Union veterans could count on government aid in their twilight years. Aging Rebels needed another kind of safety net
The location was unlikely, and the cause unlikelier still. In the Great Hall of the Cooper Union Institute in New York City, where Abraham Lincoln had given his famous speech in 1860, former leaders of the Union and the Confederacy gathered together under a bunting of red, white and blue. The date—April 9, 1884—was not lost on the crowd; the surrender at Appomattox had occurred exactly 19 years earlier.
It would have been difficult to imagine that the man who had surrendered his troops there, Confederate General John B. Gordon, would be greeted with thunderous applause at Cooper Union two decades later. Yet a crowd of about 100 people, including some of his former enemies, clapped and cheered heartily as Gordon gave a lengthy speech advocating the creation of special homes for disabled or indigent former Confederates. Gordon said “each soldier who fell during the late war, whether he wore the blue or the gray, gave up his life for the right as he understood it,” according to a New York Times account. Funding such homes, Gordon continued, would do more “to cement a reunited country than all political harangues and platforms.”
The idea of government-subsidized housing for former soldiers was not new. The U.S. Naval Home had been in operation since 1834, and an Old Soldiers Home for the Army was established in Washington, D.C., in 1851. President Lincoln spent summers at a cottage on the campus of the Soldiers Home. Ironically, Lincoln’s wartime counterpart, Jefferson Davis, had supported the establishment of the home when he’d served as a U.S. senator. But in the 1880s and 1890s, the need to care for aging veterans of the Civil War was staggering. The Grand Army of the Republic and the Women’s Relief Corps took up the cause and established Union veterans homes in 28 states across the country, all funded with federal appropriations along with private contributions.
The problem in the South, however, was that the U.S. government would not, and could not, financially support Confederate veterans homes. The 14th Amendment forbade the use of federal dollars for pensions or other compensation for ex-Confederates. The funds for Southern soldiers homes would have to come from the states themselves, which in turn relied heavily on donations from private veterans organizations and ladies groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy. As a popular slogan of the period noted, “The pensions of the Confederate soldiers abide only in the hearts of the people.”
Former Union officers gave verbal and sometimes financial support to this effort. “The movement to build and endow homes for the disabled confederate [sic] soldiers has struck a responsive chord in the hearts of the people of both sections and both parties,” the Atlanta Constitution editorialized in April 1884. “[Union leaders] recognize the fact that the unfortunate men whose condition calls for succor are Americans—the countrymen of those who fought against them—and their enthusiasm is whetted not more by impulses of charity than by a desire to recognize that principle of brotherhood which…binds the American people together.”
Gordon’s vigorous appeal to raise money for a veterans home in Richmond, Va., for example—the reason for his Cooper Union visit—drew widespread attention in the North in the 1880s. President Grover Cleveland, who had hired a substitute to fight in his place during the war, supported the Southern veterans’ plight (even if he couldn’t empathize totally with their experience). Ulysses S. Grant, the former general and president, even sent Gordon’s committee a $500 check. Establishing these homes, writes R.B. Rosenburg in his definitive book, Living Monuments: Confederate Soldiers’ Homes in the New South, provided not only a way to take care of the South’s beloved soldiers but also, in many cases, created “vehicles for achieving sectional reconciliation.”
Beginning in the 1880s and continuing into the early 20th century, 16 lasting homes for Confederate veterans were built throughout the former Confederacy—in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia—as well as in the border states of Kentucky and Maryland and even as far away as California, where a home called Dixie Manor was located in downtown Los Angeles. Inmates, as residents of these homes were widely known, were usually unmarried or widowed and might have suffered a war wound or subsequent ailment that made it difficult for them to live independently. The homes provided food, shelter and medical care for life, as well as fellowship, entertainment and sometimes even employment.
In exchange for these services, however, these veterans had to perform. They were expected to dress in their gray and buff-colored uniforms and hats, tell war stories to visitors, pose for photos and otherwise act like the living artifacts they were. “The Confederate Soldiers’ Home,” Rosenburg writes, “served simultaneously as a place of refuge, a museum, a military camp, an artificial city, and a shrine.” Schoolchildren sent cards and letters, and men tipped their hats to the old boys in gray. Even as Northerners sent their checks in the name of reconciliation, putting the soldiers on display allowed Southerners to relive the Lost Cause and re-enact the rebellion, in their own minds if nowhere else.
In many ways, our collective image of the common Civil War soldier is stuck in the 19th century. Yet tens of thousands of Civil War veterans were still around to witness World War I, the Great Depression and beyond. Census records indicate that nearly 430,000 Confederate veterans were still living in the Southern states in 1890. By 1922, that number had dropped to a still-impressive 75,000. These veterans lived long enough to listen to news of the Great War on a radio or to see The Birth of a Nation in a movie theater. In 1937, a photographer captured a shot of three Georgia veterans—J.C. Dodgen, John H. Morris and James R. Jones, all in their 90s—crowded together at the Atlanta Confederate home reading a copy of Gone With the Wind—life imitating art imitating life.
