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May 22, 2013 Meeting – When Billy Came Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War

Photo of Prof. Brian Jordan.

Professor Brian Jordan from Gettysburg College speaking at our May 22, 2013 meeting.

When a PhD candidate who is currently teaching at Gettysburg College gives a presentation, you can be sure that he will be sharing a lot of knowledge. Using primary research from diaries, journals, letters and newspapers and also government statistics, Professor Brian Jordan revealed to us the sad era in United States history when many returning soldiers suffered greatly and in many ways. Professor Jordan’s talk examined the neglected experiences of the veteran soldiers.

Recently, the death toll estimate for both sides during the Civil War has been revised up, to about 750,000. But as our speaker revealed, that about 250,000 more men died within 5 years after the war as a result of injuries and disease or from just a weakened state of health while a soldier. In comparison to today’s population, that would be the equivalent of about 6 million men.

How They Suffered

Photo of Prof. Brian Jordan.

Prof. Brian Jordan of Gettysburg College.

He estimated that over 50,000 northern soldiers were missing limbs. Many felt like strangers at home and lived a lonely existence on the margins of society. It was a difficult transition for many of the 2.2 million veterans that returned and they were not always welcomed. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a famous author at the time living in Concord, Massachusetts, complained that they would bring a “moral disease.”.

Crime by veterans became regular news for the papers who played them up — they had their version of Fox “news” back then. There was a riot in July 1865 in Chicago by returning soldiers. Many got a reputation that they “can’t do anything but fight.” Many considered the soldiers as having below average intelligence. The New York Times once editorialized that the “veterans preferred to live by begging.”  By September 1865 there were many reports of drinking and drugs taking a toll on the veterans that had not assimilated.

Professor Jordan noted many stories of suicide and crimes committed by veterans. He told of a despondent Worcester soldier who killed himself with rat poison. As he found from reading the old publication The Soldiers Friend, soldiers found that being in the army was not always welcomed.

Help for the Vets

Illustration of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Illustration of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Click image to see enlarged version.

Eventually, the veterans organization, The Grand Army of the Republic, gained more influence. They were critical in getting pensions to disabled veterans. The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was established for wounded soldiers. They turned over their pension benefits in order to stay there and wore surplus military uniforms and were subject to army discipline. The eastern facility was located in Togus, Maine, near Augusta. Not all those soldiers who entered these places found them hospitable and got out as soon as they could. They were places of despondency. One remarked, “there is nothing to do here but kill life and time.” He felt all his dignity was gone since the war and life had no purpose.

After his talk, Professor Jordan answered many questions. “Did the Confederate soldiers have it as bad as northerners?” No, not as bad. They were welcomed home more warmly. They had fought in a noble “lost cause.” And as a percentage of the population, they were more numerous. Nearly 70% of males in the south were in the military whereas only 12% of the northern men.

“How important a role did pensions play?” Although by 1900, 38% of the federal budget was for pensions, that is a reflection more on the small size of the overall budget than on overspending on veterans. Filing for and receiving benefits was very difficult and a rigorous procedure. Two witnesses were needed and they often could not be found. Although many soldiers suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) there was no official diagnosis for that war-related injury.

As Professor Jordan summed up, wars don’t end, they linger on.