National Disability Employment Awareness Month: A Civil War Connection

October is recognized as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This initiative was originally begun on the Federal level at the end of World War II, with thousands of disabled ex-GI’s who were then seeking some sort of re-entry into society, on the social and economic level.  To highlight this plight, Congress in 1945 therefore enacted a law, known then as “National Hire the Physically Handicapped Week.”  Eventual recognition of wider needs led to its expansion and alteration, at first removing the word “Physically” in 1962, and then, in 1988, expansion from a week into a month.  This year, the theme of awareness, through the message “Expect. Employ. Empower.” is being promoted.

In the fall of 1865 at Raleigh, North Carolina, Captain Will H. S. Banks, of the 9th Michigan Cavalry, sought recruits to sell the poetic works of a recently-liberated slave, George Moses Horton.  In the words of his proposal, “Here is a grand opportunity for ENERGETIC YOUNG MEN, especially those who have been disabled by the casualties of the war, to build up a fortune for themselves.” Although their opportunities for readjustment and participation, post-injury, into a functioning economy would sometimes now prove varied, a new option now lay before them– that of literary agent, or book-seller.  Though the theme of many of Horton’s poems dealt with ‘FREEDOM AND EQUAL RIGHTS TO ALL,’ as regarding the death of slavery and its remnants, Banks’ advertisement also proclaimed his desire to employ any capable applicant in his literary endeavor.

The first “disability assistance program” in North America might be said to trace its roots back to 1636, when the warring Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony then pledged that disabled soldiers would be supported by the colony, direct medical and hospital care was given to those in need in the early days of the Republic by individual States and communities. In 1811, the first domiciliary and medical facility was authorized by the Federal Government. In the 19th century, this assistance program was expanded to include benefits and pensions, not only to those disabled, but to families dependent upon the soldier’s income.

Of course, the very vicissitudes of war often tended to change previously-held presumptions regarding the term “disability.”  The Battle of Gettysburg provided a number of examples, from both before and after the conflict.

Howard, Oliver O.

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard (LOC)

Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commander of the 11th Corps during its time at Gettysburg, had previously received two wounds in his right arm, June 1, 1862, while commanding a Union brigade in the battle of Fair Oaks, which had necessitated its amputation. However, Howard had recovered quickly enough to rejoin the army for the Battle of Antietam, for which he rose to division command in the II Corps. Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny, who had lost his left arm at Churubusco in the Mexican conflict, once visited Howard and joked that they would be able to shop for gloves together! Subsequently, Howard was promoted to major general in November 1862 and then assumed command of the 11th Corps.

In the post-Gettysburg reorganization which followed, Howard and his corps served in the Western Theater, yet he retained his corps command through the remainder of the war, participating in General  William T. Sherman’s Georgia and Carolina campaigns. Postwar, the able administrator oversaw the Freedman’s Bureau, as well as the creation of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Trained as a professional soldier, Howard also served in a number of later campaigns against the Native Americans in the West.

Two other Gettysburg – associated personalities received their life-altering wounds on this field, and went on to develop careers far beyond what might have been expected.

McFarland Photo

Lt. Col. George McFarland. (USAMHI)

Lieutenant Colonel George F. McFarland, of the 151st Pennsylvania Regiment, an educator by profession, was among the multitudes of those severely wounded on the afternoon of July 1st, 1863. As his unit was just west of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, a ball passed through both of his legs. It shattered his left, and required the amputation of his right below the knee.

While his wounds proved exceedingly painful, McFarland seemingly did not dwell upon them. Blessed with an attentive family that had travelled to Gettysburg to help care for him, McFarland turned his mind back to other matters, as the fall season was approaching. Daily diaries, correspondence, and planning for the fall sessions at his McAlisterville Academy consumed his attention.  In mid – September of 1863, he returned to the school, opening it for the fall term.  There were, however, inevitable blows to reality. Over fifty periodic removals of bone shards were ultimately endured (one of them, in 1864, was done by himself, sporting a sharpened pocket-knife, in lieu of a scalpel.)   As standing for protracted periods of time now proved painful, McFarland’s choice of lecturing posture was most often a couch or a reclining bed.

In addition to his work at the school, McFarland revived the practice of writing essays for The Pennsylvania School Journal.  His success in these areas brought him to the attention of Samuel Bates, who sought his employment in “the state school department,” where he oversaw the ten state “orphan’s schools,” of which his own McAlisterville Academy served as one.  The needs of this job brought him to Harrisburg and gave him focus for some years, until their need subsided.  McFarland then turned his attention towards the evils of drink, taking up dual careers in temperance and later, horticulture, eventually operating Harrisburg’s Riverside Nursery for many years.

