'A Fool for Going to the War'

By Kelly, Patrick J. | VFW Magazine, June/July 2011 | Go to article overview
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'A Fool for Going to the War'


Kelly, Patrick J., VFW Magazine


Sanitary Commission Seeks Jobs for Vets

At a time when unemployment has hit record-high levels among recent war vets, it is instructive to consider the plight of Union vets in 1865-66 and see how one private agency-the U.S. Sanitary Commission-tackled the problem nearly 150 years ago.

"The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC)T wrote George R Fredrickson in The Inner Civil War, "was the largest, most powerful, and most highly organized philanthropic activity that had ever been seen in America." In some respects, it was the equivalent of a private forerunner of the VA.

President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation on June 18, 1861, creating the USSC as an official government agency (though it was privately run and funded). During the war, it operated 30 soldiers' homes, lodges or rest stops for disabled and transient Union soldiers. Its backbone was always the women volunteers who ran the USSC locally.

For a time after the war, it assisted Union vets in securing bounties, back pay and applying for pensions. Perhaps its least-known role was beating the drums among businesses for hiring veterans as valued employees.

In its network of temporary soldiers' homes, the USSC provided food, medical care and shelter to soldiers in transit, arranged for their safe transportation home and offered advice to ex-soldiers trapped in a maze of government paperwork.

Despite the best efforts of it and other of the North's voluntary associations, however, the rapid disbanding of the Union Army generated many painful individual dislocations.

Healthy veterans discovered that finding employment in the months following the Civil War was far from easy. Obtaining work was doubly difficult for war-disabled Union vets. Casual labor required a great deal of physical stamina and was a difficult, if not impossible, form of employment for men physically disabled by injury and disease.

Yet many disabled servicemen lacked the skills and education required for the physically less demanding white collar work - clerking, accounting, teaching or operating a telegraph. The economic outlook for unskilled veterans suffering from disabilities was, in short, bleak.

Desperate Circumstances

Forced into desperate circumstances, a number of veterans turned to begging. The sight of veterans with disabilities appealing for money on city streets, as well as on ferries and trains, became depressingly familiar in the years following the war.

In August 1865, Philadelphia's Public Ledger noted, "Quite a number of men in soldiers' clothes have made their appearance in our crowded thoroughfares, who, with arms in slings and support on crutches, hold out their hands to the passers for alms."

Early the following winter, a letter from a Union veteran to the New York Tribune reported: "I notice in passing through the streets of this great metropolis hundreds, aye, I might say thousands, of maimed soldiers, some with a leg or arm off, asking for alms. What attention is paid to them? I answer, none whatever; they are passed by in contempt. I do not mean to say by all, but by the majority.

"Answer, O ye wealthy, who roll by through the thoroughfares in your carriages, is this the way you treat those who have fought and endured all the hardships while you have been at your own firesides enjoying the sweets of this life?"

Attempting to scratch out a living, some of the war-disabled worked as crossing sweepers, while others strolled through the streets playing hurdy-gurdies (barrel organs).

Some private businesses attempted to assist war-disabled veterans and turn a profit at the same time. The Soldiers and Sailors Publishing Company printed a number of histories of the war and hired ex-servicemen with missing limbs to peddle these books.

Ex- soldiers, eager to play on public sympathy and profit from their wartime experience, wrote and published pamphlets with titles such as The Empty Sleeve and The Great War Relic.

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