By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
During the Civil War, many groups, including the United States Sanitary Commission and local female benevolent associations, assisted disabled soldiers as they made the transition to civilian life. But such efforts were both temporary and inadequate, and calls were made for the federal government to intervene by creating a federally financed and administered asylum for disabled Union veterans. In March of 1865, as the Civil War was nearing its end, Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill to “incorporate a National Military and Naval Asylum for the relief of the totally disabled officers and men of the volunteer forces of the United States.” One of the goals of these institutions was to keep indigent veterans, especially disabled ones, out of almshouses.
The first of a series of large institutions was opened in Togus, Maine, in 1866. The largest of these institutions, however, was the Central Branch of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, located in Dayton, Ohio, and opened in 1867. (In 1873, Congress changed the name to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.)
Though a large bureaucratic institution, efforts were made to make the National Homes more “homelike.” Increasingly, recreational spaces and activities were made available to the men living there. Many had theaters, bandstands, billiard halls, libraries, and churches. Unlike the mental institutions of the period, residence was voluntary. But the rules and organization of the National Homes mimicked military life. Residents wore blue uniforms and were assigned to a company, overseen by a captain. Bugle calls announced waking and sleeping hours. Leaving without permission or returning late were punishable offenses, drawing extra work duties or fines.
Many residents received pensions, and access to ready cash could cause problems. Investigations revealed that many pensioners spent much of their allowances on liquor, readily provided by the many saloons that surrounded the National Homes, especially at Dayton. In 1899, Congress passed a law requiring residents to send one half of their pensions to wives or dependent children.
At its height in the late 1800s, the Central Branch housed over 7000 veterans, the equivalent of a small city. The enormous dining hall could feed 2000 veterans at a time.
The National Homes and their parklike grounds drew numerous tourists. Dayton, which even included a zoo, provided a hotel for visitors, and the institution attracted about 150,000 tourists per year during the 1880s.
The Central Branch accepted African American veterans but required them to live in segregated housing and to dine at separate tables. Overall, only 2.5% of the residents of the National Homes were African Americans, a figure far lower than the 10% of Union veterans who were African Americans.
By 1900, the various National Homes had cared for 102,772 veterans at a cost of about fifty million dollars. In 1930, the National Homes were integrated into the newly created Veterans Administrations. As late as 1932, the homes still housed 708 Civil War veterans.
Butler, Maria Barrett. “The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1886. https://archive.org/details/harpersnew073various/page/n695/mode/1up?view=theater .
“Daily Life at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers,” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/daily-life-for-disabled-volunteer-soldiers.htm .
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.
Plante, Trevor. “The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” Prologue Magazine 36, no. 1 (Spring 2004). https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/spring/soldiers-home.html.