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Sanitary Commission Report, No. 95: Provision Required For The Relief And Support Disabled Soldiers And Sailors And Their Dependents

Creator: Henry W. Bellows (author)
Date: 1865
Source: Available at selected libraries

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NEW YORK, December 15, 1865.


To the Standing Committee of the United States Sanitary Commission:


GENTLEMEN -- On the 9th of November, 1865, the Board requested me to prepare a report upon the wants of sick and disabled soldiers, with such account of the existing provisions for their relief as I might be able to collect.


The subject had engaged the attention of the Sanitary Commission from a very early period of the war. Feeling that the time would come, when it must engross public attention, and that it was very desirable to collect the whole experience of foreign countries in advance, we took advantage of the going abroad of one of our most intelligent students into social questions, Mr. Stephen H. Perkins, of Boston, to engage him while visiting the chief military countries in Europe, to collect all documents and pursue all inquiries relating to the subject of pensions, military asylums, and the methods of favoring by civil offices in the gift of the government, the soldiers disabled in war. Mr. Perkins investigated the subject thoroughly and made a valuable report, which was printed, and served as the basis of an elaborate essay on the general subject, prepared under the direction of the Commission in April, 1864, which contains the materials of much instruction to all future legislators in this department. On the 15th August, 1862, I addressed a letter of general instructions to Mr. Perkins, on his departure for Europe, in which peculiar relations of American institutions to the probable wants of our disabled soldiers, not then in existence was fully dwelt upon. It seemed to me, even then, that the young and vigorous civilization of America, with the respect for labor and the habits of personal self reliance prevailing among us, and the open opportunities of the new country, would prevent the question of provision for our sick and wounded soldiers from ever becoming one of very urgent and burdensome character; that the experience of countries with a long past, very settled social distinctions, and a thick and crowded population, where labor was cheap and poverty common, would afford little that was instructive to us, except in the way, of contrast; that the splendor of the names of certain military and naval asylums abroad, the Hotel des Invalides, the Hospitals in Vienna, Naples, and Berlin, the Hospitals at Chesea and Greenwich, were likely enough to stimulate our national and state pride to attempt some similar institutions really not needed, while the lively sympathy of the people, grateful toward the wounded and disabled heroes of the war, might, when inflamed by local rivalries in this popular kind of benevolence, multiply very injuriously as well as needlessly the refuges and charities of our returned soldiers. It seemed to us, that our pride, as a democratic nation ought to point just in the other direction; i.e., towards such a shaping of public opinion as would, tend to reduce dependence among our returning soldiers to the lowest possible point; to quicken the local and family sense of responsibility, so as to make each neighborhood and each household, out of which a soldier had gone, and returned helpless and dependent, feel itself privileged and bound to take care of him; to weaken all disposition towards eleemosynary support; to encourage every community to do its utmost towards favoring the employment of returned soldiers, and especially, partially disabled ones in all light occupations; to make, mendicancy and public support disreputable for all with any ability, however partial, to help themselves to prevent the public mind from settling into European notions in regard to military asylums; especially to guard the subject from the artificial excitement which political and medical aspirants to place and power might strive to communicate to it, and to keep it so far as might be, from state rivalries, party emulation, and civic ambition. In short, we desired to favor in every way the proud and beneficent tendency of our vigorous American civilization, to heal its wounds by the first intention; to absorb the sick and wounded men into its ordinary life, providing for them through those domestic and neighborly sympathies, that local watchfulness and furtherance due to the weakness and wants of men well known to their fellow citizens, and which is given without pride and received without humiliation; and this source of relief failing, then from the ordinary charities of the towns and counties from which they had sprung.


The facts furnished by Mr. Perkins' report, prove that foreign experience, as we foresaw, chiefly, teaches us what is to be avoided; that their pension systems, France excepted, are wholly inadequate even to the wants of the cheap countries of Europe, driving the disabled into asylums, and would be absurdly deficient in America; that their great asylums, the Hotel des Invalides, the military hospitals at Berlin, Vienna, and Naples, are costly failures, measured by their success in protecting the character or promoting the, happiness of the men who occupy them, everywhere creating ennui, drunkenness, and discontent. Since these reports, Chelsea and Greenwich Hospitals, tired of their experience, have resolved as rapidly as possible, to scatter on pensions their dependents, and in so doing have, in our judgment, settled forever the inexpediency of creating permanent militia or naval asylums. They have long had nothing in their favor but national pride, and the necessity of having some place where a small per centage of homeless and friendless incurables could be sent to die, or be taken care of through their helpless lives. This small number, it now appears, are more wisely attached to other public charities, and in a scattered way provided for, as a small per centage of the indigent and wholly dependent portion of 'the public, than made a separate class-of, and kept as a public show.

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