UA Historian Studies Revolutionary War Veterans
In a forthcoming book, UA associate professor Ben Irvin will examine the long-ago history of veterans' disability benefits in the U.S., noting widespread inequities in the aftermath of war.

By Lori Harwood, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
June 30, 2015

Art image_soliders in uniform, Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger_1781-1784.jpg

Soldiers, including six African-American slaves who volunteered to fight in exchange for their freedom, lost toes due to frostbite during a failed expedition to destroy Fort Ontario in 1783. After the war, they obtained pensions for partial disability. Th
Soldiers, including six African-American slaves who volunteered to fight in exchange for their freedom, lost toes due to frostbite during a failed expedition to destroy Fort Ontario in 1783. After the war, they obtained pensions for partial disability. This watercolor, painted at Yorktown by a French army officer, features a member of the "Black Regiment.'" “Soldiers in Uniform” by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, 1781-1784. (Photo courtesy of Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

On July 4, 1822, Lewis Spencer, an aging veteran of the Revolutionary War, commemorated independence by doing something he had long hesitated to do: He drafted a petition to the Virginia legislature asking for a pension.

"Your petitioner," Spencer wrote, "lost his eyes, in defence of his Country; whose happiness he is unable to behold; in whose prosperity he cannot participate; whose blessings he cannot share; but whose independence, glory and transcendent fame he is left to admire in poverty and utter darkness."

The lives of Spencer and other Revolutionary War veterans with disabilities will be explored in a book by Ben Irvin, an associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of History who is an expert in that period of U.S. history.

Tentatively titled "'I Still Have an Independent Spirit': Veterans' Disability After the Revolutionary War," the book will examine the social construction of disability in the founding era of the United States, and it also will delve into issues of masculinity, class and government bureaucracy. Irvin will write during the 2015-2016 academic year, when he takes residence at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, as the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow.

The title of the book is inspired by Moses Rollins, a Revolutionary War veteran who bound himself into three years of indentured servitude to pay for his medical care and later was able to have his leg amputated because a "good many" of his neighbors "throwdd in" to pay for the operation. When Rollins finally applied for a disability pension in 1812, he explained his previous reluctance: "I have both fought and bled for the Independence of our Country, and I still have an independent spirit."

Irvin began his research for the book in 2009, when he discovered a large number of online pension files underutilized by historians.

At the same time, he forged a friendship with Michael Rembis, a former graduate student who helped create the Disability Studies Initiative at the UA. Rembis, currently an associate professor of history at the University of Buffalo and president of the Society for Disability Studies, introduced Irvin to the social model of disability, which says disability does not arise from physical conditions but from the way it is accommodated. That would serve as an important framework for Irvin's research.

Access to Pension Records

Irvin said historians have tended to focus on federal pension records, most of which were created in the 1820s, when the government began awarding poverty pensions.

However, he wanted to examine soldiers such as Spencer and Rollins, who delayed applying for a pension, and also those who were badly impaired and required financial assistance right away. To do that, he needed access to the state pension records of the 1770s and 1780s.

With funds from the Magellan Circle, the donor society that supports the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Irvin hired two undergraduate students to help him wade through online records.

As his project advanced, he realized he would need to do field research.

Last year, with the help of research fellowships, including the Emilia Galli Struppa Fellowship at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Irvin traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia; Chicago and Boston to review pension records, receiving a crash course in 18th-century field medicine from the Harvard University medical library along the way.

In his book, Irvin will argue that the earliest U.S. pension administration shaped veterans' disability in a number of ways.

A pension applicant had to testify under oath that he no longer could earn a living, which, according to the gender norms of the day, was the most fundamental obligation of manhood.

"By predicating aid on lost breadwinning capacity, Revolutionary pension legislation challenged the veteran's sense of masculine attainment," Irvin said. "As a result, many veterans, like Moses Rollins, faced the prospect of a pension with shame."

Irvin also notes that the way the government determined the pension amount accentuated class distinctions among impaired veterans. Benefits were computed not only by the extent of the injury but also by salary and rank, which was a reflection of social stature. By contrast, in 1793 France's National Convention ensured that enlisted men earned pensions at the same rate as high-ranking officers.

"The U.S. government grafted the individual's class onto his very limbs and organs," Irvin said. "For example, Col. John Greene, who lost the use of his right arm, earned a pension of 100 pounds. Meanwhile, Pvt. John Morris, who lost the use of that same limb, earned a mere 18 pounds." Some states paid pensions in pounds, where one pound translated into $3.33. Veterans were expected to pay for their medical expenses out of their annual pensions.

Irvin's book also will explore the way conflict between state and federal statutes wreaked havoc on veterans'  pension allocations and impacted how veterans experienced disability.

In 1776, the Continental Congress urged the states to create disability pensions for soldiers injured in the war. But because at that time Congress had no power to tax, it asked the states to pay for and administer the pensions.

Different States, Different Systems

Thirteen states meant 13 different pension systems. States broke down partial disability in different increments and had inconsistent application procedures. For example, in Virginia, veterans had to be examined by a doctor, whereas in Massachusetts veterans applied to a commissioner of pensions, a political post held by John Lucas, who earned his living as a "master baker." In Massachusetts, veterans also were granted pensions for diseases that stemmed from battle, such as rheumatism — a benefit that the federal government would restrict.

To promote a uniform entitlement for veterans, the Confederation Congress established a new schedule of monetary awards in 1785, resulting in a drastic redistribution of funds. For example, Pvt. James Davenport, who had a musket ball lodged in his left ankle, formerly received a pension of 24 pounds, but after the reform of 1785 his pension was cut to six pounds, reducing him "to the mortifying and disgraceful situation of begging."

"Slowly government centralized and standardized the pension system, but every time the new federal government took a misstep, the veterans felt it," Irvin said.

In another example, in 1792 the federal government created the Invalid Pensions Act, which was then repealed due to a tussle over the separation of legislative and judicial powers. "In the meantime, a bunch of veterans were thrust into limbo," Irvin said.

Irvin hopes his book will provide historical context for present-day veterans’ health care administration as well as illustrate how pension bureaucracies at times obstruct relief.

"This project also dispels romantic myths about the American Revolution," Irvin said. "By recovering the bodily histories of ordinary young men who enlisted in the Continental Army, it demonstrates that the Revolutionary War was, like all wars, a devastating event."


Resources for the media

Ben Irvin

UA Department of History


Lori Harwood

UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences