Veteran’s Benefits


Bounties were of two kinds: cash payments and land grants, both tendered on enlistment. Initially Congress offered $10 in cash and 100 acres of land for three-year enlistments or re-enlistments, but by September, 1776, the cash portion had doubled to $20. Three years later the cash bounty was $200; the land bounty remained constant. The reason for the increase was the spirited bidding of the states, which were competing with Congress for troops. By 1779 Virginia, for example, was offering $750 in cash and 100 acres of land to men who joined her militia rather than the Continental service. At one point the next year New Jersey provided a bounty of $1,000 per man.

Not unexpectedly, bounty jumping was widespread as men enlisted in one unit, took their bounty money, and then disappeared, to repeat the process elsewhere. Despite this drawback bounties continued to be the preferred way of securing men for the armies well into the next century. Recruits in the War of 1812, for example, were offered $124 and 320 acres of land. By 1860 more than 600,000 land warrants had been issued to war veterans for 68 million acres of land—the equivalent of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Bonuses were offered by Congress and the states midway in the Revolutionary War in a desperate effort to keep their armies intact. In 1778 Congress promised all officers an extra seven years of half pay if they served until the end of the war. Enlisted men were offered a flat grant of $80. By 1780 Congress had enlarged the officers’ bonus to half pay for life, but in 1783 a compromise was struck whereby the officers received five years’ full pay.

Because of the emptiness of the national treasury and the straitened circumstances of the states, most bonuses remained unpaid for some time. A majority of veterans sold off both their land warrants and their bonus certificates to speculators, many of whom reaped windfall profits when the Hamiltonian Funding Program began to pay off the national debt at par in the 1790’s.

Pensions were provided by Congress as early as 1776 for all volunteers who lost a limb in battle or who were so disabled they were no longer capable of earning a living. Since Congress lacked any real taxing power, the financing of these disability pensions fell to the separate states. In general, the southern states met their obligations; the northern states did not. However, as part of the Hamiltonian Funding Program the federal government assumed the state debts and, with them, the responsibility for the pensions.

Until 1818 only disabled veterans whose injuries were service-connected were eligible for federal money. Each case was investigated by the Secretary of War, who would then recommend to Congress that payment be authorized or refused. In 1818 Congress approved a general pension of $20 a month for Revolutionary officers and $8 a month for enlisted men who could demonstrate a financial need.

In 1828 the means test was removed for officers, and Congress awarded them their full military pay for the remainder of their lives. Four years later Congress extended a similar pension to enlisted men who had served two years or more and lesser amounts to those who had served for shorter periods. In 1836 full pensions for widows were made available.

Virtually all of the pension rights, bonus provisions, and bounties provided for the men of the Revolutionary armies were extended to the veterans of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War (1846-48). Between them the two later wars cost a total of $166 million in benefits.

The Civil War (1861-65) had a notable impact on the history of veterans’ benefits by adding 1.9 million men from the Union army to the veterans’ pool. (By terms of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, Confederates were barred from federal programs.) The ex-soldiers very quickly recognized that they were an important political minority (roughly 5 per cent of the population) and through the Grand Army of the Republic soon brought pressure to bear on Congress for special consideration. Their lobbying efforts bore fruit that substantially increased the size and scope of pension programs.

As in the earlier wars, enlistment bounties were offered by both the federal government and the states. No land grants were made, although veterans were assigned a special status in the Homestead Act of 1862, which opened up the West to settlement. Cash bounties established in July, 1861, ranged upward from $25 for nine months’ service to $100 for three-year men. Some state volunteers received as much as $1,000.

At such prices bounty jumping was common; one man was eventually found guilty of enlisting thirty-two times. In the end the federal government paid out some $300 million and the states perhaps $450 million in bounty claims. This was the last war to make use of them; in 1917 Congress expressly prohibited any bounty payments on enlistment.

Several innovations appeared in the pension laws, all of which applied to later wars. In 1862, for example, Congress established uniform pensions for death and disability for both the regular forces and the volunteers. In addition, certain specific disabilities—for example, the loss of two limbs—were pensioned at higher rates than others.

At the outset of peace in 1865 the pension rolls were already swollen by virtue of the ghastly carnage of the war. Union deaths in service were about 360,000, one third of which occurred in battle; another 275,000 men had sustained wounds. All were entitled to compensation, and because of the generosity of Congress over the next thirty years, all of them or their dependents received it.