10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History

Larry Holzwarth - April 11, 2018

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
Abraham Lincoln liked to ride to this cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers Home in Washington DC to escape the pressures of office. Library of Congress

Soldier’s Homes

In 1811 the Navy Department authorized the establishment of the United States Naval Home in Philadelphia. The home remained in existence solely on paper until 1834. When it opened it served as a residence for retired sailors who lacked the means or the ability to live alone or with family. It was the first of many soldier’s and sailor’s homes in the United States, most of them opened by state governments with the help of local charities. There was no federal agency dedicated to the care of veterans at the time, and each of the states assumed the role of caring for its veterans.

In 1851 General Winfield Scott, a hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, established the Soldier’s Home in Washington DC. Scott used funds acquired from Mexico during the war to pay for the home and another in Kentucky, which soon fell into disuse. The federal government did not pay the expenses for either the Naval Home or the Soldier’s Home (which is still in use in Washington). They were funded from the contributions of active duty service members who had sums for the purpose deducted from their pay. Not until well into the 20th century would the federal government actively fund and operate the homes.

The states led the way in providing asylum for disabled and indigent veterans, and for as Lincoln eloquently put it “…for his widow and his orphan.” Most of these homes were established with private funding and later transferred to the state government although some remained in the hands of charitable organizations. During and following the American Civil War the number of these state managed facilities grew due to the rapidly increased need given the heavy casualties suffered by the armies in the field.

The Confederate states suffered heavy casualties as well and several of the former Confederate states founded homes for their veterans supported by private groups and the state governments. Some states established separate homes for Union and Confederate soldiers, others combined them, but none of the homes established in the former Confederacy received any support from the federal government prior to World War 2. As the last of the veterans of the Civil War were dying out in the 1930s many of the homes were closed by the states. A few were used for veterans of the Spanish American War and the First World War.

A month before he was assassinated Abraham Lincoln signed a bill he had carefully maneuvered through Congress establishing the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Eventually eleven homes were built under this act. Entry requirements included an honorable discharge and proof of disability as a result of service. It was the first national program funded by the federal government for the care of veterans. It did not extend to draftees. Eventually the Soldier’s Homes, as they came to be called, would be consolidated into what became the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, but it would be many years before that took place.

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
A blank certificate of the type given to Union veterans of the Civil War as proof of service. Library of Congress

Veterans of the American Civil War

The American Civil War saw over 360,000 Union soldiers killed in the conflict, many of them from the diseases which riddled army encampments up until the twentieth century, when medical knowledge and personal hygiene and diet improved. The War Department had a pension system for widows and disabled soldiers in place early in the war. But that didn’t mean that the federal government had improved its procedures for the care of its veterans and their families. If anything, the enlarged federal bureaucracy made it even more difficult for veterans to receive their benefits.

In 1862, after the bloody battles at Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, and others, it was evident that the war was going to be long and the cost in terms of human lives and suffering almost immeasurably high. By the end of that year the pension office of the War Department had only honored 7% of the applications for survivors or disabled person pensions. The system was so slow and so complicated that the pension office could admit to having received and processed 46,000 pension applications two decades after the war. Since there were more than one million eligible for some form of pension (veterans, widows, and orphans) that number reflects less than 5% receiving their benefits.

In 1862 a private who was considered to be totally disabled (itself difficult to assess as the disability was considered in the context of the person’s profession or trade as a civilian) received a pension of eight dollars per month, roughly $180 today. As the war lengthened and the casualties demanded increased recruiting, the amount of the pension promised to soldiers who volunteered to serve increased, but the process of actually receiving the money grew more complex and lengthy. Pensions began at the time the application was received and processed, meaning months and even years could pass before the veteran received any assistance.

In 1879 Congress passed the Arrears Act, which provided a lump sum payment for time between honorable discharge and the beginning of monthly payments, which helped the veterans receiving the payment, but increased the strain on the system because of the influx of new applications for benefits. Veterans still were burdened with providing proof of service related disability, not so difficult with some injuries, but difficult in the extreme in others, such as deafness and rupture. In 1890 the Dependent Pension Act extended pensions to all disabled Civil War veterans with honorable discharges and more than ninety days of service.

The 1890 Act resulted in another huge increase in the number of pension applications as many veterans transferred their existing pensions to the new system, which paid a higher amount. The situation led to veteran’s pensions, which still didn’t cover all veterans, only the disabled, to totaling just under 40% of the government’s annual revenue. As pensioners, their widows, and their orphans gradually died, the amount was reduced. The last Union soldier drawing a pension died in 1956. Another effect on American history caused by Civil War pensions was that political positions of candidates towards veteran’s care became major factors in election campaigns.

