by Carolyn L. Barkley
In October of last year, I read a review of James Marten’s Sing Not War: the Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2011). As I am always interested in Civil War-related books, I ordered the e-book edition to read while on a trip. Then, this last February, when developing my list of upcoming blog articles, my earlier reading prompted me to write about the records and history of the National Home for Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS) homes. Finally, while selecting lectures to attend at the recent NGS Family History Conference, I noted that Rick Sayre was presenting a lecture on this very topic. Clearly it was a sign that the topic was an important one to discuss here.
The Civil War introduced Americans to a level of destruction unparalleled in United States history. The impact of the war would affect American life for decades. Today as a society, we are more cognizant of war’s toll on veterans’ physical and psychological health, and programs exist to treat both their visible and invisible wounds and to assist them in their acclimatization back into civilian life. Following the Civil War, however, families were expected to take are of their own. While some families were capable of such often difficult and long-term care, others were either unable or unwilling to provide it.
I often wonder about my own great-great-uncle, George H. Duncan, a veteran of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry. I know little about his war-time life beyond his compiled service record and pension file. He has always been a “person of interest” to me, however, in that I knew my grandfather had done some research about him – and then abruptly stopped. I, of course, wanted to discover the full story. Census and city directory research covering the period from the war until George’s death in April 1880 outlined the life of an individual whose employment changed frequently, and who, with his wife and children, often lived with his parents or in-laws. I uncovered the final piece of the puzzle in a Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) police blotter published a few days after George’s death. It reported that he had died while in the “city lockup” after falling and hitting his head on the floor “following an extended spree.” His death record states only that his cause of death was “accidental,” providing no further details. I have been able to find no obituary or death notice and this event, with its public declaration of an apparent alcohol problem, was never spoken of in a family who discussed past generations frequently. It would also suggest, perhaps, why my grandfather was reluctant to pursue (or even discuss) his research. After reading Marten’s book, I realized the extent to which George was not alone in his difficulties in dealing with his post-war problems. Indeed, he was one of thousands for whom peacetime held no refuge.
As the Civil War came to a close, Congress moved quickly to enact legislation establishing a series of asylums to provide assistance to wounded and/or disabled veterans who had volunteered during the conflict. An 1867 federal law established national asylums. Three regional branches were established in 1867 (Central Branch in Dayton, Ohio; Eastern Branch in Togus, Maine; and the Northwestern Branch in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) and one in 1870 (Southern Branch in Hampton, Virginia). Veterans who qualified for residence lived in a quasi-military environment which was intended to provide discipline in and structure to their lives. Their access to pension or other funds, furthermore, was often restricted to prevent them from squandering it on alcohol and women while off the asylum. Rather than feeling a sense of entitlement, many Civil War vets believed themselves failures in having to rely on the charity of others. In part because of those feelings, and in part because of the general population’s increasingly enlightened understanding of their needs, the name “Asylum” was later changed to “Home.” Eventually the number of branches would be increased to fifteen, and in 1930 they would be consolidated into the Homes Division of the Veterans Administration.
Records of the NHDVS are housed in the National Archives (NARA) in Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration. Registers of veterans living in the several NHDVS facilities have been microfilmed and can be viewed in NARA microfilm publication M1749. These microfilm records are indexed, but separately by regional home. This arrangement can lead to frustration if you searching for a specific individual as each person was able to request a specific home, and it may not have been the one located where you might most logically expect to find him. He may have chosen one near friends or relatives (or, conversely, as far away from them as possible), or perhaps he may have chosen one in which other members of his former unit were living.
This indexing issue is addressed by Ancestry.com’s online database U.S. National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938 which provides you with an ability to search for an individual across twelve national homes (Bath Branch, Bath, New York; Battle Mountain Sanitarium, Hot Springs, South Dakota; Central Branch, Dayton, Ohio; Danville Branch, Danville, Illinois; Eastern Branch, Togus, Maine; Marion Branch, Marion, Indiana; Mountain Branch, Johnson City, Tennessee; Northwestern Branch, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Pacific Branch, Los Angeles, California; Roseburg Branch, Roseburg, Oregon; Southern Branch, Hampton, Virginia; and the Western Branch in Leavenworth, Kansas). This database includes images of the registers for each of these facilities. The registers are divided into four sections – military history, domestic history, home history and general remarks for each resident. The military history section provides information on time and place of enlistment, rank, company and regiment, time and place of discharge, cause of discharge, and disabilities when admitted to the home. The domestic history section provides information on birth place, age, height, complexion, eye and hair color, ability to read and write, religion, occupation, residence subsequent to discharge, marital status and name and address of nearest relative. The home history section notes rate of pension, date of
admission, readmission or transfer to the home, condition of re-admission, date of discharge and transfer, cause of discharge, date of death, and cause of death. The general remarks section includes a list of the papers presented to qualify for
admission, effects at the time of the resident’s death and to whom they were paid, and location of grave. Please note in using this database that only names and some of the above descriptions have been indexed. It is possible, however, to view images of all of the records–including applications, admissions, deaths, burials, and hospital records–by browsing the collection.
My standard surname search for “Barkley” identified fifty-one individuals. Looking at one of these records, I learned that John Barkley, a resident of the NHDVS in Hampton, Virginia, enlisted at Monongahela City, Pennsylvania, on 9 August 1862, and served as a private in Co. E, 140th Pa. Infantry. He was discharged in Alexandria, Virginia, on 31 May 1865, with the rank of 1st Sergeant. After listing the general order under which he was discharged, the register notes that his disability stemmed from a gunshot wound to his right arm sustained in December 1862, and chronic bronchitis contracted at Falmouth, Virginia. He was born in Pennsylvania, and at the time of admittance was 75 years old. He was 5’8,” with a dark complexion, grey eyes, and brown hair (“wig” is written above these words!). John could read and write, was a Protestant, a laborer by occupation, and single. His nearest relative was Edward Barkley, who lived in New Eagle, Washington County, Pennsylvania [an abbreviated note seems to identify Edward as his brother]. John was admitted to the Hampton NHDVS on 7 June 1900. He was receiving a pension of $12.00 per month, and died of meningitis a little over three months later at 7:00 p.m. on 27 September 1900. Finally, the register notes that John’s pension certificate was #644386 and that his personal effects, $30.00 in cash and personal items appraised at $3.75, were dispersed to his nephew, Edward Barkley of New Eagle, Pennsylvania. John was buried in “New” National Cemetery (my assumption is that this refers to the National Cemetery in Hampton, Virginia) in grave #8002. Wow! Don’t you wish that John was your ancestor? Just think of all the additional records to which these register entries point!
The NHDVS were specifically for veterans who served as volunteers. Other homes were provided for regular army veterans as well as for veterans of the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. The various states of the former Confederacy also provided homes for their veterans.
If you had a Union volunteer soldier in your family, NHDVS records are well worth your research. If you identify an ancestor living in one of these homes, you may learn a great deal about him from these registers.