Ballots for bullets? Disabled veterans and the right to vote.

Author:Belt, Rabia
Position:Continuation of III. "There Is No Disguising It, Boys; the People Are Afraid of US!" through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 463-490
  1. A Population of Dependents

    Home officials understood the problems they faced and sought to mitigate them by further distinguishing their homes from other charitable institutions, such as asylums. Ironically, this may have been counterproductive, as other institutions were making similar moves. Moreover, their paternalism caused discord within the resident population.

    Home supervisors set strict rules for veterans. The War Department, in particular, extensively regulated NADVS inmates. Inmates were required to surrender their pensions to home supervisors, (187) organize into companies, (188) and remain on the premises unless they received explicit permission to leave. (189)

    Despite their intensive paternalism and strict rules, home officials emphasized the home aspect of the institutions in an attempt to differentiate them from other charitable institutions. The expectation was that men would stay at the homes for the rest of their lives, die, and be interred in the cemeteries located conveniently next door. As the Committee on Military Affairs contended after hearing testimony from the NADVS Board of Managers, "[t]he general spirit of the laws establishing these homes exhibit[s] the intentions of our people. They are to be homes for the country's defenders, not asylums for the helpless poor whom society by the laws of its existence is bound to support." (190) As described by the Board of Managers, "the Home is neither an [sic] hospital nor alms-house, but a home, where subsistence, quarters, clothing, religious instruction, employment when possible, and amusements are provided by the Government of the United States. The provision is not a charity, but is a reward to the brave and deserving." (191) Home reports spoke of picnics on the lawns, Sunday sermons, and cozy living quarters stocked with reading supplies. (192)

    Thus, home administrators were particularly adamant about characterizing the soldiers' homes as homes rather than charitable institutions. In 1859, Congress changed the name of the Military Asylum to the "Soldiers' Home." (193) In 1873, the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers changed its name to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. (194) The Government Hospital for the Insane reported that "the more intelligent and sensitive of the patients" referred to the hospital as St. Elizabeth's "in order to avoid the use, both by themselves and their friends, in speaking and writing, of the word insane, which forms a part of the legal title of the hospital." (195) The hospital eventually formally changed its name to St. Elizabeths Hospital. (196) These changes were designed as destigmatizing measures to distance soldiers' homes from other charitable institutions. While scholars of soldiers' homes generally emphasize that soldiers' homes were distinct from other charitable institutions, (197) asylums also emphasized similar elements of paternalistic and familial management (198) and underwent similar name changes in attempts to lower stigma.

  2. "Like Monkeys in a Zoo": Veterans and Disgust

    The actual disabilities that predominated in soldiers' homes--mental health problems--gave rise to appearances and conflicts that tended to make the homes look like other charitable institutions to locals. Instead of just receiving the rewards and gratitude they hoped for, Civil War veterans also faced disgust.

    The population served by the homes caused mixed emotions in the local community and the general public. Because veterans moved into the homes largely as a last resort, the veterans in the homes were often men who lacked family support or financial resources. Like paupers and lunatics, soldiers' home residents were disproportionately white, foreign-born immigrants. For instance, 88% of the men in the Dayton Branch of the NAVDS were born outside the United States. (199) In Bellows's final report to the Sanitary Commission, tellingly titled "Provision Required for the Relief and Support of Disabled Soldiers and Sailors," he concluded that the majority of men who required an institution were foreign-born soldiers, mostly from Ireland and Germany. (200) Native-born soldiers, by contrast, had a "spirit above dependence" and were the "objects of a proud and tender domestic or neighborly care, and withdrawn from public view, as it is desirable they should be." (201) Because he believed that extant shelters offered adequate aid to ex-soldiers--mainly nonnative soldiers--Bellows advocated pensions instead of new institutions. (202) Harper's New Monthly Magazine similarly wrote in 1886 that an "impression has prevailed that by reason of temperament and native precedent" the foreigners within the home were "more ready to accept a condition of dependence than ... our own countrymen." (203) As these examples illustrate, xenophobia led even veterans' advocates to view their charges as particularly susceptible to dependence.

