Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"The Insatiable Glutton", December 1882

“The Insatiable Glutton,” a many-armed man wearing a Civil War-era forage cap 
labeled “U.S. Pensioner,” 
scooping coins out of an overflowing bowl labeled “U.S. Treasury.

“The Insatiable Glutton” illustration was published on the cover of Puck magazine in December 1882, nearly two decades after the end of the Civil War.  By the 1880s, support for the veteran was diminishing, as seen in this representation of a Union soldier grasping at government funds.

Puck magazine periodically and mercilessly attacked the pension system in the 1880s and 1890s. Puck cartoonists several times portrayed unnecessary generosity and outright fraud within the system with full-color cover illustrations. The first, in December 1882, featured a pensioner with many arms: the sleeves on the arms are stitched with “Fraudulent Attorney,” “Bogus Widow,” “Bogus Grandpa,” “Bogus Grandma,” “Bogus Orphan,” and 

A few years later, a sinister-looking Pension Commissioner James Tanner was depicted outside the U.S. Treasury building, holding a horn of plenty—whose long tail, labeled “Pension Bureau,” snaked back into the building—from which coins, bills, and bags of money spilled into dozens of grasping hands.  Tanner, as a corporal in the Union Army, had had both legs amputated after the Second Battle of Bull Run.  He later joined the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and in 1905 became the National Commander-in-Chief.

"Tanner's Infallible Elixir of Life, for Pension-grabbers only"
Pension payments were increased regularly, and men pursuing political office often found that their obvious injury proved useful in attracting voters. 

Yet as Americans sought to put the memory of the conflict behind them, they increasingly ignored the plight of aging, disabled, impoverished veterans. Instead, memorializing the dead and asserting national patriotism became the focus of Civil War remembrances, and the image of the disabled soldier became one of a money-grabbing dependent.

Beginning in 1861, the U.S. government generously attended to the need of its soldiers and sailors or their dependents. Because the Federal government did not implement conscription until 1863, these first Civil War benefits in many ways were an attempt to induce men to volunteer. 

Civil War Veterans, Amputees
In 1862, Congress passed the "General Law System," which established the Pension Bureau. The General Law prescribed that the Bureau award pensions to veterans with war-related disabilities through a medical screening system for rating and compensating disabilities.  Under the General Law, claimants were rated with respect to their "total disability for the performance of manual labor requiring severe and continuous exertion." The definition of disability in relation to the ability to perform manual labor was interpreted later to include
other types of labor that required "education or skill."  
Under the General Law, an army private received a maximum of $8 a month for being rated as "totally disabled."   The system defined fractional rates of total disability for diseases or conditions; for instance, a war-related lost finger or small toe was compensated by a prescribed rating of 2/8 totally disabled, with a corresponding pension allotment of $2 per month. A war-related lost eye
or thumb, or a single hernia, resulted in a 4/8 rating of total disability with a corresponding award of $4 per month.

The law first passed in 1862 and amended several times, established pensions for widows and orphans of soldiers and a precise table of conditions and amounts covered by pensions for soldiers disabled as a direct result of military service. Over the years, rates were changed, specific conditions were added, and the percentage of disability was altered.  

Widows of Soldiers Receiving Their Pensions
The amount of each pension depended upon the veteran's military rank and level of disability. Pensions given to widows, orphans, and other dependents of deceased soldiers were always figured at the rate of total disability according to the military rank of their deceased husband or father. By 1873 widows could also receive extra benefits for each dependent child in their care.  Survivors, primarily widows and dependent children under the age of 16, were able to apply and to be pensioned. If the deceased soldier did not leave a widow or children, other survivors could also apply, namely parents and orphaned siblings under 16. These applicants had to provide evidence that the son or brother had contributed to the survivor’s livelihood.