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
Two veterans of the American Civil War serving as doorkeepers for the United States House of Representatives in 1937. Library of Congress

Veterans of the Civil War part 2

Women receiving pensions as a result of the Civil War were not limited to widows. Women nurses served with distinction during the Civil War, in many ways changing the way soldiers received treatment after being wounded, injured, or becoming sick. In previous American wars the art of nursing, such as it was, was performed by men. It was widely believed that a hospital treating war wounded was no place for a woman until Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war changed that perception forever. Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix, among many others, created a role for woman nurses in the Civil War.

In 1892, almost thirty years after women nurses joined the Union war effort, they were made eligible to received pensions related to their service. There were at the time of the Civil War no nursing schools in the United States, (there were only about 150 hospitals) and certification as a nurse was non-existent. To be eligible a woman had to prove that she had served in the capacity of a nurse for at least six months. The statements of doctors or other nurses was considered acceptable. Honorable discharge from service was required and the woman had to establish that she had no other means of support. Their pension was $12 per month.

The Union Army had not been an integrated army but it had deployed black troops, which presented another set of problems for the Pension Office. The Grand Army of the Potomac (a fraternal group of veterans who lobbied for pensions and other benefits) actively pursued, successfully, for the pension system to include black veterans under the same conditions and level of benefits as their white counterparts. In theory the pension system for black veterans was no different than that for whites but in practice it became much different.

Early in the Civil War black troops did not serve in combat, performing logistics roles and digging graves. In those roles they were less likely to suffer combat injuries and less likely to receive treatment in a field hospital. This made the submission of documentation regarding wartime injury problematic for many of the veterans. An unfortunate truth is that many of the black veterans were indigent after the war and they were less likely to be able to afford the fees which accompanied the application process. Another unfortunate truth was that their applications were reviewed by white officers many of whom who were less likely to overlook an error or omission on the paperwork.

All veterans had to pay fees with their applications, which varied depending on the type of pension, the year it was filed, and the rank of the pensioner. The unfairness of veterans having to pay to apply for the benefits they had supposedly earned was not a big issue as it was widely unknown. Besides, the public largely didn’t care. A large percentage of the public was opposed to the payment of pensions to the Union veterans, this number increased as the defeated southern states rejoined the Union during Reconstruction. The fees prevented many veterans from applying for their pensions, denying them to themselves and their families for many years.

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
Veterans of the Spanish American War participate in commemoration ceremonies, Shanghai, China, in 1933. United States Marine Corps

Veterans of the Spanish American War and American Adventurism

Between the end of the Civil War and American entry into the First World War, a period of 53 years, American military actions occurred with a forgotten regularity. The American involvement in the Philippine Wars and Moro Rebellion is not well-known today, nor is its involvement during the Boxer Rebellion in China. One conflict which remains relatively well known is the Spanish-American War, mainly because a future President and his Rough Riders became famous for their charge up San Juan Hill (although it was in reality Kettle Hill and they marched instead of rode).

The Spanish American War demonstrated to the world the ability of the United States to project its military power on two fronts, on opposite sides of the world, successfully and simultaneously. It was over in a matter of months and the Americans prevailed in every action. It led American troops into brutal anti-guerrilla warfare with Filipino insurgents who had no desire to be liberated by Americans, preferring their own government, but that was, at first, of little concern back in the United States. There the victory over Spain was as satisfying as a Fourth of July picnic, complete with concerts and fireworks. Patriotism ran high, but it didn’t extend to returning veterans.

As in most wars before the 20th century, diseases and poor hygiene took more lives than the bullets of the enemy. The troops sent to fight the Spanish in Cuba and the Pacific were exposed to yellow fever and malaria, which can recur throughout the lifetime of the afflicted, debilitating the person for long periods of time. Many veterans of the war, volunteers all, returned home with malaria, and suffered from its effects for the rest of their lives. There was no formal healthcare system for veterans. As a matter of fact many people still considered the practice of medicine to be more of a trade than a profession. The veterans came home, marched in the victory parades, and were left on their own.

Gradually the War Department began to recognize the need for pensions extended to the injured and disabled from the Spanish American War, and extended the pensions covering the Civil War to cover those of the more recent conflict. These pensions were extended to surviving veterans who had suffered permanent disability as a result of their military service. The pensions for widows and surviving children were extended as well. But as in the case of the earlier wars the burden of proof of service related disability was on the applicant and proving that malaria, for example, was first incurred while in the service was difficult, due to poor record keeping by the Army and the home region of the applicant.

