The idea of veteran pensions is an old one, such pensions having been paid at least as far back as ancient Rome. In the United States, the first military pensions were paid to some disabled soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War. This pension program was originally paid for and administered by the states, until the creation of the new federal government in 1789 when responsibility gradually shifted to the new central government. In 1818 pensions were extended to impecunious veterans who had served at least nine months in the military during the Revolution, and in 1832 to all remaining living veterans of the War. Military pensions were also paid to disabled veterans (and the families of slain officers) of the War of 1812, the U.S. Mexican War, and the Indian wars. Ultimately, pensions based on military service alone were awarded to veterans of each of these wars.
The pension program for Union veterans of the Civil War was different, from its origins to its expansion into a massive old age support system some social scientists argue had important implications for social insurance in the twentieth century. What originally began as a limited regime of protections for soldiers, widows, and orphans, eventually morphed into a system of old age pensions for almost one third of the elderly population. The various Pension Acts for veterans of the Civil War also affected a range of social, economic, and political institutions, including the institution of marriage, the ascendancy of the Republican party as the dominant political party for half a century, the size of the peacetime federal government, and in some ways the beginnings of a modern regulatory state. The pension system also reflected national issues of race and class.
In 1861, shortly after the Civil War began, Congress, in large part to attract recruits to the military, enacted legislation providing pensions for soldiers who suffered war-related disabilities, as well as the widows and orphans of soldiers killed in action. Congress amended the law in 1862 to provide a maximum pension of $8 per month for total disability, with proportionately reduced awards for partial disability.
The same award was made for widows and orphans, although amendments to the law increased the allowance to widows by $2 per dependent child. Where a veteran left no widow or children, the law provided benefits to dependent mothers or sisters, and eventually, if there were no dependent mother or sister, dependent fathers and brothers.
The law was amended repeatedly in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. The amendments increased the generosity of the program, extended the program to veterans with disabilities that developed after the war but stemmed from wartime injuries, introduced finer distinctions between grades and specific types of disabilities, and tied the amount of the pension to the severity of the disability under this expanding matrix.
In 1890 Congress enacted a new law that paid pensions to any Union veteran of the Civil War who served for at least ninety days, was honorably discharged, and suffered from a disability, even if not war-related. In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt ruled that old age itself was a disability, basically transforming the system into a government pension system for all Civil War veterans. Three years later, in 1907, Congress legislatively endorsed this position in the Service and Age Act. Congress, in subsequent legislation during the first quarter of the twentieth century, increased pensions and tied the amount of the pension to the period of military service.
The last Civil War pensioner, Albert Woolson, who joined the Union Army as a seventeen-year-old in 1864, was collecting a monthly pension of $135.45 at the time of his death in 1956. And perhaps more remarkably, there were still nineteen dependents of Civil War veterans receiving benefits in the last years of the twentieth century. At its peak, the Civil War pension system consumed approximately 45 percent of all federal revenue and was the largest department of the federal government (other than the armed services). In addition, state pension systems were developed in the former Confederate states to provide pension and disability benefits to Confederate veterans.
For many historians and other social scientists, the Civil War pension system represents both a mirror of social and economic features of the United States between the Civil War and the turn of the century, and a bridge between an era of limited government and the regulatory state that emerged in the last seven decades of the twentieth century.
One question debated by historians is why the Civil War pension system expanded from a system of limited disability and survivor benefits into an old age entitlement program for Civil War veterans and dependent family members. Social scientists credit a number of reasons, but two seem most important: the first, was the political organizing ability of the veterans and their families, which emerged as special interest groups who engaged in lobbying and shaping public opinion. One of the groups, the Grand Army of the Republic, was national in scope and highly effective in advocating the interests of veterans and their families. The second reason was that the political parties competed for veteran votes and the Republican Party fashioned together a successful electoral coalition of Northern business interests and veterans of the Civil War.
The Civil War pension scheme attracted criticism in its time and after. The system attracted accusations of fraud and favoritism, bureaucratic incompetence, and class and racial bias. Some criticized veterans for greed and one of the enduring critiques of the program was that it transferred tax dollars to veterans regardless of need.
Theda Skocpal, a professor of sociology and political science at Harvard University, authored an important book that argued the Civil War pension system provided a structural model for a public system of old age support and also suggested that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries American citizens were willing to adopt a broad social insurance policy that veered from the liberal ideal of self-reliance and limited government. But Skocpal also argues that the Civil War pension system slowed U.S. progress toward adopting a comprehensive system of social insurance. Both public reaction to the shortcomings of the Civil War system and the cost of providing generous benefits aimed at a relatively narrow group of beneficiaries put the United States behind industrialized European nations in adopting social insurance schemes (and continues to leave Americans with a less comprehensive social insurance program).
The Civil War pension laws also created a large bureaucracy, of which doctors (who had to evaluate a veteran's disability) and lawyers (who were employed by claimants to contest denied claims) played an important part. Some scholars have suggested that this administrative system was an early harbinger of the modern regulatory state.
The Civil War pension legislation and its implementation provide insights into nineteenth century attitudes about race, class, disability, and family. Although the pension legislation was racially neutral and provided an important source of income to African American veterans and, as a result, contributed to the economic stability of some Northern African American communities, the administration of the pension laws also demonstrated racial bias, with African American veterans being denied benefits at greater rates than white veterans. Similarly, research suggests that officers and others of higher social class received preferential treatment. Interestingly, legal scholar Peter Blank has found that the pension administration favored some disabilities over others, and looked with relative disfavor at nervous disorders and infectious diseases. The pension system, by providing survivor benefits for widows and orphans, also led the government into defining what constituted acceptable families and gave government support to the idea of a nuclear family and traditional marriage.
See also: BONUS BILL; VETERANS PREFERENCE ACT OF 1944.
Blanck, Peter David, and Michael Millender. "Before Disability Civil Rights: Civil War Pensions and the Politics of Disability in America." In Alabama Law Review 52, no. 1 (2000).
Cott, Nancy. Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. Canbridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Frankel, Noralee. "From Slave Women to Free Women: The National Archives and Black Women's History in the Civil War Era." Government Archives (1997).
Glasson, William H. Federal Military Pensions in the United States, ed. David Kinley. New York: Oxford University Press.
Linares, Claudia. "The Civil War Pension Law." University of Chicago (2001). <http://www.cpe.uchicago.edu/publication/lib/pension_cpe.pd... .
Shaffer, Donald R. "An Ambiguous Victory: Black Civil War Veterans from a National Perspective." .
Skocpal, Theda. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
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