A first-grade disability, providing a pension of $31.25 per month, was a permanent disability requiring the regular aid and attendance of another person. A second-grade disability, warranting a monthly pension of $24.00, was a permanent disability that incapacitated the claimant for the performance of any manual labor. Permanent disabilities equivalent to the loss of a hand or foot were third grade and were pensionable at $18.00 per month. The bureau established a series of rates below $18.00 per month for specific conditions. Among the rates were $6.00 per month for the loss of the great toe, $8.00 per month for anchylosis of the wrist, and $12.00 per month for the loss of the sight in one eye.

Although altered somewhat over the years, the 1862 statute remained the foundation of the Federal pension system until the 1890s. It stipulated that only those soldiers whose disability was "incurred as a direct consequence of . . . Military duty" or developed after combat "from causes which can be directly traced to injuries received or diseases contacted while in military service" could collect pension benefits. 

The Sanitary Commission recognized that some percentage of disabled vets did not have homes to return to, and these men would need institutions--Soldiers' Homes--but these, the Commission insisted, should be "modest and temporary". The Commission estimated that, in 30 years, the Soldiers' Homes would have served their function and no longer be needed. Financial support to build these institutions came from a mix of sources--Federal, state, municipal, and private charity.

New Hampshire Soldiers' Home
Veterans traced the pension system to this passage in the final paragraph of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: 
Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Opponents of enlarged pensions denied the claim that the government owed volunteers—at least those who had not been crippled—anything more than heartfelt gratitude. They often made their point by criticizing the veterans themselves. A rather extreme 
example appeared in the Chicago Times after Democratic President Grover Cleveland’s 1888 veto of an extension of the pension program for Union veterans: “Thank God! The claim-agents, the demagogues, the dead-beats and . . . deserters and coffee-coolers and bounty-jumpers, composing our great standing army of volunteer mendicants have been 
defeated!”  The Times refuted the claim that the veterans had “saved” the country: “No country, no nation, political constitution, system, or establishment, has ever been saved by . . . citizens that are not in the habit of depending on themselves."

In 1881 the U.S. Congress directed General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster of the U.S. Army and a graduate of West Point, to design a new home for the growing Pension Bureau. The agency moved to the building in the spring of 1885, before the structure was complete, and remained until 1926. Over the next half-century, the building was home to various government agencies, including the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Civil Service Commission, and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Pension Building, Washington, D.C.
Not only did the Civil War greatly increase the number of pensioners, the war also created a demand for federal workers and office space to administer the pensions. This tremendous growth is what prompted Congress, in 1881, to commission the Pension Building. Upon its completion, the space accommodated approximately 1,500 clerks and officers.

In the early 1880s, less than 20 years after the war, 890,000 pension claims had been filed on behalf of those killed or wounded in the Civil War, though not all were approved. By the time the new Pension Building was completed, there were 324,968 Civil War pensioners on the rolls.

Pensions made up a large percentage—almost a third—of the federal budget in the 1880s and took up much of the business of the 49th Congress (1885-1887), a group that included many Union veterans. Forty percent of the legislation introduced in the House and 55% in the Senate consisted of special pension acts.

Pensioners from southern states who were eligible due to their service in other wars—particularly the Indian Wars and the Mexican-American War—were dropped from the federal pension rolls during the Civil War, but reinstated in 1872.

Pensions after the Civil War came from color-blind eligibility laws but still resulted in unequal benefits.  Black soldiers didn't receive benefits equal to those of their white counterparts because they had a hard time producing the necessary paperwork, so fewer applied.  Those who did apply were less often believed, compared to whites, when they claimed undiagnosable conditions like persistent diarrhea, earaches or back pain.

Despite increasing political support for veterans from 1880 to 1890, the gap continued to widen between applications granted for white soldiers and black soldiers. For example, 44 percent of claims regarding back pain were granted for white soldiers, compared to only 16 percent of black soldiers' claims.

In 1890 the most notable revision in the Federal pension law occurred: the Dependent Pension Act. A result of the intense lobbying effort of the veterans' organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, this statute removed the link between pensions and service-related injuries, allowing any veteran who had served honorably to qualify for a pension if at some time he became disabled for manual labor.  The Act of 1890 extended pensions to any disabled man who had received an honorable discharge after serving at least ninety days.  His disability need not have been the result of military service, but it could not be the result of  “vicious habits.”

