumption, total disability, permanent (was never sick before); musket ball right shoulder, right arm hangs paralyzed and useless, disability total, duration uncertain; etc., etc.”

Modern sociologists and psychologists connect the physical soundness of a man’s body and his total “wholeness.” At the end of the Civil War, however, many disabled veterans were somewhat insulated from the social stigma that can be attached to physical disability since most citizens viewed the service of veterans as a distinct honor and privilege, and the lack of wholeness as a physical badge of such service. In fact, many amputees chose to remain in active service during the war with the Invalid Corps.

To restore “wholeness,” many Northern and Southern communities offered free prosthetic limbs to returning vets, an unspoken attempt to return them to gainful employment. This was in direct contradiction to the European experience, where soldier amputees often received a license to beg.

For all of the bravado, disabled Civil War vets were sometimes marginalized like others with disabilities. “We lose in a great measure our place in society,” said John Thompson, wounded in both arms and legs.

The return of thousands of men missing limbs or otherwise disabled threw American attitudes about obligations to the poor and injured into flux. Similar to the Vietnam experience, some of the soldiers came home bearing burdens that affected those they came into contact with for years to come.

President Grover Cleveland would summarize the prevailing social skepticism regarding disability: “There can be no doubt that the race after the pensions … would not only stimulate weakness and pretended incapacity for labor, but put a further premium on dishonesty and mendacity.”

Civil War soldiers returned home as heroes, but as heroes who were expected to work and not demand too much of society in repayment.

In the defeated South, with a few exceptions, soldiers were paroled or simply left to return home as fast as the devastated transportation network would allow.

“I was sick; cold; wet; hungry; and sleepy; picture as bad as you can and we were in worse condition,” one captain remembered. “His was the retreat of a wounded stag,” one historian wrote about returning Confederates. A few diehards held out beyond Appomattox, or left the country, but the vast majority returned to their farms, families and businesses.

Of the more than 100,000 estimated wounded Confederate soldiers in the war (not counting the 130,000 who died in combat or of disease), roughly one-quarter of them became amputees. The loss of a limb (or limbs, in many cases) was a disability of no small import in an era and region where the vast majority of men made their living as laborers or farmers.

Charitable organizations sprang up all over the South to provide artificial limbs for returning veterans, and Mississippi spent one-fifth of the entire state revenue in 1866 on artificial limbs. Under Reconstruction and the 14th Amendment, federal pensions were granted only to Union veterans, and states of the defeated Confederacy were temporarily prevented from providing any substantive state benefits.

During the immediate postwar years, Confederate veterans relied almost totally on the care and charity of local communities, families and friends. It was not until 1958 that Congress symbolically granted the last surviving Confederate a federal pension.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southern states began to establish pensions; Georgia, for example, allotted payment to disabled veterans or their widows. Like the federal government, Southern state governments tended to become more generous as time went on, especially since indigent and disabled veterans were increasingly visible in the public eye.

By the time the last Confederate veteran or dependent was dead in 1962, Southern states had spent more than $500 million on pensions and soldiers’ homes. Confederate veterans had larger families on average, were more likely to live on a farm (70 percent were farmers), and had a 6 percent lower literacy rate than their Union counterparts. A disabled vet with a family to feed often found himself in a very difficult position.

Union veterans returned home with generally little fanfare, and usually experienced fewer problems than their Confederate counterparts. After the grand review of the Union armies in Washington, most soldiers moved to a dispersal camp, received discharge papers and then used a train pass to get somewhere close to home. The average Union veteran was 26 years old, was a former farmer, mechanic or laborer, and came from a small town. Less than one year after the close of the war, however, the army had closed its rehabilitation hospitals and employment offices, and many veterans were left to fend for themselves.

Especially in the case of disabled soldiers, America seemed to quickly forget the need to reintegrate her wounded warriors. Concerned people such as editor William Bourne took up their cause. Bourne published “The Soldier’s Friend,” a book designed to provide vets with moral and practical support. To set an example, Bourne even hired disabled soldiers as salesmen and marketers. Still, many soldiers found it difficult to find work.

Pension records reveal many examples of soldiers who had prewar physical occupations (such as mechanic), and postwar nonphysical occupations (such as salesman). Many disabled soldiers subsisted solely on charity. Benefits held in large cities, such as the “Left-handed Penmanship Competition” in New York City, raised money for those who had lost a hand, but many soldiers still found themselves destitute or struggling.

The federal government provided benefits under the Pension Act of 1862 for those who had lost a limb, or had otherwise become disabled during active military service, but Northern veterans quickly found the system inadequate to meet the needs of a large disabled and/or homeless population. Jacob Erb of Angelica, Wis., was typical: for the loss of two fingers and one hand, he received $8 dollars a month, or roughly the equivalent of a subsistence laborer’s monthly wages.

The collective response to this situation was the formation of the Grand Army of the Republic and numerous smaller veterans’ associations. The GAR was founded in 1866 by Benjamin Stephenson. Organized like the former Union armies, each “post” had a “commander” and an annual “encampment.” The GAR eventually boasted more than 400,000 members, and contributed millions of dollars to the relief of disabled and needy Union veterans. More importantly, the GAR harnessed political power and aimed straight at the pension issue.

The evolution of dual pension plans after the war — one strictly for war-related disability (approved by Congress in 1862), the other for general service (enacted in 1890), which allowed coverage of post-service illnesses or disabilities — was considered to be a progressive development (particularly the 1890 law) made possible largely by the lobbying of veterans, particularly the GAR.

By 1910, more than 90 percent of Union Army veterans were recipients of aid from one plan or the other, and payments under the pension acts totaled more than $1 billion for the years immediately before and after the turn of the century. In 1893, for example, there were 966,012 pensioners.

Many veterans were troubled by taking the monetary support, even as significant numbers of them reached out cautiously to accept them. Likewise, the GAR fed into the contradiction by trumpeting the manly virtues of soldierly sacrifice while it was lobbying for more liberal pension coverage. The GAR was also criticized for its rituals, internal politicking and “bloody shirt” mentality, which some thought held politicians hostage to the patriotic sacrifices of veterans.

Nonetheless, the GAR made disability a national issue, and lessened the suffering of many disabled and indigent Union veterans.

The modern U.S. disability rights movement traces its 20th-century origins to the treatment of disabled veterans after the Civil War. By World War I and World War II, following the example of the GAR and building on political developments spurred by Civil War veterans, disabled veterans were able to integrate back into society with fewer obstacles than those faced by soldiers in the past. Part of this was (and remains) an understandable desire to pay back the men who had so bravely risked their lives and limbs for the safety of the country.

The efforts of veterans also sparked civilian reform. Economist Chen Song and University of Iowa professor Peter Blanck have written about Civil War veterans with disabilities and how their pension plans impacted the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. They highlight specific obstacles and barriers that ADA plaintiffs encounter, and how they parallel those obstacles that Civil War vets had to overcome in the pension application process.

The GAR wrestled with the same issues that the country at large was forced to deal with: equality of opportunity in a competitive industrial age; the shift from a largely rural to a largely urban population; and the vexing question of charity and entitlement.

The outcome was a 20th century that saw the creation of the VA in 1930, the GI Bill of Rights of 1944, which some historians consider possibly the most important single piece of legislation of the century in terms of its social implications, and the passage of the 1990 ADA.

Perhaps the post-Civil War rhetoric, such as that sentimentally displayed on a banner that read “The arm and body you may sever, but our glorious Union never,” penetrated beneath Victorian sensibilities and brought about more social change than is generally realized.

Jack Trammell works at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., He is finishing his doctorate at Virginia Commonwealth University, and can be reached at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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