Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

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

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

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

Article excerpt


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. …

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