"Never Forget What They Did Here": Civil War Pensions for Gettysburg Union Army Veterans and Disability in Nineteenth-Century America

By Blanck, Peter; Song, Chen | William and Mary Law Review, February 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

"Never Forget What They Did Here": Civil War Pensions for Gettysburg Union Army Veterans and Disability in Nineteenth-Century America

Blanck, Peter, Song, Chen, William and Mary Law Review


There probably is no single event more associated with the American Civil War than the epic July 1863 battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The defense of Little Round Top, intense fighting in Devil's Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and Pickett's Charge are etched in American mind and culture. The battle marked the turning point of the Civil War and the South's High Water Mark. Union heroes emerged--Warren, Chamberlain, Reynolds, Vincent--while the South's Lost Cause was cemented. The battle birthed Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which is revered as a vision for the postwar reconciliation. (2)

Yet, as historian Amy Kinsel comments, "[f]or most Americans, Gettysburg's legacy has been unavoidably shaped by a host of important events that occurred after July 1863, and it includes many more elements than the participants in the battle could ever have imagined." (3)

Given the prominent position of Gettysburg in American history and culture, it is remarkable that so little is known about the subsequent lives of the survivors of the battle. Indeed, aside from scores of individual and military portrayals of the participants before and after the war, (4) no systematic large-scale investigation has been conducted on this unique cohort of veterans in American history.

The stature of the Gettysburg Battle, and the American narrative it came to represent, developed well after July 1863. Historian Kinsel writes, "it was during the postwar period that most Americans ... came to regard Gettysburg as the preeminent battle of the Civil War and to invest it with a complex set of meanings that went far beyond its strictly military ramifications." (5)

In a series of empirical studies, we have examined the postwar lives of disabled Union Army (UA) Civil War soldiers. We have studied the nature of UA veterans' impairments during and after the war, and how the Civil War pension system compensated those disabilities from 1862 to 1907. The investigation documents how public acceptance and inclusion into society of disabled UA veterans in late-nineteenth-century American society were as much driven by factors external to disability, including political, economic, social, and attitudinal factors, as by the pension laws themselves. (6)

Public attitudes toward pension worthiness or deservingness were prominent among the external or environmental forces affecting the then new class of disabled Americans. We have compared and contrasted conceptions of "disability worthiness" in late-nineteenth-century America and in contemporary policy as articulated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. (7) We have examined these forces in studies of how views about UA veterans' disabilities, and hence pension compensation, were shaped by partisan forces, the rise of the administrative and bureaucratic state, attorney advocacy and lobbying, veterans' social class, nativity, occupation, and economic factors in late-nineteenth-century America. (8)

For the first time in our program of study, this Article examines a unique cohort within the UA--the survivors of Gettysburg. Who were these veterans and what were their lives like before and afar the war? Popular literature, movies, and documentaries remind us of Joshua Chamberlain as defender of Little Round Top and later as Governor of Maine, and Dan Sickles as soldier-politician and killer of his wife's Lover. (9)

Amazingly, no systematic study has been conducted of the postwar lives of soldiers under the commands of Chamberlain, Sickles, and others at Gettysburg. (10) We do not know whether, as progressive-era statistician Isaac Rubinow contends, "[t]he most singular feature of the [Civil War] American pension system ... [was] that it primarily redound[ed] to the advantage of a class least in need of old-age pensions." (11) And, we do not know whether the revered Gettysburg cohort was received as the most elite of these pension beneficiaries.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

"Never Forget What They Did Here": Civil War Pensions for Gettysburg Union Army Veterans and Disability in Nineteenth-Century America


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?