Eventually pensions became the largest single item in the federal budget; their costs would eventually dwarf the actual cost of the war itself.

 That would be enough to make the matter controversial, but a number of other forces converged to ensure the politicization of the pension issue: the tariff revenues filling the treasury, the country’s commitment to civil rights and manhood suffrage, and the revival of two-party politics all came together to bolster veterans’ belief that, as one stated, pensions were “an obligation,” not a “gratuity.”
The Grand Army of the Republic made pensions a perennial issue. This association was not only a fraternal organization and charitable body; it was also a “special interest . . . lobby” that recruited members with the promise of expanding and increasing pensions for Civil War veterans.

A summary of the veterans’ position appeared in an 1891 article in the North American Review: "The men who fought to save the Union,” the former commissioner of pensions, Green Raum, assured his readers, “were not mercenaries. They did not preserve this country for the purpose of looting its treasury.” Moreover, their pride would not admit to receiving unwarranted charity. “They feel that an old soldier can receive a pension as a recognition of honorable service with a feeling of pride, while he would turn his back with shame upon an offer of charity.”  The country’s population was soaring, its economic power was multiplying, and its institutions had become the envy of the world.  Americans needed to understand that these developments were due in large measure to the men receiving the pensions of a few dollars a month: 
“The generation of people who have come upon the stage of action since the war closed should understand that the blessings of peace and prosperity now enjoyed by the people of the United States are due to the patriotism and valor of the soldiers of the Union.”
Green Raum
Despite living in an era when old-age pensions and welfare were virtually unknown to all but the most hard-pressed citizens, when the laissez-faire of the brutal world of business was easily adapted to social relations, and when the federal government rarely intruded into the 
lives of individual citizens, Union veterans insisted that their disabilities and service had earned them nearly unprecedented consideration and that the statements of their commander in chief in 1865 and subsequent acts by Congress essentially established a contract between them and the United States. 

They complained that their service during the war had caused them to miss out on the opportunities provided by the booming wartime economy; they had fallen behind their
peers; and their disabilities, large and small, had rendered them unable to compete fully with the rising generation. A generous pension system would help them recover some of that lost potential. And they believed it entirely appropriate that they shape the political system through lobbying and advocacy which, in turn, helped to change the nature of
politics in Gilded Age America and beyond.

At the same time that pension requirements were becoming more liberal, several Southern congressmen attempted to open up the Federal system to Confederate veterans. Proponents justified such a move by noting that Southerners had contributed to Federal pensions through indirect taxes since the end of the war. These proposals met with mixed responses in both North and the South, but overwhelmingly, opposition came from those financially comfortable Confederate veterans and southern politicians who regarded such dependency on Federal assistance a dishonor to the Lost Cause. It should be noted that impoverished Southern veterans frequently were not averse to the prospect of receiving Federal pensions. In any event, no such law ever passed, and Confederate veterans and their widows never matriculated into the Federal pension system.

Although U.S. Civil War veterans had received pensions since 1862 and Southern state governments had provided their veterans with artificial limbs and veteran retirement homes since the end of the war, it was not until the 1880s and early 1890s that the eleven states of the former Confederacy enacted what can accurately be called pension systems. The economic devastation of he war and the political upheaval of Reconstruction best explain this long delay. 

When Southern pension systems did finally emerge, they generally resembled the pre-1890 U.S. system: eligibility depended upon service-related disability or death and indigence, and widows as well as other dependents of deceased soldiers could receive pensions. 