“For most people, the war ends at Appomattox,” says Maryland historian Daniel Carroll Toomey, author of The Maryland Line Confederate Soldiers’ Home and Confederate Veterans’ Organizations in Maryland. “The war lasted for only four years. The veterans period lasted for 75.”
More than 15,000 Confederate veterans were admitted to Southern soldiers homes, according to data gathered by Rosenburg, who limits his research strictly to the states of the former Confederacy. Most soldiers entered the homes in their 60s, although ages ranged from around 40 up to the 90s. The larger homes, like those in Texas and Virginia, had between 250 and 450 veterans at a time, while others had 150 or less, with the numbers naturally declining with every passing year.
If fighting a war had been a bonding experience in their youth, so was living together in a veterans home in their old age. Generally, the homes operated in a quasi-militaristic way, with a commandant in charge, required uniform days, scheduled furloughs, “honorable discharges” for transfers out of the home to a relative’s care or to a hospital, court-martials for unacceptable behavior and the like. The structure provided some semblance of normalcy to men who might have fallen out of society and been left to their own devices.
“You’ve got 300 men living close together, with their gripes, illnesses, pains and odd noises, and it’s got to be a fairly unpleasant place,” says Rusty Williams, a historian and author of My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans, which focuses on the Kentucky home. “The martial environment helped to control that and make expectations clear. But it can’t have been easy.”
If the twin poles of the Confederacy were Richmond and Atlanta, it is not surprising that the earliest efforts to create Confederate soldiers homes were centered on those two cities. “A home in Richmond and another in Atlanta would make what promises to be a notable American charity accessible to every section of the south,” an Atlanta Constitution editorial observed in 1884. “The two cities were the keys to the situation. When they fell the backbone of the confederacy [sic] was broken.”
Virginia led the way. After many months of fundraising, and with cavalryman Fitzhugh Lee as the head of the home’s board of trustees, Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Veterans, officially opened on February 22, 1885. The day included a processional of uniformed soldiers and a dedicatory address by Archer Anderson, son of Confederate General Joseph Reid Anderson. “Shall we let these men starve,” Anderson asked rhetorically, “while we write books to emblazon their heroic deeds, and erect statues to their leaders?” Anderson got his answer in the sheer breadth of the campus dedicated to his countrymen. Occupying the site of a 36-acre farm and homestead in northwest Richmond, the camp included the main residence as well as a group of newly built cottages named for prominent donors such as arts benefactor William W. Corcoran. Other houses simply honored groups of supporters, such as the “New York” and “Union” cottages. A dining hall, chapel and a museum rounded out the campus, which included some two dozen buildings in all. A grove of oak trees provided ample shade and a bucolic environment.
“It was considered a very lovely spot,” says Dr. Paul Levengood, president of the Virginia Historical Society. “People commented on how serene it was.” At the same time, residents were encouraged to stay active. One pastime involved the veterans taking photographs of each other and then painting portraits from the photos (the Society now owns a collection of those paintings). “They were meant to be kept very busy, to be engaged in some gainful activity,” Levengood says. “There was an emphasis on cleanliness and order.”
Most Confederate soldiers homes were established in existing buildings that were renovated or retooled for this purpose. Confederate veterans in Texas, for example, raised enough funds to purchase a seven-room house on 15 acres in Clarksville, an African-American community on the outskirts of the state capital in Austin, for the Texas Confederate Home for Men, opening in 1886. In Tennessee, ex-Confederates convinced state officials to lease part of Andrew Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, opening the Tennessee Soldiers Home in 1890. The Arkansas home opened in an old farmstead that same year. In Mississippi, former Confederate first lady Varina Davis agreed to convert her stately family home in Biloxi, called Beauvoir, into a soldiers residence in 1903.
In Maryland, the state legislature turned over its old U.S. Arsenal in Pikesville for use as a Confederate soldiers home, offering $5,000 annually for building maintenance. On June 27, 1888, the Maryland Line Confederate Soldiers Home was dedicated with an initial “class” of seven residents. A fundraising effort had been successful enough to invest in a 25-year annuity that yielded $2,200 a year for the care and burial of residents, whose numbers would swell to more than 460 over the next 44 years, according to Toomey. Soldiers came from all over the state, and many, such as Francis Thomas Grove, still suffered from war wounds. Grove, who was born in Sharpsburg, Md., had been left in a Strasburg, Va., field in 1864 with a gunshot wound.
In Kentucky, veterans lived out their days in the relative comfort of the Kentucky Confederate Home, which opened in 1902 in a former luxury resort hotel in the Pewee Valley, about 16 miles outside Louisville. As many as 300 men lived in the home at one time, enjoying the wide veranda, the second-story balconies and the attractive gardens. “For many men who had never seen indoor plumbing or gas lighting, and knew they would be living there the rest of their lives, it was like going to heaven,” says Williams.
