By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
The first of the National Homes was in Togus, Maine. In 1866, the federal government purchased a former resort at Togus Springs, four miles from Augusta, Maine, for $50,000. By December 1, 1870, the government had spent another $243,300 on improving the property. The number of disabled veterans living there rose rapidly during the years following Appomattox. Within a year of its founding, 442 disabled veterans were there. By 1878, 993 lived at Togus, and by 1904, its peak year, almost 2800 men were cared for at the facility.
When Togus opened on October 6, 1866, and its first resident, James P. Nickerson of the 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was admitted, its formal name was the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. The word asylum connoted dependence and a lack of manliness as defined by nineteenth-century gender expectations. To avoid such stigma, in 1872, the name was changed to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Despite the change of name, the National Homes were far more institutional than homelike.
The various branches of the National Home, the largest of which was in Dayton, Ohio, garnered a great deal of attention because of charges of abuse, immorality, and corruption. Togus was no exception. A published report of a Congressional investigation of the National Home in 1884 asserted that these institutions were “homes for the country’s defenders, not asylums for the helpless poor.” But the report also suggested a depressing atmosphere of gloom and doom, as well as condescension. The managers of the National Home had to “deal with cripples, rheumatics, epileptics, dyspeptics, men who have been victims of excessive drink, depressed by a sense of advancing age and penury, men of all degrees of mental and moral development, who have no future to look to beyond the grave-yard in sight of the home.”
Paid employment opportunities abounded. According to its Wikipedia page, Togus maintained “a bakery, a butcher shop, a blacksmith shop, a brickyard, a boot and shoe factory, a carpentry shop, a fire station, a harness shop, a library, a sawmill, a soap works, a store, and an opera house theatre.”
By all accounts, so did alcohol. All the National Homes were surrounded by drink purveyors, happy to take veterans’ pensions and earnings. Many veterans were happy to be customers. Some certainly became alcoholics. How much problem drinking was a direct result of traumatic experiences during the war is difficult to gauge, but the conclusion is certainly plausible.
Investigation of the Management of the National Home for Disabled Soldiers Volunteer Soldiers, by The Committee of Military Affairs, House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1885.
Kelly, Patrick J. Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans’ Welfare State, 1860-1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Marten, James. Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.