Civil War Disability in the Light and the Dark: An Interview with Sarah Handley-Cousins

Civil War Disability in the Light and the Dark: An Interview with Sarah Handley-Cousins

Sarah Handley-Cousins argues in her new book, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North, that the bodies of disabled Union soldiers and veterans “were sites of powerful cultural beliefs about duty, honor, and sacrifice,” yet those ideals became complicated with men who failed to perform the socially accepted role of wounded warrior. Her work moves the story of the Civil War away from amputees and toward less visible disabilities and illnesses, expanding upon not just the stories of that war, but also contemporary understandings of the myriad and real disability experiences of life. While some managed the everyday negotiations with ease, others struggled. “All of it” she argues, “the light and the dark, is the history of Civil War disability.” Published by the University of Georgia Press, Bodies in Blue is a welcome and necessary addition to scholarship on disability, veterans, and the modern U.S. I recently interviewed Sarah about her new and groundbreaking book.

Evan: Your ability to interweave illuminating stories, important history, and critical theories of disability within a very readable text is admirable. For those not familiar with disability scholarship, what is the social versus medical model of disability and how does it apply here to your work on Civil War veterans?

book jacket, red fading into a blue sketch of men with guns shooting
Book cover for Bodies in Blue. (©University of Georgia Press)

Sarah: Thank you! The two “models” are essentially two ways of thinking about disability. The medical model, which is sort of the traditional way of thinking, situates disability as a medical problem. In other words, disability is a ‘problem’ somewhere in the body, and it’s the job of doctors or other authorities to ‘solve’ that problem. According to this model, the reason you’re disabled is because there’s something fundamentally wrong with your body. It’s individualized and disconnected from any larger institutional issues. But the social model is a way of looking at disability that says, no, this particular body isn’t the problem, it’s actually the fact that this body exists in a society that considers any body or mind that isn’t ‘typical’ wrong.

One way of thinking about it is that using a wheelchair isn’t itself a disability — it becomes a disability when you try to get into a building and there’s no ramp. Or maybe you’re hard of hearing and you go to a theater performance with no interpretation or hearing assistance. It’s those structural, societal decisions regarding accessibility that make it so that your body or your brain don’t ‘fit.’ Of course, it’s more complicated than that — there’s a lot of overlap between the two, as I discuss in the book.

We’re really familiar with Civil War disability from a medical standpoint — we talk all the time about casualty numbers and bloodshed — but it’s taken us a long time to move beyond that and think about social and structural issues. And I don’t just mean surface-level social issues, like “disabled veterans faced discrimination,” but also the way the medical model dominates the scholarship on Civil War health and disability. As just one example, when we take for truth the testimony of authority figures (like pension bureaucrats or officers) without interrogating it or without giving disabled people’s words equal weight, we’re actually reinforcing outdated and damaging ways of thinking about disability.

Evan: You differentiate your book from other historical work by not focusing on amputees, who you note have taken up much of the memory and scholarship of Civil War disability – despite amputations only making up 7 percent of war wounds. Instead you look at less visible disabilities. What drew you to this framework?

Sarah: I was lucky that as I was just starting the project, there were great books coming out that grappled with Civil War era disability, like Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation, Brian Craig Miller’s Empty Sleeves, and Frances Clarke’s War Stories, among others. While I was trying to find my place in that conversation, I realized that all this fantastic work was only talking about amputation. They had good reason to — amputation was really important! But we need to remember that it still was only one particular kind of disability among a wide array of war-related ailments. And when I did the math and realized that amputation was a small percentage of the overall experience of disability, I knew there was more to the story, so I decided to focus entirely on other kinds of disability in my work.

Evan: Scholars have published important work showing how disability intersects with race, class, and gender, and therefore deserves to be among the building blocks of the field of history.1 You convey this very well in your book. What case study would you consider is the most illuminating example of how intertwined these frameworks of analyses are?

Men Wanted for the Invalid Corps notice, 1863. (War Department/Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah: I think my favorite example comes in the first chapter, where I discuss the Invalid Corps (Veteran Reserve Corps), an all-white military unit that was made up of disabled soldiers. There’s a section where I concentrate on a comical song called “The Invalid Corps,” which had racist caricatures in its cover illustration. On one level, it was because the song was performed by a blackface minstrel troupe — but on a deeper level, it was because the Invalid Corps used white men to do menial labor that was often reserved for black men. What I actually found most striking, which I learned from Kelly Mezurek’s work on black prison guards, was that the Union Army only used United States Colored Troops units as prison guards if they had proven themselves to be exemplary soldiers. On the other hand, the army used Invalid Corps troops as prison guards because they were no longer fit to serve on the frontlines. That tells us that the Union Army believed that only the very best black soldiers were qualified to do work that even the most unfit white man could do — but it also tells us that they believed that nondisabled white soldiers were better than both black soldiers and ‘invalids.’

