Thinking Quietly of America's Civil War Veterans with Disabilities

They are subjects of a complex history and we know them (if we know them at all) as brave and insistent men who fought a hard post-war fight for disability benefits.

The soldiers of the Union Army pushed and pushed all over again for the first lifetime disability pension in American history. Initially the U.S. government offered disability pensions only for battlefield injuries. The soldiers pictured here at the famous Armory Square hospital in Washington, DC would have fit this category. Notice by the way that the men in the front row are holding their oversized crutches –the crutches were a “one size fits all” variety and In fact they were a liability when trying to walk.


Civil War Amputees  


Injuries received in war are more subtle and complex than they are instantaneous. Nowadays we all tend to understand this. (Or one hopes we do?) The soldiers who came home from the battlefields of the American Civil War were often crippled for life with maladies that included tuberculosis, infections, internal organ damage, progressive vision and hearing loss, not to mention post traumatic stress–which in those days was called madness.

The soldiers organized. The Union Army or “Grand Army of the Republic” kept marching for lifetime disability benefits. When President Grover Cleveland vetoed the first bill that provided for lifetime disability care for American veterans the veterans threw him out of office in favor of Benjamin Harrison who immediately signed the first guarantee of lifelong disability care into law.


I wonder if any of the men pictured above met the poet Walt Whitman who volunteered in the army hospitals in Washington. Whitman was a familiar figure in the dark and terrible wards. Thinking of this connection reminds me that just as we owe the immediacy of modern poetry to Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” those of us in the disability rights communities owe a great deal to the soldiers who insisted that the care and treatment of disabilities should be a lifetime pact. Their work spurred on the adoption of 20th and 21st century social programs and laws that continue, however imperfectly to promise dignity to all.