Health Care, such as it was, for Civil War Veterans


A Bit of History partial Thomas Waterman copy
“A Bit of History – The Veteran” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1865-6. This is one of three images by Wood that shows the transformation of a man from a slave into a newly-recruited soldier for the Union army and finally into a veteran. Many soldiers wore the wounds and scars of the American Civil War into post-war life. Sadly, there were not always resources in their communities or beyond to help them with their health issues.
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

I’ve been ill the past few days, and I wound up having to make a long visit with the doctor. Unlucky me – I have an abdominal condition that will probably require surgery. But at least I have health care, so I can go to a doctor and get back to wellness.

Today, US military veterans have access to health care via the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and its Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 152 VA Medical Centers and approximately 1400 community-based outpatient clinics in the US. In 2014, the Veterans Health Administration was “rocked by scandal” due to “major problems with scheduling timely access to medical care.” But at least there is a system in place to attend to the health needs of our veterans.

Compare that to the circumstances for veterans, and especially black veterans, of the American Civil War. In the book Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth Regosin and Donald Shaffer, the editors note that

The vast majority of former slaves were poor… (the) medical problems (of previously enslaved Union veterans) both contributed to and were compounded by poverty. Illness left former slaves with the medical bills that they could not pay or without access to proper medical care, leaving them in a position where they had to treat to themselves with herbal remedies or patent medicine, forms of therapy that sometimes ameliorated symptoms but rarely provided a permanent cure.

The book goes on to site the case of black Union veteran Isaac Petteway, who served in the US Colored Troops, 37th Infantry Regiment, and his wife Rosa Pettetway. In 1889, Rosa filed for a pension after her husband passed away. The following is from the deposition that was filed with the pension request and found in the National Archives:

Q. After coming out of the Army did your husband the soldier ever have any fever or pneumonia or was he troubled with any cough or lung disease?

A. He had a bad cough and after he was taken down with his fatal illness he had a desperate cough. He was always subject to cold and he had the chills bad often.

Q. Tell me all you can about his condition from the time you say he was taken down until he died?

A. He was down in his bed three years, helpless as a child, and I nursed [him]. He was full of pains and misery, and that leg would pain him. He would holler so you could hear him holler along way. He had a very bad cough and complained of his side and chest, and I’ll cross his breast and stomach. The ulcer on the leg would run part of the time and there again would break out again. The sore or a corruption did not [intelligible] above the knee. There were no running sores on his body only the old one.
I didn’t think he had any hemorrhage or bleeding, not as I knows of.

Q. What did you believe was the immediate cause of his death?

A. That leg, the pain in it run up into his body and took his life away from him

Q. How do you know that it was not pneumonia or consumption he died of?

A. I don’t know, only I think it was the leg.

Q. When you found your husband was dying was there no way you could have secured a doctor, is there no State or county provision for Doctors for the poor?

A. No Sir, You can’t get a doctor here [Beaufort, N.C.] without the cash… We were not able to employ any doctor. I just treated my husband with herbs and such like—we never had any Doctor

It doesn’t seem right that a veteran should go out this way, to use a colloquial expression. Dignified service should have resulted in dignified care. But our health care policies have evolved for the better since then, and thankfully so. I hope Isaac and Rosa Petteway are resting in peace with the knowledge that their country is trying to do better by the soldiers who followed him.

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