The Invalid Corps, later called the Veteran Reserve Corps, was authorized by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s General Orders No. 105 on April 28, 1863. It was a time during the Civil War when the Union was having difficulties filling the ranks of its enormous armies. Manpower needs were being addressed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which called for the enlistment of African American soldiers, and Congress’s Conscription Act of March 3, 1863, the first draft in United States history. The creation of the Invalid Corps was a third measure intended to expand the pool of available military manpower. By the end of the war, about 60,000 men, previously made “unfit for active field service on account of wounds or disease contracted in the line of active” but still “meritorious and deserving,” served in the new branch of the Union Army.
Disability had to be documented by a physician’s inspection. Those soldiers deemed suitable did not return to the front lines but instead served in other important roles. They were organized into two battalions. The First Battalion, whose members had relatively slight disabilities, performed such duties as manning the defenses of Washington, D.C., and guarding Confederate prisoners-of-war held in Northern camps. Those with more serious disabilities served as cooks, orderlies, and nurses, usually in hospitals, as members of the Second Battalion.
Though recruiting posters calling it a “Corps of Honor,” the uniforms assigned to the Invalid Corps suggested a second-class status. Instead of dark blue, Invalid Corps uniforms were light blue. Despite their important service to the Union war effort, the Corps faced, according to one historian, “an undertone of ridicule.” Such stigmatization suggests the mixed meanings of disability in nineteenth-century America.
Lande, R. Gregory. “Invalid Corps.” Military History 173 (June 2008): 525–28.
Massachusetts Adjutant General’s Office. “Massachusetts Enlistments in Veteran Reserve Corps (Originally the Invalid Corps).” In Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War. Norwood, Mass.: Norwood Press, 1933. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uma.ark:/13960/t6b28541m&view=page&seq=134&skin=2021.
Pelka, Fred, ed. The Civil War Letters of Charles F. Johnson, Invalid Corps. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.
Townsend, E.D. “General Orders, No. 105.” War Dept., Adjutant General’s Office, 1863. https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-101534695-bk.