Written By Fredric C. Lynch, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
Upon their return following the War Between the States, parades and speeches welcomed home Ohio’s surviving veterans of U.S. armed forces service. Following previous conflicts, the care of homecoming veterans was viewed as a family and community responsibility, not one of the federal government. With the passage of time, the Civil War’s aging “Old Soldiers” – - some on crutches, many long-term ill, others missing limbs – - grew increasingly discontent that the national government generally showed indifference towards assisting them cope with the consequences of their military service. Those consequences for the “Boys in Blue 1861-65” often included limited employability due to disfigurement, constrained physical ability, and mental health issues.
During the war, state and federal leaders from President Lincoln down promised to care for “those who have borne the battle, and for his widows, and his orphan.” But, immediately postwar, there was little political motivation or effort to see the promise kept. In time, to promote self- and group-interests, the veterans formed regimental associations, organized reunions, and established veterans’ organizations.
Founded in 1866, foremost among the groups was the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) established upon principles of “Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty.” The GAR was a nationwide organization for all veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marines and U.S. Revenue Cutter Service who served during the American Civil War. By 1890, 409,489 veterans of the War of the Rebellion were members of the GAR. In the 1890s, there were over 750 community GAR Posts in Ohio with 49,011 members throughout the state’s 88 counties.
The high profile national, state, and community organization wielded great political influence. The GAR was among the first organized advocacy groups to become directly involved in American politics. Among successful efforts, they supported voting rights for Black soldier and sailor veterans, promoted patriotic education, helped make Memorial Day a national holiday, and placed United States flags in schools. The GAR founded soldiers’ homes and orphanages. Five members were elected President of the United States. For decades, reportedly, it was nearly impossible to be nominated for a major political office as a Republican without GAR endorsement. And, using their influence, GAR members passionately lobbied the United States Congress to establish and fund pensions for Civil War veterans, their widows, orphans, and surviving children.
Research statistician Benjamin Gould documented in an 1869 study: “During the Civil War there were roughly 860,000 casualties incurred by the nearly 2.5 million members of the Union Army. About 250,000 were fatalities.” In 1862, the U.S. Government began providing pensions to soldiers who could provide proof of time spent in the military and of a “total disability” that precluded them from performing manual labor. Under the program, pension money could be collected from the date of discharge if claims were filed within one year of that date. However if claims were filed after a year, pension payment began effective date of application. Also, the law did not enable all veterans to receive compensation for war service-related disabilities, or a pension directly in recognition of their wartime service.
The GAR’s political influence and unceasing efforts by the late 1870s successfully garnered government paid financial benefits for all disabled veterans with passage of the Arrears of Pension Act of 1879 which allowed all Union veterans previously turned down to reapply for pensions, and to receive back payments to the date of their discharge regardless of when they may have first applied. By 1900, providing pensions for Civil War service became the United States government’s first largescale program for disabled veterans. The program was among the largest government benefits provided citizens until the advent of Social Security in 1935.
GAR tactics to achieve objectives were aggressive. For example, in 1892, the GAR initiated one of the largest mass mailing campaigns in American history to that time. Hundreds of thousands of letters were sent by the GAR to members nationwide.The letters urged all veterans to demand Congress support increased pensions for soldiers, widows, and children. Even the mailing envelopes were part of the effort. Printed on them was an advisory that instructed postmasters, many of them GAR members, to give the letter inside to “some soldier of the late war” if not deliverable to the addressee.
Two Ohioans, both “GAR Men,” were prominent orchestrators of the political maneuvering that established a pension system for Civil War veterans. Congressman Isaac R. Sherwood, a former Civil War officer, was editor of the Toledo Daily Commercial newspaper and active in Ohio politics. He later was elected to seven terms in Congress. He was known as “Dollar a Day Sherwood” for his efforts fighting for that sum to be paid veterans. Equally associated with the lengthy and persistent campaign for veterans’ pensions is John McElroy, a Civil War veteran and editor of the Toledo Blade newspaper before moving to Washington D.C. to edit the National Tribune, official newspaper of the GAR. Both were prominent and persistent advocates for the care of all Civil War veterans and their families.
In 1890, a revision to Federal pension law occurred, the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, following extensive lobbying by the Grand Army of the Republic. The statute removed the link between pensions and service-related injuries. Any veteran who had served honorably could qualify for a pension if he at any time became disabled for manual labor. Proof of at least ninety days service in the Union military forces, an honorable discharge, and that the disability was not due to “vicious habits” that prohibited the veteran from the performance of manual labor qualified a veteran for a pension ranging from $6 to $12 per month. By 1893, 41.5 percent of federal revenue was spent on Civil War soldier pensions. Civil War pension benefits at that time were limited to disabled veterans and their widows.