Evan: One soldier in the Invalid Corps refers to the corps as an “almshouse,” speaking to ideas about social welfare and labor. Can you speak briefly about the Invalid Corps and its connections to ideas about labor?

Sarah: Isn’t that quote fascinating? It was one of those times in research where I really had to step back and say, “Wow, what is this about!?” The Invalid Corps is where we first see, during the Civil War era, the federal government trying to decide what it actually means to be disabled. They discovered early in the war that by defining disability too broadly, they were not only losing manpower in the form of disability discharges, but the federal government was also continuing to pay those discharged soldiers in the form of pensions without getting any labor in return. So they created the Invalid Corps, which was designed to retain that labor by not giving disabled soldiers discharges but instead moving them to this new unit. Importantly, the Invalid Corps was also a way to keep disabled soldiers from becoming paupers — in other words, from becoming utterly dependent on the state. Pauperism was the worst in the eyes of many mid-nineteenth century Americans because it entailed white men refusing to behave like men by working to support themselves. The Invalid Corps kept soldiers working to earn their pay rather than just getting handouts — even though they had legally earned those “handouts” (pensions) for being wounded! But for many soldiers — like the one you quoted — service in the Invalid Corps was insulting. It labeled them as less-than-able, and they felt that if they were able enough to serve in the Invalid Corps, they should be allowed to stay in their own units on field duty. So even fairly early in the war, we see that ideas about ability, disability, and productivity are all tied up together. After the war, those connections become even more important during the pension debates.

Sarah’s history boyfriend, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. (Brady Handy/Library of Congress).

Evan: Explain briefly what historians mean by “passing,” and how Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s life relates to this, as well as how it complicates ideas about Civil War disability.

Sarah: In terms of disability theory, “passing” is when a disabled person is able to appear or act nondisabled. Passing can ease the social pressures of being part of a marginalized community. It’s really important to note that passing doesn’t just mean that no one knows you’re disabled. Chamberlain, who had been shot through the hips and groin, could hide his disability under his clothing, but because the wound had been well publicized, most people still knew about it. Instead, it’s more that Chamberlain could adhere so well to all the expectations of white masculinity — he was good looking, more or less successful, well respected — that most people just didn’t think about his disability. And of course, that’s why historians never considered him disabled, either. There’s a trove of documents about his health problems, but because he was so good at acting nondisabled, most historians just never considered it.

I think this is a critical intervention for Civil War history because it reminds us that disability doesn’t always look the way we expect it to. This is particularly important because we have an ongoing debate in Civil War scholarship about whether “dark history” is representative of the era or if it was only a minority experience. When we go looking only for amputees, it certainly can look like disability was a minority experience — but when we zoom out and start seeing folks like Chamberlain as disabled, it becomes clear that the war created a lot more disability than we’ve ever before assumed.

Evan: You mention press reports over-inflating stories of veterans abusing pensions. What were some of the most common tropes, and how does your work reveal the extent to which the media has an important role in reporting on social welfare and disability responsibly?

Sarah: The Gilded Age press loved sensational stories, even with dubious origins! The press definitely tell stories of straight up fraud — like the story about John Dodge, who faked a limp until he was caught by a pension examiner — but what I found far more often in my research were editorials complaining about ‘bad’ veterans getting pensions they didn’t deserve. The partisan press were able to push a false narrative about a bloated system riddled with fraud — a narrative that even historians have repeated.

It’s not just the press that needs to report on fraud carefully — even our historical belief that the Civil War pension system was rife with fraud has long-lasting consequences. As you know well, Evan, the belief that the Civil War pension system was too big and too expensive meant that later veterans received rehabilitation services, tuition support, and other non-cash benefits. But even now, believing the Civil War pension system was full of fraud helps to prop up a belief system that many Americans have that social welfare only serves to make people dependent on the state. Debates over ‘welfare queens’ are a common narrative in modern politics, but it’s also a common critique of support systems designed specifically for disabled people. The recent push to place work requirements on Medicaid is a good example, as are the gradual rollbacks on worker’s compensation protections around the country. Overemphasizing fraud helps to provide justification (however baseless) for people who are already resentful that people with disabilities are somehow unfairly benefitting without putting in any work.


  1. See, for example Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other,’” The American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (June 2003). Return to text.

Evan is an Instructor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He holds a PhD in History from University at Albany, and specializes in gender, disability, and war in the twentieth century. He focuses specifically on veteran disability and rehabilitation in the United States following the First World War.