Despite these similarities, however, there were striking differences. First, in the South widows collected pensions set at a specific rate for widows of deceased soldiers. These rates were generally lower than those to which their husbands would have been entitled should they have survived. Under the Federal system, there was no separate category for widows. Second, most Southern pension laws determined stipend amounts based only on the degree of disability. No regard was given to military rank. Third, there was never a Confederate equivalent to the 1890 U.S. Dependent Act. Although over time Confederate pension requirements became more liberalized, there was always an income and poverty limit-pensions were never given simply for service. Fourth, whereas indirect taxes funded Federal pensions, most Southern states financed their pension through a direct tax. And fifth, because Southern pension systems were on the state level only, they varied as to method and amount and were much less financially generous than U.S. pensions. Though the individual pensions of Southerners were minuscule compared to those of Federal veterans and war widows, as a percentage of state expenditures, Southern pension expenditures were monumental. Of all the former Confederate states, Georgia generally spent the most per year on pensions, Alabama ran a close second.

In order to receive a pension, Civil War widows had to prove that they had actually been married to a soldier. Marriage records were far less consistent in the past than they are today, which explains why Charity Snider ended up sending the pressed skin of a dead mole to the federal government.  Snider’s husband, James J. Van Liew, had killed the animal after it infiltrated his Army tent.

Snider kept the pelt around for years. By July 1900, when she found herself needing to prove she’d been married to Van Liew, she had lost the original letter that contained the skin. In fact, it seems she may have lost all written correspondence from her husband, which is why she was lucky that he had sent her the mole.  When the letter arrived during the war, she showed the unusual enclosure, and the accompanying missive addressed to “My Dear Wife,” to her friends. Perhaps because of the mole, four of them remembered the letter years later, and they were willing to write testimonials to the government to that effect.

Snider wrapped the mole skin in her explanatory note and sent it along. She got her pension.

In late 2005, an Archives staff member was pulling a file from the Civil War Widows Certificate Approved Pension Case Files for a researcher. The file seemed unusually bulky, so he opened it. Inside the folder, tucked between sheets of a letter was one of the most unusual items found in the records of the National Archives:
the preserved skin of a mole.
By 1906 old age alone became sufficient justification to receive a pension. The Sherwood Act of 1912 broadened the scope for pensions once again, allowing all Union Soldiers a pension at age 62 regardless of any notable disability.

It wasn't until the 1930s that confederate soldiers began receiving pensions from the federal government.

Both the Federal government and Southern state governments continued to provide pensions for Civil War veterans and their widows well into the middle of the twentieth century. In all, billions of dollars were expended by both sides in an effort to "reward" the survivors of America's costliest war. Because of the high rates of expansion in both the Federal and Confederate systems, critics frequently accused pensioners and officials alike of corruption and fraud. Those pensioners most often labeled as frauds were widows, especially young women who had married veterans much older than themselves, supposed "cowards," and, in the Federal system, black veterans. 

Albert Woolson
The last verified Civil War veteran, Albert Woolson, died in 1956 at age 109. The last widow, Gertrude Janeway, died in 2003 at age 93.

As of 2012, the federal was still paying out veterans' pensions.  Records from the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) showed that two children of Civil War veterans were receiving pensions from their fathers' service. Department of Veteran Affairs spokesman Phil Budahn said the VA last checked in on the benefits recipients in the fall. Both were alive, but in poor health.  Budahn said it was likely that the children of the Civil War veterans, who have wished to remain anonymous, both had illnesses that prevented them from ever becoming self-sufficient.  Trevor Plante, a reference chief at the National Archives said it's also possible that the beneficiaries were young when their fathers died and had no living mothers to care for them, which would also qualify them for their fathers' pensions.

One of the children, a man, died in August 2012 at the age of 93. The other, a woman, was born around 1930 and lives in a nursing home in North Carolina. Gail Crosby of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which represents women whose fathers fought for the South during the conflict, said that the surviving child qualified for benefits because she was disabled before she turned 18. "She is mentally challenged and has a bad limp but I don’t know if she was born that way or if something happened," Ms Crosby said. "She is unable to communicate enough to even care for herself and her mother put her in a home before the mother passed away. She's been in this care home for the rest of her life with her little Civil War pension from her dad."

More than $40 billion each year is spent on compensation for veterans of the Spanish-American War of 1898, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq campaigns, and the war in Afghanistan.

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