With this year marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, get ready for grand pontificating on its meaning for whites, African-Americans, the nation, and the world.
Here’s what it meant for my family.
My great-grandfather Albert Cordner was a private in the Union Army. In a pocket-size diary, he recorded battlefield experiences that were the stuff of movies.
“Commence the fight at daylight,” he wrote on September 17, 1862. “First we drove them and then they drove us. Then we drove them back again. The fight lasted all day.”
The next day’s entry: “No fighting today. We are burying the dead.” This was the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in U.S. history, with 23,000 casualties.
Few movies have bothered to explore what happened to Civil War soldiers after the South surrendered. Looking at Great-Grandfather Albert’s experience, I’m struck by the efforts of a young nation, ravaged by war, to invent new ways of creating economic opportunities and protections—at least for one segment of its citizens.
As today’s deficit hawks push for massive spending cuts, it’s revealing to look back at these early experiments with social safety nets.
After three years at the front, Albert mustered out with all of his limbs still attached. He was one of the lucky ones. One out of every three men who served in his unit wound up dead, wounded, or missing.
Back in Rhode Island, Albert got a job as a mail carrier on a route from Westerly to Newport. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln had introduced free postal delivery service in a few areas. In peacetime, the government expanded the service, in part as a way to create jobs for former soldiers.
Some years later, Albert set out for new adventures as a Homesteader in Dakota Territory. The Homestead Act required that applicants spend five years on a plot of land before they could claim ownership. As a Union Army veteran, Albert could deduct his time served from the residency mandate.
Homesteading was no picnic for this East Coast city slicker. “Mr. Cordner has been unfortunate in grain raising,” the Bismarck Tribune reported in 1890. “His crops have been hurt by hail twice since he located here and one fall he lost his barn and several head of stock and some farm machinery by fire.”
In these rough times, Albert got another leg up from the government. According to his pension records, which my nephew and I found at the National Archives, his payments began in 1890. They started at $6 per month and rose to $24 in 1906, which would be $566 in today’s dollars. After he died, the pension passed to his widow.
The Civil War pension system was a precursor to Social Security, at one point accounting for 37 percent of federal expenditures.
It’s important not to paint too rosy a picture of these benefits programs. Some historians note that the pension system was biased against African Americans. At 160 acres, Homestead plots were so small that it was tough to make a decent living off farming them. Far too many veterans lived out their post-war lives in grinding poverty.
And yet, we should reflect on how these modest benefits from long ago may still be paying off. My great-grandparents had received good public educations in Rhode Island and probably would have been fine without these perks. But the public jobs and land giveaway programs certainly expanded their horizons—and their children’s.
Albert’s son followed his path into the postal service and became the North Dakota postmaster. The security of that post helped insulate the next generation from the Great Depression. It paid for my mother’s advanced education, which she used to teach children, including her own.
So thank you, 19th-century legislators, for making those early steps towards building a nation that cares for its citizens. Let’s hope we aren’t about to take a massive slide backwards.
Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.