Caring for Veterans: The Civil War and the Present by Michael Megelsh

In recent history, the state of veteran healthcare has received negative media coverage. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs suffered immense scrutiny for the deaths of at least forty United States veterans who died awaiting assistance. The deaths of these veterans prompted investigations and the eventual dismissal of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in May 2014 because these veterans did not receive the timely access to medical staff they required.[1] In December 2016, shocking reports about maggots being found in the wounds of a veteran surfaced.[2] Just recently, federal authorities announced that they were ramping up investigations regarding the increase in opioid theft and unauthorized drug use by VA employees.[3] The U.S. Accountability Office provided a harsh critique of the VA’s handling of patient claims in 2014, and a year later the Center for Effective Government gave the Department of Veterans Affairs the grade of “D”. [4] The concern for the care of veterans among public officials, soldiers, and citizenry is prevalent. While there are current criticisms regarding the management of Veterans Affairs, and demands to provide better care for veterans is widespread, this is far from the first time that healthcare for veterans has concerned the public and initiated Federal action.

The Civil War produced unparalleled casualties as well as an incomparable number of veterans. Prior to the Civil War, an estimated 80,000 veterans from previous conflicts lived in the United States. Soldiers’ homes were organized in the 1810s and later the 1850s, had a board of commissioners, and existed under federal regulations. Yet, the system was not prepared for the mass of troops that would eventually need medical assistance. The Union had 1.9 million veterans after the war’s conclusion, and Congress began to take steps towards providing care for soldiers who would require care and places of rest.[5]

Civil War veterans receive medical treatment at the Bath Branch of the National Soldiers Home in Bath, New York. Courtesy of VHA Historical Photo.

This article can be read in full on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.