The Veterans’ Home That Wasn’t

The Veterans??? Home That Wasn???t: What the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upo…

By Brian Johnson ’14

What can the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers can tell us about the tangled themes of place and healing?

In July of 1913, well over 50,000 Civil War veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies descended upon Gettysburg.  They had come to commemorate the events that had transpired there 50 years earlier but not the viscerality of the fighting and loss that they had experienced.  These silver-haired men came to Gettysburg amidst the triumph of sectional and spiritual reconciliation; healing was the order of the day.  And where could healing take place more powerfully and symbolically than at the site of one of the climactic battles of the Civil War?  If veterans of the Blue and Gray could shake hands at a place as brutally contested as the stone wall of Pickett’s Charge – and do so amidst sincere good feeling – reconciliation and healing must have been complete.

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What does this have to do with the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers?  The 1913 Gettysburg Reunion was a testament to how powerful place can be in creating a fitting sense of healing and even closure to a painful historical event.  National cemeteries at Civil War battlefields, like the one at Gettysburg, represent the same concept.  Many Union soldiers killed during the battle are buried in Gettysburg, the place where they fell, in what is seen as a fitting resting place.  But beyond these better known examples of the 1913 Reunion and the National Cemetery, a very similar process – one that utilized a place to create a sense of healing – was also at work in 1867 with the proposal of a veterans’ home known as the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the number of men who had suffered debilitating wounds was staggering and the need to do something for them was great. Nearly 300,000 Union soldiers had survived gunshot wounds and nearly 30,000 had suffered amputation.  Disease, the greatest killer of Civil War soldiers, probably disabled even more than battle wounds. Veterans who suffered from debilitating conditions had to endure difficult economic and personal adjustments as they returned to civilian life.  Returning to the labor market after losing a limb meant a loss of livelihood and loss of the social role as “breadwinner.”  The costs, however, went far beyond the physical and the pecuniary: economic uselessness was antithetical to nineteenth century conceptions of masculinity.

With the number of discharged veterans ballooning, Federal efforts at relief proved inadequate.  Disabled soldiers were offered free prostheses, veterans’ preference in government jobs, and a meager $8 per month pension.  For the soldiers who had no family-care network to return to or who were simply such physical wrecks that they required more attention than loved ones could provide, this was simply not enough.  These men required institutional care, but the federal government’s response was, again, inadequate.  It simply did not move quickly enough to meet the needs of the disabled and homeless veterans that often inhabited Northern cityscapes.  Responsibility necessarily devolved upon the private sector and the charitable efforts of benevolent Northerners to furnish such institutions.  One initiative, the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers, was proposed by a group of New York investors in 1866.  Hoping to create a veterans’ home located in Gettysburg, these men moved with alacrity.  They submitted paperwork to be commissioned by the state of Pennsylvania and with the endorsement of a local state senator, the Asylum was incorporated by early March of 1867.  By early June, the board had submitted its application materials for tax-exempt status.  In the meantime, preparations for advertising and fundraising were already well underway. Efforts included a spring benefit concert series, featuring prominent talents like conductor Theodore Thomas.  Confidence that the Asylum would be incorporated must have been overflowing as one concert was held the day before the Governor signed the final bill.

Why would the managers of the Asylum have any reason to think they would not succeed?  After all, these men were proposing locating disabled veterans at the place where great deeds had been done – Gettysburg.  Men of note including former Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and Major General George Gordon Meade had agreed to serve on its board of managers.  (Meade’s face appears on the image of a fundraiser subscription receipt below.)  Reaction to the concert series must have served as further confirmation of the public’s enthusiasm for the project.  One performance at New York City’s Irving Hall set a record for attendance at that venue.  By the 8 o’clock start time, hundreds had already been turned away as not even standing room remained.  After the rousing concert finished, one of the Asylum’s managers and a United States Army major came on stage.  These men asked the audience if they would join the “national movement” to establish a veterans’ home in Gettysburg or instead watch disabled veterans, without much hyperbole, “grind out organ music at street corners for the stray pennies dropped in their hats.”  The speeches were, of course, well received and the audience was more than willing to donate to the cause.

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Part of the appeal of the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers was not just its association with and location in Gettysburg, but also the specific site that had been chosen for its buildings.  It was to sit on 30 acres of prime battlefield real estate located on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill.  Advertisements made sure to include this detail along with fundraising specifics.  Prominent sites such as Zeigler’s Grove were included in the proposed acreage, which also abutted the house that had served as General Meade’s battlefield headquarters.  From such a historic vantage point, disabled veterans would be able to look out over the sites made notable by the battle: the fields of Pickett’s Charge, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, and in the distance the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, and Little Round Top.  For similar reasons, Gettysburg National Military Park utilized precisely the same location for their 1962 Visitor Center: it sat right in the middle of it all and offered sweeping visuals to correspond with the epic Cyclorama painting of Pickett’s Charge housed inside.

Unlike the National Park Service visitor center, however, the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers never came to fruition. When the original group of New York investors authorized an illegal lottery of shoddy diamonds, and appointed themselves first to the board of managers and then to trustees, General George Meade became suspicious.  As a result, he prompted an investigation by Pennsylvania’s attorney general, which then led to a Congressional investigation.  Inquiry exposed the Asylum as nothing more than a tax fraud scheme for the benefit of the New York investors.  Pennsylvania’s tax laws that could be more easily exploited than in their home state, and the idea of a Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers offered the perfect guise.

That the scheme ever advanced as far as it did and received such enthusiastic support is, however, not just a testament to the power of the Gettysburg location.  It is also illustrative of the tension between how the public wanted to honor wounded veterans and what many of those wounded veterans must have preferred.  The 94,000 Union soldiers who had fought at Gettysburg endured a living hell.   It left an indelible mark upon the 90,000 who lived through the experience.  As Union soldiers who fought at places like “The Angle” during Pickett’s Charge and the men who drew burial duty afterward could attest, Gettysburg was a place of raw, sensitive memories.  Yet with a veterans’ home located on Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge, the sights where such memories were formed could be as little as a few hundred yards away and within plain sight.  For a veteran population that struggled for fifteen years after Appomattox to find ways of processing and expressing what they had experienced during the war, the idea of living in the middle of the most hallowed of all Civil War battlefields in 1867 would be troubling, to say the least.  Just four years after Gettysburg and a mere two after the surrender at Appomattox, it would have been entirely too soon for many of the disabled veterans, who would have been the focus of the Asylum’s services, to return to Gettysburg.  With local volunteer efforts straining to handle the sheer number of disabled men, a measly $8 per month Federal disability pension, and a slow-starting federal system of institutional care, the choice of whether or not to come to an Asylum in Gettysburg would have been all the more complicated.

War weariness affected the Northern public, too.  Just as veterans struggled to talk about what they experienced after the war, the public was not yet ready to listen; to a degree the public was never ready.  It seems somewhat unexpected then that enthusiasm for the Gettysburg Asylum – located in the midst of the battlefield – was so overwhelming.  What likely accounts for this discrepancy is the simple fact that while the Northern home front had to bear a heavy burden in a tragic and costly war, it was the soldiers who fought the battles and bore the more direct physical and psychological scars.  At least in 1867, soldiers and civilians must have necessarily had divergent relationships with battlefield sites, as is evident in the story of the Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers.


For Further Reading:

On the efforts to care for disabled veterans:

Kelly, Patrick J. Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans Welfare State, 1860-1900. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

On the soldiers’ experiences and soldiers’ memory:

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

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