A common sentiment was expressed by Taliaferro W. Duncan, known as
the Travelin’ Tree Man because he’d sold fruit trees door to door, in a letter to his sister. “I don’t know what I would have done if it had not been for this Home,” Duncan wote. “ ’Tis a Godsend to me.”
Wives, daughters and UDC members made a point to nurture the men’s souls. A woman supporter of the Kentucky home had arranged to bring in a vaudeville act called Col. Patee and the Old Soldier Fiddlers. The performers were all Civil War veterans and played up the country’s sectional differences with two gray-clad performers and two in blue, who sang old camp songs and martial tunes. The vets greeted them with hearty applause, cheers and even Rebel yells.
For every positive experience in a Confederate soldiers home, however, there was also evidence of neglect and mismanagement. The home in Atlanta seemed to operate under a black cloud. It had been the pet project of Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady, who donated his own funds and used his considerable platform to advocate for its creation, only to see the home sit vacant for a decade as it became a political football in arguments over funding and oversight.
Three months after it opened in 1901, the home was destroyed by fire. It was quickly rebuilt, but in 1924, the Georgia legislature convened a hearing on allegations of subpar, even squalid, conditions. In addition to charges of neglect, the home’s superintendent, Captain W.E. McAllister, was accused of graft, including stealing food and lumber for personal use and profit. A Mr. Harwell testified that his sickly uncle’s room at the home was in a “deplorable state” and that he had to search “all over the home before I could find anyone who would help me make him comfortable.” The old veteran died three days later.
Archivist and historian Waldo Gifford Leland (a founder of the National Archives) visited the Lee Camp in Richmond in 1905 and wrote of it in his diary. After commenting on the arresting sight of Stonewall Jackson’s former steed, stuffed and mothballed for posterity in the camp’s museum, the Bostonian observed the condition of the old Confederates as they assembled about the yard. “They are much older and more decrepit than those who frequent the National Home just outside of Washington, nor are they nearly as well clothed,” Leland wrote. “Of course far fewer Confederate soldiers, in proportion to their numbers, are to be found in Homes than Union soldiers. The reason is apparent. I don’t know how their home is supported. I imagine it receives aid at least from the state. There is to me something far more pathetic about these survivors of the ‘Lost Cause’ than about the well cared for, prosperous-looking inmates of the National Soldiers Homes.”
It became increasingly difficult for states and private organizations to maintain these often-grand buildings for dwindling numbers of veterans. In Maryland, when the last commandant died in 1932, only two veterans remained in the home, according to Toomey. So arrangements were made for them to live out their days in private residences, with all their bills paid by the state. In Richmond, the last soldier at the Lee Camp died in 1941 as the nation turned its attention to World War II. Time marched on.
When a veteran died, he was buried in his uniform with full military honors. Sadly, the buildings that had housed these men did not always face such a noble and dignified end. In Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida, the governing Confederate organizations arranged for the buildings to revert to the state after a certain period of time, usually 25 years. Sometimes the buildings were converted for other uses: The Maryland Line home is now the headquarters for the Maryland State Police, and the Oklahoma home is now a U.S. Veterans Administration facility. But often the buildings were simply razed.
Yet some relics remain. Long after it served as the Mississippi Soldiers Home, Beauvoir survived severe damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and remains open as a historic site, owned and operated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In Richmond, the grounds of the former Lee Camp have become one of the city’s premier historical and cultural districts, including the Virginia Historical Society, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the UDC headquarters. In their midst are two buildings that date from the Lee Camp days: the Robinson House, which the museum plans to adapt and reuse, and a chapel that is occasionally open to visitors.
The story of the Confederate veteran endures because it is essentially the story of all veterans—and not just veterans, but all survivors of a war. When a conflict ends, those directly affected often find themselves at odds with their new lives. Their surroundings have changed, or they have. Freed slaves, for example, faced many difficulties adjusting to their new way of life in the decades after the Civil War, yet they received far less organizational support than the old Union and Confederate veterans received. In the 20th century, some women who had gone to the factories in World War II had a hard time returning to housewifery after it ended. In a sense, they were all veterans.
“The plight of veterans is as old as mankind and warfare itself,” Levengood says. “During the 19th century, there was a lot of angst about veterans of the Revolution. Today, helping wounded warriors is one of the great growth areas in the nonprofit world. So the story of caring for Confederate veterans is very much in keeping with the scope of American history.”
The homes that housed these men in their final years are a reminder, Williams says, that “we enter into a pact with the young men and women who fight our wars, that we will provide them with a respectable place, a place of honor, in our nation’s history and our nation’s heart.”
Kim O’Connell is an Arlington, Va.–based writer who specializes in articles on history and preservation.