VFW Magazine — June/July 2011
Change Language:
Sanitary Commission Seeks Jobs For Union Vets

At a time when unemployment has hit record-high levels among recent war vets, it is instructive to consider the plight of Union vets in 1865-66 and see how one private agency—the U.S. Sanitary Commission—tackled the problem nearly 150 years ago.

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC),” wrote George F. Fredrickson in The Inner Civil War, “was the largest, most powerful, and most highly organized philanthropic activity that had ever been seen in America.” In some respects, it was the equivalent of a private forerunner of the VA.

President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation on June 18, 1861, creating the USSC as an official government agency (though it was privately run and funded). During the war, it operated 30 soldiers’ homes, lodges or rest stops for disabled and transient Union soldiers. Its backbone was always the women volunteers who ran the USSC locally.

For a time after the war, it assisted Union vets in securing bounties, back pay and applying for pensions. Perhaps its least-known role was beating the drums among businesses for hiring veterans as valued employees.

In its network of temporary soldiers’ homes, the USSC provided food, medical care and shelter to soldiers in transit, arranged for their safe transportation home and offered advice to ex-soldiers trapped in a maze of government paperwork.

Despite the best efforts of it and other of the North’s voluntary associations, however, the rapid disbanding of the Union Army generated many painful individual dislocations.

Healthy veterans discovered that finding employment in the months following the Civil War was far from easy. Obtaining work was doubly difficult for war-disabled Union vets. Casual labor required a great deal of physical stamina and was a difficult, if not impossible, form of employment for men physically disabled by injury and disease.

Yet many disabled servicemen lacked the skills and education required for the physically less demanding white collar work—clerking, accounting, teaching or operating a telegraph. The economic outlook for unskilled veterans suffering from disabilities was, in short, bleak.

Desperate Circumstances

Forced into desperate circumstances, a number of veterans turned to begging. The sight of veterans with disabilities appealing for money on city streets, as well as on ferries and trains, became depressingly familiar in the years following the war.

In August 1865, Philadelphia’s Public Ledger noted, “Quite a number of men in soldiers’ clothes have made their appearance in our crowded thoroughfares, who, with arms in slings and support on crutches, hold out their hands to the passers for alms.”

Early the following winter, a letter from a Union veteran to the New York Tribune reported: “I notice in passing through the streets of this great metropolis hundreds, aye, I might say thousands, of maimed soldiers, some with a leg or arm off, asking for alms. What attention is paid to them? I answer, none whatever; they are passed by in contempt. I do not mean to say by all, but by the majority.

“Answer, O ye wealthy, who roll by through the thoroughfares in your carriages, is this the way you treat those who have fought and endured all the hardships while you have been at your own firesides enjoying the sweets of this life?”

Attempting to scratch out a living, some of the war-disabled worked as crossing sweepers, while others strolled through the streets playing hurdy-gurdies (barrel organs).

Some private businesses attempted to assist war-disabled veterans and turn a profit at the same time. The Soldiers and Sailors Publishing Company printed a number of histories of the war and hired ex-servicemen with missing limbs to peddle these books.

Ex-soldiers, eager to play on public sympathy and profit from their wartime experience, wrote and published pamphlets with titles such as The Empty Sleeve and The Great War Relic.

Enter the Sanitary Commission

USSC President Henry Bellows, among others, suggested that discharged soldiers with disabilities serve as messengers. In the post-war months entrepreneurs in Boston,New York and Philadelphia organized messenger services staffed exclusively by small numbers of veterans.

The USSC elite believed that the success of reintegrating civilian soldiers into their homes and local communities depended, in large part, upon the willingness of local employers to reserve jobs for the North’s returning heroes.

In order to implement this strategic vision, this elite looked again to the voluntary labor of women. Consequently, the task of matching employers with veterans often fell to local female benevolent workers.

Hoping to expedite this process, the Sanitary Commission Bulletin suggested that its network of soldiers’ aid societies create bureaus of information and employment. Once established, these bureaus posted circulars, prepared and distributed by the USSC, “earnestly” requesting businessmen “to make applications to this Bureau for every class of labor.”

Leaving no patriotic or emotional stone unturned, these notices proclaimed, “It is demanded by both patriotism and humanity that the light occupations of all towns, and whatever work can be well done by invalid soldiers ... be given to the men who may have incapacitated themselves for rivalry in more active and laborious fields of duty, by giving their limbs, their health and their blood to the nation.”

