By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College
During the Civil War, the Sanitary Commission sought information about European policies toward disabled veterans. The resulting report rejected the idea of housing large numbers of men in centralized national institutions, arguing instead that men should return to their local communities and be cared for by their families. What happened was very different from what the Sanitary Commission suggested, and thousands of aging and disabled veterans were housed in various regional branches of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Others did return to their homes, and the primary responsibility for caring for disabled loved ones, as it so often does, fell to families and localities.
Sometimes, though, responsibility fell to the level of government intermediate between the federal and the local. Most states created their own institutions for disabled veterans, and in Massachusetts, that institution was in Chelsea, a small city just north of Boston. These men, dependent on the largesse of the state, were among the many thousands of returning soldiers many Americans feared could become paupers, drunkards, or criminals.
According to The New England Magazine in 1890, disabled veterans returning from the war “were unable to take up the burdens of life they laid down four years before.” Parents and wives may have died, and “in many instances, homes were broken up.” Pensions were initially too meager or unavailable. Some turned to direct assistance from the Grand Army of the Republic. Others lived in the National Homes, but they quickly filled up.
The Grand Army of the Department of Massachusetts led the charge in 1876, petitioning the state for $100,000 to create a Soldiers’ Home where a disabled veteran would be “treated as an honored guest.” The state responded with a $400,000 appropriation. Still more funds were collected through donations. The Highland Park Hotel in Chelsea was purchased, and on July 25, 1882, the new Soldiers’ Home was open to one-hundred men. In 1880s, the home was expanded to include a hospital. The demand for places always exceeded the capacity, and by the late 1880s, the Chelsea Home could accommodate 288 men.
Smoking abounded at the Home, as did various games like cards, dominoes, and billiards. Veterans could peruse copies of Harper’s Weekly published during the war. Some men were paralyzed; a few were blind. All ate together in a large dining hall. By 1890, 1045 men had been admitted, 148 of whom had died, buried in the Soldiers’ Home lot in Malden. The Home benefited from the assistance of a Ladies’ Aid Association, which, according to The New England Magazine, continued the work done by women during the war for the Sanitary Commission. Their work would “keep the fire of patriotism burning, that the people may not forget the men who stood by the nation in its hour of peril, and who now, in these their latter years, are entitled to their well-earned rest.”
To this day, the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea is open and, according to a state website, “offers Residential and Long Term Care programs to eligible Massachusetts Veterans. Our mission is to provide, with Dignity, Honor, and Respect, the highest quality of personal health care services to Massachusetts Veterans.”
Adams, Captain John G.B. “The Massachusetts Soldiers’ Home.” The New England Magazine, vol.2, no. 6, August 1890, pp.689-697. https://archive.org/details/sim_the-new-england-magazine_1890-08_2_6/page/689/mode/1up .
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.
“Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea.” Mass.gov. https://www.mass.gov/orgs/soldiers-home-in-chelsea .