How to Use
Reading 1: The Soldiers' Home
In March 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill to provide care for volunteer soldiers who were disabled through loss of limb, wounds, disease, or injury during service in the Union forces during the Civil War. Initially called the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, the name was later changed to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers because of the negative connotation of the word "asylum." The first three homes opened in Togus, Maine; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Dayton, Ohio. Eventually, there were 11 National Home branches across the country. Requirements for admission were that soldiers had been honorably discharged from military service and that they had contracted their disabilities during the war. Men admitted themselves to the home voluntarily and could request a discharge. The homes were run in a military fashion: men wore uniforms and were assigned to companies; bugles and cannons signaled daily schedules. The homes provided schools, churches, hospitals, and gardens thought to be therapeutic for the veterans.
In 1867, the government purchased land and began construction on the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton. By 1868, the Central Branch was equipped to care for 1000 disabled soldiers. As the campus grew, it eventually covered 627 acres, complete with living quarters, hospital, library, and chapel. It was constructed in part using lumber recycled from the nearby Camp Chase where Confederate POWs had been confined. By 1884, the Dayton Soldiers' Home, as it became known, had become the largest of its kind in operation, accounting for 64% of the veterans receiving U.S. government institutional care. Dayton's veteran population reflected the diversity found in the Union Army, including black veterans, who the Dayton Home was the first federal institution to admit. More than 200,000 African-American soldiers and sailors served in the Union military, and many went on to serve on cemetery details after fighting ceased. The Dayton Home was progressive in other ways, as well. It operated according to the philosophy that exercise, reading, music, healthcare, and occupational training in preparation for reentering society-all taking place in a picturesque environment-would improve the health and wellbeing of the veterans under its care. Modern innovations included steam heat, indoor plumbing, and elevators.
Henry Howe described the Dayton home in his Historical Collections of Ohio:
The SOLDIERS' HOME at Dayton, the Central Branch, is by far the largest and most important branch in point of numbers. The citizens contributed $20,000 towards its establishment. Its land area is 627 acres -- nearly that of a mile square. Its location is three miles west of the court-house in Dayton, on the gentle bounding slopes of the great Miami valley, which is here some five or six miles wide. It is a unique place; a small city mainly of graybearded men, few women, and no children, excepting those of the families of the officers. It is a spot of great beauty, from its location, its fine buildings, its green-houses, flowers beds, and for the display of the triumphs of landscape gardening. These features render it a great place of attraction in summer for visitors, who come by thousands in excursion trains from all parts of Ohio and the adjacent States of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, etc. The other Branches have like attractions in the way of landscape adornments with pleasant walks and drives, and whatever contributes to the comfort of the veterans, and are like places of resort for the public. The visitors at the Dayton Home number annually over 100,000.¹
In 1930, the federal government consolidated veteran benefits under a single agency, the Veterans Administration. National Soldiers' Homes continued run into the 1930s when the Veterans Administration took them over. The homes also housed veterans from the Spanish-American War and World War I. By the beginning of World War II, the soldiers' homes were phased out due to the high cost of hospital care and the fact that veterans were receiving medical treatment and returning to civilian life rather than staying at the homes. Today, the Dayton campus houses the Dayton National Cemetery and the Veteran Affairs Medical Center, which provides important medical care and out-reach services. It is operated by the Veterans Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Questions for Reading 1
1. For whom and what purpose were the national soldiers' homes designed? How many were eventually established? If needed, refer to Map 1.
2. Why might the term "asylum" have negative connotations?
3. Why was the Dayton home considered progressive? Which group of veterans was the Dayton Home the first federal institution to admit? Why was that significant?
4. What kind of environment and what services did the Dayton Soldiers' Home provide? Were soldiers expected to spend the rest of their lives there?
5. Why do you think the home attracted so many visitors? Would you enjoy visiting a place like this? Why or why not?
6. Why were soldiers' homes phased out? How do you think the role of the Veteran Affairs Medical Center differs from that of the soldiers' homes?
Reading 1 was adapted from Jeffrey M. Hull and Matthew J. Jeffery, "Central Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers," (Montgomery County, Ohio) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2003; and other sources.
¹ Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio in two volumes (Cincinnati, Ohio: C.J. Krehbiel & Co., 1888), 286.