James Marten: Charity for All: A Little-Known Legacy of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

We welcome a guest post from James Marten, author of Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age AmericaToday is the anniversary of President Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural, in which he made a promise that was kept by passing federal programs that took care of war veterans and their families. Here, Marten discusses the importance of these programs and how they created a tie between Lincoln and the war veterans.  -Alex

March 4, 2011, marks the 146th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Scholars and politicians have endlessly interpreted and adapted his moving words of sacrifice and redemption ever since, and most Americans are familiar with the famous last paragraph: “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” This passage punctuated the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination a few weeks later; his hopeful and humble call for peace without retribution seemed to be rendered moot by the bitter reconstruction that would follow.

But the middle passage of this most famous section of Lincoln’s second-most famous speech lived on in two programs that inserted the federal government into the lives of ordinary citizens in unprecedented ways: through pensions and homes for disabled soldiers. Veterans seized on the obligations implied in the phrase “to care for him who shall have borne the battle” and insisted that the government live up to Lincoln’s suggestion that the nation should care for the northern victims of war. Indeed, that passage became, for many old soldiers, an irrevocable vow following his assassination and the victorious close of the war.

Union soldiers had become the most visible supporters of the often beleaguered president during the war, voting overwhelmingly for Lincoln and the National Union Party in the 1864 elections. Lincoln naturally agonized over the casualties suffered by his soldiers and relished his visits to the Army of the Potomac. His refuge from Washington’s stifling summers was a cottage at the Soldiers’ Home about three miles away, where disabled veterans of the regular army had been cared for since the Home’s founding in 1851.

Lincoln’s promise was a common part of old soldiers’ rhetoric following the war as they urged the government to provide pensions and housing for the men who came out of the war unable to care for themselves or to support their families. Indeed, the National Tribune, one of the leading newspapers published by and for Civil War veterans and a fierce advocate of pensions, featured “To care for him who has born the battle, and for his widow and orphans” in its masthead. Although Lincoln had little to do with pensions themselves, veterans frequently invoked his name in arguing for the justice of their cause, which became increasingly controversial during the Gilded Age, as veterans demanded higher pensions and easier application processes and Republican politicians were more than happy to comply.

A more direct link to Lincoln was the establishment of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (later re-named the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, it evolved into the Veterans Administration in 1930). The bill creating the National Asylum passed Congress in March 1865 and was one of the last pieces of legislation signed by Lincoln. Four branches opened in the late 1860s and early 1870s; by the turn of the century there were eight branches that had cared for about 100,000 disabled veterans. Although the Home was not nearly as controversial as the pension system, its residents maintained the close connection to the president who had promised, they believed, exactly this kind of care for the maimed and elderly saviors of the Union. Veterans seemed to believe that this major federal program—preceding by decades the kind of federal programs for the least fortunate Americans that would be created during the New Deal and Great Society—was, in a sense a reward not only for their sacrifices, but a recognition of their close relationship with President Lincoln.

These vast programs—pensions would become the biggest single item in the federal budget by late in the nineteenth century—offer a more positive legacy of Lincoln’s bittersweet acceptance of responsibility for the costs of saving the Union.

James Marten is professor of history at Marquette University and author or editor of more than a dozen books, including The Children’s Civil War, also from UNC Press.