Later, the criteria for pensions became more liberal. Rules allowed veterans who could trace their disability to wartime service to receive more for the same disability than those who could not. In 1900 a pensioner who could trace his disability to the war was entitled to a monthly sum of $30 for incapacity to perform any manual labor, $24 for a disability equivalent to the loss of a hand or foot, $17 for the loss of one eye, and $6 – $10 for a single hernia. His counterpart who could not trace their disability to the war received $12, $10, $6 and $6, respectively, for the same injuries or ailments.
Beginning in 1892 women who were employed as nurses by the government also became eligible for pensions. By fiscal year 1909, Civil War veterans or their widows or their orphans were collectively receiving about $47 million dollars in monthly checks. That sum amounted to the largest single expenditure in the federal budget at the time. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order prescribing that old age rather than disability justified a Civil War veteran pension. Accordingly, at age sixty-two, veterans were deemed 50 percent disabled, and at age sixty-five 75 percent disabled. At age seventy any veteran became entitled to $12 a month, a benevolent “security net” as the national per capita wage was about $490. In 1910, half a million veterans received an average pension of $189 a year. Just before World War I, the top pension was $30 a month. A veteran’s widow could receive $25 per month.
With passage of the Service and Age Pension Act in February 1907, Congress officially recognized age as sufficient qualification for a pension. Provided documentation conditions of the 1890 law were met, veterans aged sixty-two to sixty-nine received $12 per month, those aged seventy to seventy-four $15 per month, and those seventy-five years and older $20 per month. This act did not increase the total number of pensioners, but led a significant number of them to switch basis for their compensation from the 1890 law to the 1907 law as the latter granted a greater sum in many cases.
In order to file for a pension, a veteran would fill out a form entitled “Declaration for Pension.” Upon this form he would indicate name, age, place of birth, residential address, current occupation, when and in what regiment and company or companies he had served, and his height, complexion, hair color, and occupation at enlistment. If he was claiming disability by disease or injury, he had to specify the malady, and, if it was war related, how and when incurred. When he filed for an increase in his pension, a veteran had to provide supporting documents. The overall application as a package required signed statements from the claimant, neighbors, employers, doctors, and men who served in the same company. With time, nearly every Civil War veteran qualified for a pension.
As more applications were being submitted, and the rules associated with applications evolved, many “Old Soldiers” recognized they needed help beyond that available from GAR Comrades in the local Post. A new type of service business emerged, that of ”Pension Attorneys” and “Claim Houses” to assist veterans preparing their claims and sending them to the U.S. Government Pension Bureau.
In general, pension claim agents rendered valuable service. As confirmed by the Pension Bureau itself: “Attorneys who are familiar with the pension laws, rulings, and decisions are a valuable aid to claimants by presenting their cases in an intelligent and painstaking manner.” For a fee, pension agents – - many of them sincerely motivated veterans themselves, but some best described as “shady characters” – - facilitated writing paperwork and tracking processing by the U.S. Pension Bureau. The Bureau itself eventually was housed in the largest brick government office building of its day in the world. Use of a Claims Agent, however, did not always help applicants obtain favorable pension outcomes because those who hired them often had weaker claims, questionable military records, or could not provide acceptable information to justify a pension.
GAR membership was limited to Union veterans of the War Between the States. In August 1949, due to the aging of members, bad health and death, GAR membership was 16 elderly men, only six of whom were able to travel to Indianapolis for the groups 82nd and final national encampment that year. The last verified Civil War veteran and GAR member, Albert Woolson, died in 1956 at age 109. The last widow of a Civil War veteran, Gertrude Janeway, died in 2003 at age 93. As of May, 2014 the last living child of a Civil War veteran, Irene Triplett age 84, still received a monthly federal government pension of $73.13 for her father’s military service in the American Civil War. With the death of “The Grand Army Men, during the first half of the 20th century, the political influence of the GAR ended. However, the efforts and legacy of the “Boys in Blue 1861-65” provided national recognition and monetary compensation for veterans, and set legal and binding precedents still honored today by the United States Government and Department of Veterans Affairs “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
Recommended additional reading concerning issues related to Civil War veterans and history of the GAR include:
The Civil War Veteran: A Historical Reader edited byLarry Logue and Michael Barton; ISBN-13: 978-0814752043
Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Matthew Jordan; ISBN-13: 978-0871407818
Grand Army Men: The GAR and Its Male Organizations by Robert J Wolz; ISBN-13: 978-0977852833