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Historical Research on Disability


Civil War veterans returned with missing limbs
Thousands of Civil War veterans returned with missing limbs. From left to right,
A. J. Hutchins of Ohio, Thomas Shields of New York, William McFarland and
S. M. Dyer of Wisconsin, and V. N. Higgins of Missouri (National Library of Medicine).

BBI is committed to deepening our understanding of disability by exploring the past.  Disabilities have always been a fact of life, but attitudes and responses to them have varied from era to era.  Research by BBI Chairman Peter Blanck and Senior Fellow Larry Logue focuses on the pivotal period following the Civil War.  The war returned men with disabilities to virtually every American community and propelled public compensation to the forefront of political debate.  Using military records, pension files, and government reports, Logue and Blanck have recently found that judgments about applicants’ race and ethnic background influenced administrators of Union army pensions.  Using death registers, newspaper accounts, and other sources, they have also found that Union veterans had higher rates of suicide than either contemporary civilians or veterans of twenty-first-century conflicts.  Their current project investigates the physical and mental traumas that led Union veterans to take their own lives. 

Corporal Edson Bemis

Civil War soldiers could also survive head wounds, but they often experienced long-term disabilities.
Corporal Edson Bemisof Massachusetts was wounded near Petersburg, Virginia, in 1865.
He appeared to recover, but his perception and motor skills steadily deteriorated and he died
of brain damage in 1900 (Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion).

For more information, please contact Larry Logue.