Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The National Dime Museum

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 25, 2012

As our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, more and more people are beginning to think about the long-term costs of those conflicts, particularly for the tens of thousands of men and women who’ve suffered serious injuries with permanent effects. The costs will be staggering.

But this is not a new concern. In January 1898 — coincidentally, a month before an American battleship went BOOM! in Havana harbor, plunging the United States into another war — the satirical magazine Puck offered its readers this analogy, with pensioned Union veterans and Uncle Sam as carnival sideshow attractions in the “National Dime Museum” — with the veterans as the Fat Man, getting ever fatter, and a destitute Uncle Sam as the “Living Skeleton.” How long before we start mocking the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan like this caricature, living off the largesse of the taxpayer?

Image: Library of Congress


9 Responses

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  1. Jim Schmidt said, on July 25, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Andy – good post…and as to your closing comment: let us hope not.

    I have written a lot on my blog on the Civil War pension system. Another Puck magazine cover satirizing the veterans “eating at the federal trogh” can be found here:

    And while that blog post of mine includes a joke about pension fraud, I think (hope) there is a difference between the politicization and lobbying of veterans back then compared to today. In fact, it seems that today the public (rather than the veterans’ lobby) largely penalizes politicians who suggest cuts to veteran care/benefits.

    Other Civil War pension posts from my blog are collected here:

    My favorite recent book on the subject is: “Race, Ethnicity, and Disability: Veterans and Benefits in Post-Civil War America” (2010)…the authors – Peter Blanck and Larry Logue – are also generous correspondents when you have questions on the subject.

  2. Will Hickox said, on July 25, 2012 at 11:44 am

    It’s difficult to imagine any veterans growing ”fat” off the miserably low pensions they typically received. They may have been high by the standards of the Western world at the time, but nobody that I\’ve researched was able to live off their pension comfortably, including those severely disabled in the war. Note also that the pension system is represented by an obese vet, and not by one of the countless widows who had to struggle through months, even years, of red tape in order to receive $8 per month.

    The cartoonist should have been going after J.P. Morgan, J.D. Rockefeller, and their fellow Robber Barons, the real profiteers of government generosity.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 25, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      Agreed. I’m not too familiar with Union pensions from the federal government, but Confederate pensions by the states were jaw-dropping-ly small — $8/month, $12/month, amounts that, even a century ago, didn’t go very far. Given that one had to be destitute, or nearly so, even to qualify ofor them, makes it even worse — it’s not like those pensions were a little lagniappe on top of a veteran’s regular income.

    • Woodrowfan said, on July 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm

      Puck often did go after the “Robber Barons.” During this period there was a lot of concern about who was claiming Union vet pensions. Congress was used to granting access the government purse to political supporters, and Union pensions were a way to extend patronage.

      • Andy Hall said, on July 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm

        Someone smarter than me ought to look at that phenomenon on the state-run Confederate pensions as well. Those were mostly compiled and handled by local boards, and it’s only logical to guess that they were as prone to influence/favoritism/fixing as much as any other function of gubmint.

  3. JHarper2 said, on July 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    A bit of a far cry from Lincoln’s second inaugural address

    to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan

  4. Craig L said, on July 26, 2012 at 12:23 am

    I obtained pension records five years ago from NARA for my Civil War ancestor, his widow and two of his brothers-in-law. The sums seem small by today’s standard, but a century and a half ago it wasn’t unusual to purchase land for a dollar an acre.

    My ancestor died in the war. His widow applied to receive a widow’s pension that was never granted, but she did receive assistance, I think it was $4/month for each of her four dependent children until they reached sixteen years of age. She had to remarry in order to collect, however, and did so in 1867. Legally the children became wards of their stepfather. She was dropped from the roll in 1879 when her youngest was sixteen. I presume they got $16/month until 1869, $12/month until 1871, $8/month until 1874 and $4/month until 1879.

    Her sister’s husband only served about two months. He was over forty years old when he enlisted and got sick while traveling to Spanish Fort in Mobile by way of Little Rock and New Orleans so was sent home. He received $2/month for incontinence connected to his military service, but I don’t think he applied until after he was too old to work.

    Her younger brother enlisted at age nineteen in a veteranized regiment in early 1864. His unit saw action at Kennesaw Mountain and a few weeks later at Bald Hill, where he was shot in the left shoulder and sent home. He convalesced for six months in a military hospital, then was discharged in January 1865 with full disability for what the doctor called anklysosis. I think that means he had stiffness and limited range of motion in his left arm. I’d have to pull the paperwork to be certain, but I think that was worth $18/month for the next forty years and $24/month to his widow for ten more years. My impression is that Bald Hill was a real good place to get shot.

  5. Craig L said, on July 26, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I pulled out the pension records I received from NARA. The last pension payment my ancestor’s widow and her second husband received on behalf of their minor dependents was $10/month, ending in 1879 when the youngest of those dependents was 16 years old. No other amounts were listed on any of the documents, although one document did include a copy of the pension law citing $12 as the maximum payable on a widow’s pension.

    Her younger brother who was wounded in Atlanta appears to have been receiving $18/month from his discharge in January, 1865, on full disability until 1908, when it appears that amount was revised upward to $24, continuing until his death in 1916, fifty years after the war ended. His wife lived another twelve years and was receiving $30/month at the time of her death in 1928.

    No amount is indicated in the pension records as paid to the brother-in-law with the chronic diarrhea and kidney problems. The $2/month figure I believe came from a document posted online in the county where he lived. My recollection is that that benefit was administered by the state rather than the federal government.

    My impression is that pension distributions were based less on established need than on what the military considered the value of service rendered. A brand new Chevrolet in 1925 sold for $500 in ads I’ve seen online. A pension of $30/month then could have bought a new Chevy every eighteen months.

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