By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
Many disabled Union veterans sought financial assistance by applying to the Bureau of Pensions, a federal agency founded in 1832 but rapidly expanded in the years following the Civil War. It eventually became a bureaucratic behemoth that managed the largest single line item in the federal budget. The Bureau assessed disability claims and paid out benefits. In 1930, it was merged into the Veterans Administration.
The first step in getting a disability pension was to get an examination from a physician. (During the war, physicians also provided certificates of exemption for draftees based on disability. The Civil War therefore represents a significant step in the medicalization of disability.) Medical examinations helped to determine how much money a disabled veteran would receive. The Pension Act of 1862 allotted $8 per month for an enlisted man who was deemed totally disabled. Officers received more.
.Civil War pensions also fostered the bureaucratization of disability. The pension process created immense amounts of paper records, so much so that they proved deadly. Ford’s Theater, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, became a clerk’s office for the Record and Pension Office of the War Department. On June 9, 1893, the building partially collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring 68.
From 1887 on, the Bureau of Pensions was housed in an impressive edifice. It now houses the National Building Museum.
In the late nineteenth century, Civil War pensions and their costs became a major political issue dividing Republicans and Democrats. As pensions consumed larger and larger portions of the federal budget, resentments against such generosity sometimes turned to animosity against the veterans themselves. Such attitudes were popular with Democrats, who largely represented Southerners and recent immigrants, two groups unlikely to receive Civil War pensions. The cartoon from Puck magazine in 1898 portrays the Civil War pensions as the Fat Man who consumes so much that he starves Uncle Sam.
Others criticized not the veteran himself but rather the “pension sharks” who took advantage of veterans who needed agents and lawyers to make their way through an increasingly bureaucratic world. Such critiques meant than American leaders would enact very different policies when large numbers of Americans returned home disabled from the First World War.
Boynton, H.V. “Fraudulent Practices of Pension-Sharks; Uselessness of Pension-Attorneys.” Harper’s Weekly, March 5, 1898.
Logue, Larry M. “Union Veterans and Their Government: The Effects of Public Policies on Private Lives.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22, no. 3 (Winter 1992). http://www.jstor.org/stable/204987.
Prechtel-Kluskens, Claire. “‘A Reasonable Degree of Promptitude’: Civil War Pension Application Processing, 1861–1885.” Prologue Magazine 42, no. 1 (Spring 2010). https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2010/spring/civilwarpension.html.