Ballots for Bullets? Disabled Veterans and the Right to Vote

By Belt, Rabia | Stanford Law Review, February 2017 | Go to article overview

Ballots for Bullets? Disabled Veterans and the Right to Vote


Belt, Rabia, Stanford Law Review


A. 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.

B. "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. …

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