Malaria was still a very large problem in the American South, particularly in the mosquito infested swamps and bayous, among the less literate population. The Pension Board often took the position that latent malaria acquired prior to military service became active during service and since the exposure, not the service, was the cause of the outbreak it was a previous condition and the pension was denied. This reaction was caused in part because by the early 1900s, the burden on the government caused by military pensions was nearly backbreaking, and there was a groundswell of public support to end the federal pensions, shifting them to local charities and state groups.

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
Members of the Bonus Army in camp in Washington DC in the summer of 1932. Washington DC Public Library

World War I Veterans

The United States declared war on Germany in the spring of 1917, and Americans were soon rollicking to George M. Cohan’s Over There as America mobilized for war. General John J. Pershing began training his troops in the United States before shipping them to Europe and for the first time in the twentieth century American industry turned to war production. While it did so, a few enlightened members of Congress studied the means of taking care of the American troops and sailors when they returned after the war. It was obvious to them that the Civil War era method of providing pensions was unworkable, especially given the sheer number of men who would soon be under arms.

A law passed in October 1917 shifted the pension system to a new system based on the percentage of disability, establishing guidelines to allow a determination of the reduction of earning capacity based upon injuries sustained in service. It also gave greater leeway to the assessors, for the most part creating a system in which more generous awards for disability could be given to the veteran. Two veterans with identical impairments could be awarded different levels of compensation based on the number of people dependent on the veteran for their support.

The system also considered the size of the veteran’s immediate family to determine the amount of compensation due to one’s widow and children. Previously the amount had been solely dependent on the deceased veteran’s rank at the time he was killed. The new system took into account the sacrifice made by the veteran and his family, rather than his stature in the military ranks, and more fairly distributed the funds available to returning veterans and the families of those who did not return, or did so with debilitating injuries which precluded their further contributions to society.

Nonetheless, although the new system appeared to be fairer than those preceding it, its application was faulty. Returning veterans still had to go through a lengthy and often circuitous procedure in order to receive their promised benefits. The Americans again returned to celebratory parades only to find that once the flags were furled and the drums silenced the general public was not particularly concerned whether or not veterans received what they were promised when they joined to serve. The veterans of earlier wars were not absorbed into the new system, and they resented the more generous benefits awarded to the veterans of the First World War.

Throughout the 1920s the nation’s economy boomed, prohibition and the emergence of organized crime occupied the public attention, and the plight of veterans was largely ignored. The Army shrank, the Navy stored most of its ships, the United States entered into arms reduction treaties, and most Americans believed, at least for a time, that the War to End All Wars had accomplished just that. The incoming Roosevelt administration took steps to solidify the affairs of America’s veterans in 1933, repealing all preceding laws concerning America’s veterans and establishing new regulations and agencies, under the Executive Branch, to handle veteran’s affairs.

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
Members of the bonus army of World War 1 veterans clash with District of Columbia police in 1932. District of Columbia Public Library

The World War One Veterans Bonus Army

In 1924 the Congress passed the World War Adjusted Bonus Act, which gave veterans of the Great War bonuses in the form of certificates. The certificates were not redeemable until 1945. Congress passed the bill over President Coolidge’s veto, awarding every World War 1 veteran $1 per day of service within the United States (up to $500) and $1.25 per day for overseas duty (up to $625). Any veteran who accrued a total bonus which exceeded $50 was issued a certificate, which when redeemed would also pay compound interest on the total. Veterans were allowed to borrow against the certificate, but only up to 22.5% of the total, later increased to 50% because of the Great Depression.

In the summer of 1932, with the Great Depression at it depths, approximately 43,000 people marched on Washington DC and encamped in open areas around the capital. The press took to calling the encampments Hoovervilles. The marchers were about 17,500 World War 1 veterans, their families, and various supporters. They marched to call attention to the high level of unemployment among veterans and demand the early release of the certificates. The veterans established security in the camps, requiring proof of honorable discharge, or relationship to a veteran, in order to enter the camps.

In June the House of Representatives passed a bill called the Wright Patman bill to allow accelerated payment of the bonuses. The bill failed in the Republican controlled Senate. After protesting on the Capitol steps the veterans and their families returned to their camps. For the next few weeks the veterans protested before the Capitol daily. President Hoover, concerned about the press reports and the negative publicity being generated, ordered the Army to remove the protesters. When confronted by DC Metropolitan Police and Army troops the protesters retreated to the camps. When a portion of the Marine Corps garrison at the Washington Barracks sided with the veterans the Army was ordered to clear the camps.

