What's Work Got To Do With It?      Policy Highlights, 1820-1870

Civil War Veterans

The Civil War generated hundreds of thousands of casualties, more wounded soldiers than any other war in our history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a huge new population of disabled men had to be amalgamated into society, somehow provided for, and their loss somehow understood and defined. Public policies were formulated to deal with them. Disabled veterans were a common part of daily experience for decades afterwards. Patrick Hughes and Hiram Barnum both received pensions, and in the Real Audio or attached transcript you can find their stories. Their pictures and some of their pension documents are available as well. More information is available by selecting Sanitary Commission on the WORK highlights page.

During the war the United States Sanitary Commission proposed a plan for the expected tide of disabled veterans. The Commission's report on a "System for the Economical Relief of Disabled Soldiers" outlined a plan of action for how disabled veterans should be integrated into society. The plan paid close attention to the social and economic aspects of the veterans' situation:

"Every measure, tending to fuse Invalids into a class with particular privileges or immunities, should be discountenanced. Nor should any such accumulations of them be encouraged in any locality, as would render them independent of public opinion, or segregate them from friends or kindred... As far as possible, invalids should be restored to their original homes, and the communities to which they belong should absorb them, by assigning to them, by conventional agreement, the lighter occupations; and no provision separating them from their families, or diminishing their domestic responsibilities should be encouraged. For, wherever invalids have homes, public opinion should be directed to these as the best places for them, the object always being to keep them from ultimately drifting into town or county pauper asylums...Home is generally the best hospital, even as repose is often the best remedy."

The Sanitary Commission recognized that some percentage of disabled vets did not have homes to return to, and these men would need institutions--Soldiers' Homes--but these, the Commission insisted, should be "modest and temporary". The Commission estimated that, in 30 years, the Soldiers' Homes would have served their function and no longer be needed. Financial support to build these institutions came from a mix of sources--Federal, state, municipal, and private charity.

The Commission was very concerned about the employment of disabled veterans in and out of institutions. They came up with lists of possible professions and encouraged re-training for those men in need of learning new occupations. The "lighter occupations" included -- to name only a few -- broom makers, button makers, cameo cutters, cigar makers, daguerrotypists, engravers, postmen, hatters, newspaper vendors, whip makers, willow workers, ship keepers, tailors, and teachers. Special attention was paid to jobs men with one arm could do.

The Sanitary Commission's mainstreaming plans envisioned disabled veterans returning to families and a society that could accommodate them. An agricultural society traditionally could provide work at home, or on the farm, for people with disabilities of many kinds. In the latter decades of the 19th century, the social structures that shaped the lives of people with disabilities changed as urbanization and industrialization separated the home and the workplace. The rapidly expanding urban, and largely immigrant, labor force often lacked extended family resources. The problem of caring for people with disability (a subclass of the destitute) loomed ever larger.

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Pension Documents of Patrick Hughes

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Pension Documents of Henry Barnum

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