Let Us Not Forget the Living: The Complicated Lives of Union Veterans

Ambiguity shaped the lives of Civil War veterans. Publicly honored and respected, many never managed to fit back into their old lives, or to build new ones. This is a familiar story to modern Americans, of course. Although the stereotypical troubled veteran in popular culture has tended to be a victim of the Vietnam War, adjustment problems have plagued veterans of all wars. Indeed, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to competing narratives of heroism and honor versus physical disability, addiction, and the failure of veterans’ health care systems.

The storylines that followed Civil War veterans into their postwar years were equally complex. This was certainly true of the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Milwaukee (NHDVS), which was one of the three original soldiers’ homes established by Congress in 1865. The branch was unique in that its funding came partly from the $100,000 raised at a Soldiers’ Home Fair organized by the women of Milwaukee during the summer after the war. The women, who had cared for hundreds of soldiers at a downtown facility during the war, had intended to open a bigger home for extended postwar care, but were convinced to donate their money by a group of men angling to get a federal home at Milwaukee. The Northwestern Branch opened in May 1867 on a four hundred-acre site west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By the 1890s, over two thousand men lived at the home.[1]

Postcard of the main building of the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers around 1900. Author’s collection.

Like all Civil War soldiers’ homes, the Milwaukee home foreshadowed the “living memorial” movement following the Second World War (indeed, almost a century later, Milwaukee’s War Memorial Center would house not only veterans’ groups, but also the city’s art museum). In Milwaukee, and elsewhere, they also became public recreation areas, combining a “city beautiful” aesthetic with the parks movement that would begin later in the century. This was certainly true of the Northwestern Branch. Well-kept parkways wound through forests and past several small lakes, where families of swans added a touch of elegance. The stately main building, perched on a hill that dominated the surrounding countryside, was soon joined by an attractive village of barracks, hospitals, and housing for staff and administrators, as well as a theater, library, and beer hall. As many as sixty thousand tourists visited the grounds every year; they could buy a guidebook and take tours led by veterans themselves. The Milwaukee home also hosted the city’s July Fourth celebration, which featured patriotic illuminations, dancing, boat rides, and fireworks.[2]

Postcard of one of the lakes on the Home grounds. Author’s collection.

The homes represented an unprecedented effort to care for men who could not care for themselves, and their beauty, expense, and popularity in some ways celebrated the heroes who lived in them. But they also led to an exaggerated isolation of veterans from the rest of society for the men who lived there. One can almost literally imagine tourists stepping over and around the old soldiers who, according to a woman who had grown up on the grounds, littered the grass.[3]

But the isolation went beyond the discomfort that non-veterans displayed in the presence of the aging saviors of the Union. Much of the problem stemmed from the inevitable proliferation of bars and brothels at the northern and southern entrances of the Home. By the 1890s, over thirty had been established, many crowded into “The Line,” a two-block stretch of National Avenue (named after the Home). Similar areas popped up near other branches of the NHDVS and state homes, as well. The bars were always crowded, and veterans were often swindled by shady characters, arrested for disturbing the peace, or, on occasion, killed by trains while drunkenly walking the tracks back to the Home or freezing to death when they passed out in snow banks.[4]

An 1883 Milwaukee Sentinel article articulated the public perception that Home residents had a collective drinking problem. “If we are correctly informed [they]…are too much in the habit of over-indulgence in drink. If they are frequently seen intoxicated in the city, they will surely create the impression that rather strict discipline is needed at the Home…. Every man of them who gets drunk brings disrepute upon associates.”[5]

Worse were the veterans who had been discharged from the Home, or left of their own volition. They wondered the streets, or ended up in the county workhouse or city jail. Those who were ill sought refuge in the county infirmary, putting stress on the small institution’s limited resources. Although most of them claimed to have been dismissed unfairly from the Home, one investigator suggested most of them were “hard cases.” Townspeople resented the presence of the drunken or hungover men on their streets, the chaos of the National Avenue dives, and the refusal of National Home officials to take them back in. The superintendent of the county farm, where more than a dozen outcasts had taken shelter for the winter, complained that such men should never be “turned loose as a tramping disgrace to the old Union army.”[6]

Those were hard words, and some veterans seemed to have internalized them, expressing their sense of isolation and rejection. One resident testified before a Congressional committee that the men with whom he lived “are all dissatisfied, every one of them…. We are not comfortable. We are unhappy. I would venture to say—in fact, I know it to be the case—that this petty persecution has caused men to commit suicide. I know this to be a fact, because I know my own feelings, and I can judge others by those. Often I wish I was in the penitentiary; that I was hanged or dead, or in some other place.”[7]

A few old soldiers outside a barracks at the Northwestern Branch, NHDVS. From National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Northwestern Branch (New York: A. Wittemann, 1894).

Most veterans living in or out of soldiers’ homes did not articulate their despair so plainly. But a veterans’ newspaper published a letter from a veteran recognizing the irony that Americans could express their gratitude so easily and publicly to the dead, with speeches and monuments and beautiful cemeteries, while they seemed unable to notice or appreciate the needy veterans all around them. Commemorate the dead, wrote the correspondent, but “let us also remember him who shared in the soldier’s toils, and lived, perhaps to eke out a life of hardship bereft of limb, perhaps of sight, and, maybe, reason…. [I]n heaven’s name, while we remember the dead let us not forget the living.”[8]

Many residents of soldiers’ homes felt they had been forgotten. At the very least, they had come to be seen as charity cases dependent on the public’s good will, rather than as heroes deserving of the country’s gratitude. And that was probably the most difficult ambiguity for Union veterans to face.

[1] “Brief History,” National Soldiers’ Home District, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, accessed May 1, 2017, http://historicmilwaukeeva.org/Brief_History.html.

[2] Russell Bowman, “An Introduction to the Milwaukee Art Museum—Past and Future,” in Building a Masterpiece: Milwaukee Art Museum, ed. Franz Schulze (New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 2001), 11; James Marten, “A Place of Great Beauty, Improved by Man: The Soldiers’ Home and Victorian Milwaukee,” Milwaukee History 22 (Spring 1999): 2-15.

[3] Elizabeth Corbett, Out at the Soldiers’ Home: A Memory Book (New York: Appleton-Century, 1941), 38.

[4] James Marten, “Nomads in Blue: Disabled Veterans and Alcohol at the National Home,” in Disabled Veterans in History, ed. David A. Gerber (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 275-294.

[5] Milwaukee Sentinel, September 28, 1883.

[6i] Investigation of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, H.R. Rep. No. 2676, 48th Congress, 2d Sess., 134-135; Milwaukee Sentinel, February 25, 1889.

[7] Ibid, 264.

[8] Soldier’s Friend, July 25, 1868.

James Marten

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. His most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014). He is a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

One thought on “Let Us Not Forget the Living: The Complicated Lives of Union Veterans

  1. Good work is being done at UCLA on the soldiers’ home at Sawtelle, CA. This entire city was dedicated to Civil War vets.

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