    Soldiers' homes were also suspiciously viewed as potential centers for vice. Localities feared that the population of untethered men would usher in disreputable habits, such as gambling. Skid row areas selling alcohol, sex, gambling, and other vices proliferated around the homes. (204)

    The biggest problem faced by administrators in every home--state and federal--was alcohol. Many inebriated men suffered from frostbite. (205) Drunken men were put in restraints, were committed to insane wards, fell out of windows, and tripped over sidewalks. (206) Administrators from every branch gathered together at the Milwaukee Branch in 1894 to address their mutual alcohol problem. (207) Commandant John Keatley, in his first biennial report to Iowa legislators, objected "that many persons, on account of the intemperance of a few, are apt to characterize the entire membership of a soldiers' home as a 'lot of drunken bums.'" (208) Iowa Soldiers' Home surgeon G.W. Harris declared in 1893 that 1096 of the home's residents were heavy drinkers who staggered around Marshalltown in their uniforms. (209) These men "taint[ed] the reputation of the Home." (210) M.F. Force, the commandant of the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Home, complained in a special report that during

    trips to bring in men who were lying in the road, over a dozen perished of exposure before they were found. Men in uniform swarmed the streets of Sandusky begging alms. The saloons in the city were supplied with Home table ware, and on washing days, the clothes lines in neighboring farms were burdened with Home blankets. (211) A one-mile-limit law prohibited the selling of alcohol within a mile of any soldiers' home. (212) But the one-mile-limit law was ineffective, as the inmates just walked or hitched rides to buy alcohol. (213)

    Opium abuse also ran rampant among the veteran population. (214) Alcoholic veterans were treated with substitutes, such as codeine, heroin, or chloral hydrate. (215) Wounded veterans also received morphine and other opiates for pain. (216) And distressed veterans were sometimes administered opiates as sedatives. One veteran, Leonard Griffith, could not sit in front of an open door or window because he was in "constant dread of being killed. " (217). He was prescribed sedatives for sleep. (218) Another veteran believed that people were trying to kill him and "begged for protection." (219) He also received sedatives. (220) One study referred to morphine addiction as the late nineteenth-century "army disease." (221) An article in the Independent estimated that there were 80,000-100,000 opium eaters in the United States; they were prevalent in disabled soldiers, among other populations. (222)

    Despite enthusiasm and intense lobbying for soldiers' homes, there was an undercurrent of unease about the soldiers' homes in the general public. The attempts to distinguish homes from charitable institutions were a failure, at least in the eyes of the local populations. This failure was aggravated by homes' facing challenges similar to other charitable institutions: political gamesmanship from political parties, investigations and charges of corruption, and the clear implication that the homes were beneficiaries of the same patronage system that benefited other charitable institutions.

    The homes were perpetually overcrowded, and their administrators asked for more funds on a regular basis. (223) The Wisconsin Veterans' Home was immediately overwhelmed with applications, starting in the first year of operation. (224) At the Iowa Soldiers' Home, the commandant reported that "[t]he present indications are that the Home will be filled to its full capacity during the year 1888." (225) It had just opened the previous year. (226)

    Although many scholars believe the public viewed the wounds of disabled veterans positively, many of the veterans themselves believed they were regarded with disgust. Some veterans viewed their public attention cynically. A veteran in the Southern Branch of the NHDVS said in 1889 that the home was a "show place for visitors, and we are as much an exhibition here as monkeys at the Zoo." (227) James Marten recounts:

    [A] former inmate of the Milwaukee home wrote to the local newspaper, "Some ladies who visit the Home look upon the soldiers as a blot upon the fair landscape." On one occasion an "exquisite being" visited the grounds and declared that it was "too, too lovely. If they would only take those disgusting soldiers away, it would be too heavenly," (228) Despite enthusiasm for supporting veterans, few were actually hired for jobs, especially in the private sector. (229) An October 1865 article in Leslie's Illustrated noted the "hard but truthful fact that there is a prejudice in the minds of employers against returned soldiers." (230) A veteran calling himself "New Hampshire" wrote into the Soldiers' Friend, lamenting, "There is no disguising it, boys; the people are afraid of us!" (231) The magazine received multiple letters from veterans recounting their experiences of unemployment. (232)...

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