Civil War veteran's home in Bath, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Department of Veteran Affairs
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War began in 2011 and will last until 2015, representing the five years that this nation stood divided. Many recognize the Civil War as a milestone in America’s history resulting in the end of slavery. The Civil War also created the need for the first national cemetery, the recognizable Arlington Cemetery. Unknown to many, the Civil War also prompted the creation of veterans’ health care. Prior to the beginning of the Civil War, only approximately 80,000 veterans were treated at veterans’ homes. At the close of this five-year battle, more than 1.9 million soldiers were added to this population.
St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. served as a government hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines, including African-American service members. Individuals were faced with overcrowding and often were sent to tents behind the hospital, where staff treated the overflow of causalities. Faced with the need to provide veterans with long-term care, President Abraham Lincoln appealed to Congress for facilities and programs to serve veterans.
In March 1865, a national government home for Union veterans was opened. Confederate soldiers would have to wait until 1958 to be formally pardoned and legally recognized as veterans. As more veterans applied for care, veterans’ homes began to pop up in other parts of the country. Eventually, 11 national veteran homes would serve our nation’s service members in 1873.
Beginning as simple sleeping quarters, the veteran home began to evolve and include recreational activities, libraries and church services. Some even added movie theatres. By entertaining veterans, the staff recognized that mental health and morale was just as important as healing an individual’s physical wounds.
The Veteran Administration was established in 1930 and added three more veteran homes to their system. Still operating under the same values and mission that were established in 1865, the VA attempts to honor the sacrifice that veterans have made on behalf of our country and our citizens. Upholding promises, the VA continues to make headway in addressing key issues that affect our veterans, including homelessness, mental health, and unemployment. Recently, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced the addition of 1,600 mental health workers, which will allow wait times to be decreased.
Beginning 150 years ago with the Civil War, our government recognized a need to serve our veterans after the war ended. AMVETS continues to support the preservation of all earned veteran benefits and will continue to tackle issues, including problems in the veteran health care system, on behalf of American veterans everywhere.