Two Army officers whose names which would gain lasting fame, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton, were involved in clearing the camps. MacArthur called the protesters “communists” and approached the veterans with cavalry (including light tanks) and infantry. Patton commanded the cavalry. MacArthur first fired tear gas at the crowd, which included many wives and children of the veterans, before ordering an assault by both cavalry and infantry, armed with fixed bayonets. The crowd retreated across the Anacostia River, where their largest camp was located. Dismissing Hoover’s order to call off the assault, MacArthur ordered a pursuit.

MacArthur justified his action as protecting the government from an attempted coup. MacArthur was the highest ranking officer in the United States Army at the time. Another officer soon to achieve fame, Dwight David Eisenhower, observed the proceedings and was disgusted by them. Fifty-five veterans were injured during MacArthur’s attack, and it would not be the last time that he chose to disregard the orders of the commander in chief. “I told that dumb son of a bitch not to go down there,” Ike later said. In 1933 the veterans planned a second protest directed toward the Congress and the new President, FDR, arranged a campsite for them in Virginia and provided rations.

10 Ways the United States Has Treated its Veterans Through History
President Franklin Roosevelt signs the GI Bill of Rights in the White House, June 22, 1944. FDR Presidential Library

FDR and Veterans benefits and rights

In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President, with the nation in the midst of the Great Depression and the perils of fascism and socialism rising in Europe. One of Roosevelt’s initiatives to battle unemployment was to put young, unmarried men to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps, building roads, National Parks, drainage improvements and many other projects. The CCC usually lived in camps near the projects upon which they worked. To ease unemployment among veterans, Roosevelt authorized the enlistment of 25,000 veterans, waiving the requirements that they be unmarried and under the age of twenty-five.

When Congress passed an act in 1936 allowing for the early payment of the World War 1 bonuses, FDR vetoed it, and Congress overrode the veto. Earlier Congress had rescinded and repealed all prevailing laws which controlled the compensation of veterans, placing the supervision of veteran’s affairs under the executive branch. Roosevelt established several agencies and bureaus to administer the veteran’s affairs and benefits. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had created the Veteran’s Administration, and FDR established committees which used some of his famous $1 per year advisors to make recommendations for the treatment of American veterans.

In 1944 FDR signed what became known as the GI Bill. The GI Bill replaced the bureaus which had previously administered veteran’s benefits and contained sweeping changes to the way the nation treated its veterans. Of its many changes, one was the provision for the purchase of homes. The VA Home Loan Guaranty Program is the only provision of the 1944 GI Bill remaining in effect. Contrary to the belief of many, the VA does not make loans to veterans, it merely underwrites them when they are written by private lenders. By the early 1990s the VA had guaranteed over 14 billion home loans, creating huge boosts to the construction industry, the expansion of the suburbs, and the growth of infrastructure to support new communities.

Under the GI Bill returning veterans from the Second World War that were unemployed received compensation at the rate of $20 per week for 52 weeks from the date of discharge. These veterans became known as the 52-20 club, and were met with some contempt by those who believed that they were encouraged to shirk when it came to looking for work by the one year benefit. They were also eligible for VA education benefits, which sent many to the highest level of education ever achieved by a member of their family. Part of what made the “greatest generation” the greatest is the government assistance they received to attain an education and purchase a home, something no previous veterans ever received.

Following the Second World War, boosted by the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, and with the wars underway today, the Veterans Health Administration has grown to become the largest of the three separate administrations which make up the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. In 1930 there were 54 hospitals and clinics treating veterans, mostly in state and federal soldier’s and sailor’s homes. By the end of the twentieth century there were more than one thousand facilities including hospitals, community clinics, nursing care homes, and domiciliaries serving veterans across the United States.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Spare a Thought for Veterans of the American Revolution”, by Jay Cost, National Review, November 13, 2017

“A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier: Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin”, by Joseph Plumb Martin, with an introduction by Thomas Fleming, 2001

“War of 1812”, The Veterans Museum at Balboa Park, veteranmuseum.org

“The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers”, Prologue Magazine, Spring 2004, National Archives, online

“Last of the Blue and Gray”, by Richard A. Serrano, 2013

“Did Civil War Soldiers have PTSD?”, by Tony Horwitz, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2015

“Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines of the Spanish American War: The Legacy of USS Maine, Part 2”, Prologue Magazine, National Archives, online

“The Bonus Army in Washington”, by Wyatt Kingseed, History Net, June 2004

“History – Department of Veteran’s Affairs”, About VA, US Department of Veteran’s Affairs online