As was the case with many veterans, McFarland also took interest in memorializing the Union soldier’s achievements.  In spite of his mobility issues, George was elected to the presidency of the 151st Pennsylvania Regimental Survivors Association; he was also chairman of the regimental monument committee.  This role saw him travel back to Gettysburg in 1888 for its dedication on the 25th anniversary of his wounding, July 1st, 1888.

McFarland ultimately sought warmer climates to deal with the pains of his ailments, and it was in Tallapoosa, Georgia, that he died, in December of 1891.  It was observed by a family friend that McFarland

…was a man of wonderful energy and will power, and worked to maintain his family, and…pushed his business affairs against all obstacles when many a well man would have been disheartened.

Another Gettysburg veteran, Private John W. Chase, of the 5th Maine Battery, received a terrible wound on the 2nd of July when an artillery round he was loading “prematured” on him.  As a result of this accident, Chase lost his right arm at the elbow, his right eye, and lacerated his chest and shoulders with forty-eight shrapnel wounds. He was initially thought too far gone to save, and was taken outside to die.  During this time of suffering, Chase later claimed to have experienced a pronounced “out-of-body” experience, observing, “just how I was wounded, how my clothing was blown away from my body just as plain as I see you today.”

John Chase

The wounded John Chase of the 5th Maine Battery. (GNMP)

Upon his examination he was granted a three-quarter disability and discharged in late November of 1863.  After a lengthy period of rehabilitation, in Maine, he later obtained a patronage job in the Maine State House, which allowed him to informally lobby legislators on pension issues.  This proved most beneficial, as Chase was, by the mid 1880’s, married and raising seven children.  His original $8 per month pension payment, as assessed in 1864, was later raised to $46.  Yet, to meet his growing expenses, Chase turned to other opportunities as well; a growing number of credited patents, as well as well as being a guest “delineator,” or guide, at the Brooklyn Paul Phillippoteaux Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The great Florida “Land Boom” of the 1890’s drew Chase to that state in 1895, where he acquired a steamboat, and elsewise busied himself in a speculative project near St. Petersburg, known as “Veteran City.”  He had continued his inventiveness; his final patent had been for “The Chase Aero,” a flying machine.  When he passed on November 17th, 1914, at the age of 71, some fifty-one years following his wounding at Gettysburg, he left his heirs a legacy of success through opportunity and effort.

While not all disabled Civil War veterans enjoyed similar post-war success, a growing need for their support was recognized.  Many State veterans homes were established. Later, domiciliary care was available at all State veterans homes, incidental medical and hospital treatment was provided for all injuries and diseases, whether or not of service origin. Indigent and disabled veterans of the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, and Mexican Border period as well as discharged regular members of the Armed Forces were cared for at these homes.

Congress established a new system of veterans’ benefits when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Included were programs for disability compensation, insurance for service persons and veterans, and vocational rehabilitation for the disabled. By the 1920s, the various benefits were administered by three different Federal agencies: the Veterans Bureau, the Bureau of Pensions of the Interior Department, and the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.The establishment of the Veterans Administration came in 1930 when Congress authorized the President to “consolidate and coordinate Government activities affecting war veterans.” The three component agencies became bureaus within the Veterans Administration. Brigadier General Frank T. Hines, who directed the Veterans Bureau for seven years, was named as the first Administrator of Veterans Affairs, a job he held until 1945.

The VA health care system has grown from 54 hospitals in 1930, to include 152 hospitals; 800 community based outpatient clinics; 126 nursing home care units; and 35 domiciliaries.  VA health care facilities provide a broad spectrum of medical, surgical, and rehabilitative care. The responsibilities and benefits programs of the Veterans Administration grew enormously during the following six decades. World War II resulted in not only a vast increase in the veteran population, but also in large number of new benefits enacted by the Congress for veterans of the war.

The World War II GI Bill, signed into law on June 22, 1944, is said to have had more impact on the American way of life than any law since the Homestead Act of 1862, broadening the opportunities for persons with disabilities. Further educational assistance acts were passed for the benefit of veterans of the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam Era, Persian Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

As we reflect on the meaning of the various aspects of the 151st commemoration of the Battle and its’ aftermath, note that the protection of those with disabilities – not just veterans –  is now also enshrined as a civil right – (Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act of 1973, and its later amendments.)  It too, may trace its parentage to the outgrowth of this sad war-time need, as America continues in its pursuit of “freedom and equal rights to all.”

Ranger Bert Barnett

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