During the Civil War, the United States Sanitary Commission, local women’s associations, and many other groups helped disabled soldiers to transition back to civilian life. Yet such efforts were both temporary and inadequate. Many people called for the U.S. Government to intervene by creating a federally financed and administered asylum for disabled Union veterans. In March, 1865, as the Civil War neared its end, Abraham Lincoln signed a law to create, “a National Military and Naval Asylum for the relief of the totally disabled officers and men of the volunteer forces of the United States.” One goal of these institutions was to keep penniless veterans, especially disabled ones, out of almshouses.
The first of several large institutions opened in Togus, Maine, in 1866. Yet the largest of these Homes, however, was the Central Branch of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, opened in Dayton, Ohio in 1867. (Congress changed the name to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1873.)
Though a large bureaucratic institution, efforts were made to make the National Homes more “homelike.” Over time, recreational spaces and activities were made available to the men living there. Many had theaters, bandstands, billiard halls, libraries, and churches. Unlike the mental institutions of the period, residence was voluntary. Yet the rules and organization of the National Homes mimicked military life. Residents wore blue uniforms and were assigned to a company, overseen by a captain. Bugle calls announced times to wake and to sleep. Leaving without permission or returning late were punishable offenses, drawing extra work duties or fines.
Many residents received pensions, and that easy access to cash could cause problems. Investigations revealed that many veterans spent much of their pension funds on liquor, provided by the many saloons near the National Homes, especially in Dayton. In 1899, Congress passed a law requiring National Home residents to send half of their pensions to wives or dependent children.
At its height in the late 1800s, the Central Branch housed over 7,000 veterans, the size of a small city. The enormous dining hall could feed 2000 veterans at a time.
The National Homes and their parklike grounds drew many tourists. The National Soldiers Home at Dayton–which even had a zoo–provided a hotel for visitors. During the 1880s, 150,000 tourists visited per year.
The Central Branch accepted African American veterans but required them to live in segregated housing and to dine at separate tables. Overall, only 2.5% of the residents of the National Homes were African Americans, a figure far lower than the 10% of Union veterans who were African Americans.
By 1900, the various National Homes had cared for 102,772 veterans at a cost of about fifty million dollars. In 1930, the National Homes were integrated into the newly created Veterans Administration. As late as 1932, the homes still housed 708 Civil War veterans.
- Butler, Maria Barrett. “The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1886.
- Dining Hall at National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton. (n.d.). Photo Courtesy of the Dayton VA Archives. “Daily Life at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers,” National Park Service.
- Kelly, Patrick J. Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans’ Welfare State, 1860-1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
- National Soldiers Home, Dayton, Ohio. (c1878). Krebs Litho. Co. Library of Congress.
- Marten, James. Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
- National Park Service. A Nation Pays Its Debt: The National Soldiers’ Home in Dayton, Ohio (Teaching with Historic Places). (n.d.).
- Plante, Trevor. “The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.” Prologue Magazine 36, no. 1 (Spring 2004).