How Ablebodied A Man? The $64,000 Pension Question

You might have noticed me screaming posting about Civil War pension files recently. Blame my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney, who applied for a veteran’s pension shortly after the enactment of the Disability Pension Act of June 1890.

Martin was not a civilian who joined the great volunteer army of 1861-1865 and fought through its bloody battles — what I think of as a classic Civil War veteran. He had been regular Army since March 1854, when, probably soon after arriving in the United States, he enlisted as a soldier at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. And there he served as a soldier, from 1854 until 1867.

Watervliet Arsenal went on to play a vital role in arming Union troops, no doubt about it. However, although Martin was a soldier and was part of an immense war effort, he didn’t dodge snipers at Gettysburg or scramble out of the crater at Petersburg. This left me doubtful when I first started wondering whether he might have gotten a Civil War pension. Was he really pensioner material?

Well, I failed to consider the remarkable scope of the 1890 act. Fortunately, I caught up due to a fascinating and lengthy Ohio State Law Journal article (P. Blanck, Vol. 62, 2001, .pdf file) that examines the Civil War pension system, which began in 1862.

Early on, the U.S. government established pensions for disabled veterans and the widows and orphans of the slain. “Disability” had to be expressed in specific quantities. For example, in 1862 a totally disabled private was eligible for a stipend of $8 per month. From there, it was a matter of determining fractions. Lost a finger or toe? You rated a 2 out of 8, or $2 per month. An eye? 4/8.

As the war went on, the number and magnitude of injuries forced adaptations. Congress passed modifications providing increased benefits for severely disabled soldiers. A 100 percent disabled veteran was defined as one needing “regular aid and attendance” from another person. Measles, malaria and sunstroke were added to the list of  war-related conditions. Then an 1873 act took a big leap forward by compensating claims for subsequent disabilities — conditions which, though related to wartime service, didn’t appear until years later. However logical this might seem by today’s standards, it was pretty radical thinking to some commentators of the day.

But the really radical leap came in 1890. The 1890 act tied the pension system more to the idea of service rather than circumstance. It included new requirements for the length of military service. And it did not require the veteran’s disability to be directly war-related, as long as it was not caused by “vicious habits.”

As in previous acts, however, disability level = a person’s capacity for manual labor. Someone who could not perform one-half of an ablebodied man’s work was a potential pensioner.

Well, I could go on and on, because frankly I’m fascinated by yet another example of how the Civil War sparked big social changes. But for now let’s go back to Martin’s 1890 pension application, and the affidavit sworn before a county clerk in Albany, NY on 4 Sept. 1890  by two of his neighbors, David Fitzgerald and Patrick Lyons.

That we have been well and personally acquainted with Martin Haigney [sic] for 25 years, and 25 years respectively, and that since his return from the Army we certify he has been a man of good temperate habits and that the disability is of a permanent character and same is not due to his vicious habits we are near neighbors of his living only about four or five hundred yards apart and have seen him daily three and four times a week the period since he came to live in our neighborhood, about 25 years ago we have conversed with him during the same time and know that he has suffered from the disability of rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders

He is married and has a family depending on him for their suport [sic] We know he has not been wholely [sic] confined to his house but has found laboring work wherever he could. At such light labor as he could do working in a carpenter shop sweaping [sic] floors and policing about the building at the rate of one Dollar and 12 cents per day for ten Hours work That we know he has paid what he could afford for medicine to cure his rheumatism and we know he is considerablly [sic] bent over from his disability That he is well advanced in years about sixty years of age He is not able to do a sound ablebodied mans [sic] work for he is not physically strong or sound man and we belive [sic] in propositions to his disability He is impaired fully more than one half

These guys had the right talking points:

1. Martin’s disability — severe rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders — was real and permanent. Plus, it was severe enough that he could no longer “do a sound ablebodied mans work.” Indeed, he was “impaired fully more than one half.”

2. Martin was a man of “good temperate habits” and his disability was “not due to vicious habits.”

3. He was not averse to work. He was trying to support his family with a combination janitor/security guy job at a carpenter’s shop.

Martin’s neighbors (well, most likely the attorney helping him with his application) knew it was important to stress two key factors: degree of disability and soundness of character. Commentators throughout the post-Civil War era fretted about veterans taking advantage. “There are very few men who could not have got a certificate of disability,” groused the New York Times in 1894. “The door of fraud was thrown wide open to let those in who were not incapacitated for self-support.”

Even in 1890, Martin knew the onus was on him to prove himself the real deal.



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