Jobs, the circulars explained, halted the slide of able-bodied vets into conditions of pauperism and crime. Wage labor arrested, “as far as possible, the necessity for costly charitable institutions” by encouraging “disabled soldiers, who might otherwise seek an asylum, to strive for self support.”

USSC Employment Bureaus

The task of finding work for veterans was so vital to the USSC’s post-war blueprint that its leadership opened its own employment bureaus in major East Coast cities. This task, which had been so difficult for female benevolent workers in Cleveland, for example, proved even more daunting in northeastern cities crowded with returning soldiers.

In Philadelphia, Sanitary Commission agents met with “a steady refusal of employers to help the one-armed and the one-legged, even for jobs that suited them.”

New York’s Bureau of Employment for Disabled and Discharged Soldiers proved more successful. By late June 1865, this organization had found work for 830 out of the 1,546 ex-soldiers applying for positions. Considering the high unemployment rate in New York in the first months after the war, this success rate of just over 50% was impressive.

As in Cleveland and Philadelphia, however, finding employment for veterans with disabilities proved difficult. Of the 252 applicants with disabilities enrolled on the Bureau’s list, fewer than 50 found jobs.

Disappointed by the “lack of consideration” shown to these men, the commissioners reminded employers through the Sanitary Commission Bulletin: In “many branches of mechanics the loss of a leg is no disqualification or even hindrance ... In many outdoor and indoor occupations the loss of an arm does not hurt the man’s usefulness.”

Under the direction of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., a group of businessmen promised to set an example for the business community by hiring at least one “maimed or discharged” soldier as a “general messenger,” or in other light work adapted for the disabled.

Despite this example, placing wardisabled soldiers in jobs in the North’s towns and cities continued to prove a difficult task.

Employer Prejudice Against Vets

The USSC consistently championed community assistance for Union veterans, especially from local employers. Yet, as Dixon Wecter noted in his study of returning veterans (When Johnny Comes Marching Home), “stay-at-homes [those who did not serve in uniform] often nourished a secret distrust of the soldier.”

In October 1865, Leslie’s Illustrated reported the “hard but truthful fact that there is a prejudice in the minds of employers against returned soldiers...” Soldiers themselves, Leslie’s continued, were partly to blame for this attitude:

“He has, as a soldier, been pleased to encourage a belief in his recklessness.He has felt somewhat proud to hear tales told of his whisky drinking abilities and foraging operations, in which the laws of meum and tuum are set at utter defiance. They have encouraged in the minds of citizens the belief that the army has acted as a school of demoralization.”

A letter printed in the Soldiers’ Friend—a monthly newspaper in New York aimed at returning Union troops —from a veteran calling himself “New Hampshire” noted,“There is no disguising it, boys; the people are afraid of us!”

The Soldiers’ Friend was filled with indignant accounts of the refusal of employers to hire newly discharged soldiers. Some veterans actually hid the fact of their Army service. This bias applied to the able-bodied and war-disabled alike.

The Soldiers’ Friend recounted the story of one veteran “who had lost both arms, making an appeal for aid ... [The veteran was] told by a man at that time in the government service, with an oath, ‘he was a fool for going to the war.’ ”

Throwing in the Towel

The reluctance of some employers to hire veterans bode ill for the Sanitary Commission’s hopes of peacefully reintegrating ex-soldiers into their homes and communities.

The limited success of employment bureaus in finding work for the wardisabled was telling. Finding a local niche for this group of returning soldiers was proving far more complicated than the USSC had hoped.

In July 1865, the USSC resolved to close all active enterprises by October, “after which all salaries and distributions shall cease; and all Homes and offices be closed, except so far as unfinished business may require a small number of clerks in Washington,New York and Louisville.”

Directing all of its pension and claim agencies to stop accepting claims after the first of October, most employment bureaus closed at the end of the year or early in 1866. The commissioners told all other departments to “close up their affairs as rapidly as possible,” and ordered the sale of all wagons, horses, clothes, medicine, and furniture amassed by the USSC at public auction.

The haste with which the Sanitary Commission closed shop struck some observers as unseemly, especially given that a number of Union soldiers still required assistance. Nearly 100,000 troops remained on duty in Texas and along the Gulf of Mexico through the fall of 1865. Closing the soldiers’ home in New Orleans prompted vocal protests by Army officers.

Embarrassed, the USSC kept the New Orleans establishment open for a few months after the Oct. 1 deadline. Nevertheless, by the end of 1865, USSC relief efforts on behalf of Union soldiers and veterans had all but ceased.