• Jake Wynn

"The Veteran" - A moving poem from 1867 about the struggle of disabled Civil War veterans

A crowd throngs around the wearied amputee. He maneuvers on crutches in the tattered uniform he had worn on the battlefields of the Civil War. His left pants leg is pinned above the knee. He stands beneath the American flag.

This is the illustration that accompanies a poem on the pages of the January 5, 1867, edition of Harper's Weekly. "The Veteran" told the story of a disabled veteran of the Union Army's First Corps who traveled the Northern countryside selling medicated salves.


This scene was one that would have had some ubiquity in America in the years after the Civil War. Tens of thousands of soldiers survived amputations and returned home. Scenes of battle-torn veterans were common as those veterans sought to make their way in a country trying to move forward from a devastating civil war.[1]


"Amputations reminded postwar Americans that veterans' sacrifices merited support, even as pension rolls swelled," writes Dr. Sarah Handley-Cousins. "More importantly, the removal of limbs came to represent the very meaning of the war."[2]


In the farming villages, mine patches, bustling towns, and crowded cities of Pennsylvania, disabled veterans sought to find a way forward. This poem, though fictional, documents the challenges they faced and what their sacrifice meant to the nation.


"The Veteran"


He stood upon the village green,

Clothed in his country’s gabardine.

His dusty suit of faded blue,

His forage cap and army shoe

(Alas! He had but need of one,

For ‘twas a crutch he leaned upon),

His steady look and martial mien,

Showed plainly what he once had been.

I marked him well, for such as he

Are more than dear to you and me –

Who stood, through long and anxious years,

The centre of our hopes and fears.

A throng had gathered at his side;

With them a huckster’s trade he plied.

His camp-cut phrase and shrewder vein

A willing audience soon obtain;

And while he talked he gave his cares

More to his story than his wares;

And rough and ready, like the man,

I give its tenor as it ran.


“I am a soldier of Sixty-one,

One of the first, you see, to rally.

I ran with the rest at the first Bull Run.

And carried a gun with Banks in the Valley.

I fired my twenty rounds away

When Shield gave Stonewall such a licking

(The boot was changed at a later day,

And we took our turn at the double-quicking).

And so it passed for a year or more,

When we woke one morning bright and balmy,

Part and parcel of the old First Corps,

The bulliest corps in the grand old army!

And how we fought and how we tramped,

Too long a tale, perhaps, I’d spin ye,

But, first and last, I think we camped

In every field in old Virginny!


“’Twas a gay old life, but Lord! ‘twas hard –

No rest for the good, no peace for the wicked;

When you didn’t fight you were put on guard,

And when you came off you went on picket.

Yet, still somehow it struck my mine

No single step to much amounted;

Of a score of things done you were lucky to find

That two of the number had ever counted.

But war is war, and one must be

As patient as the game’s uncertain;

‘Tis little of the pay you see –

The biggest part’s behind the curtain.

Too long the silken glove we wore,

And ill we throve on milk and water;

Till, cool and grime, our Grant stepped in,

And brayed bold Dixie in his mortar!


“Ah! Ignorance may live and learn,

And Folly may give ear to Reason;

But, turn whichever way you turn,

‘Tis Force alone can deal with Treason!

For he who swells with the brutal brag

That he hates the charter that made him free –

That he hates his country and hates his flag,

And prates of war with a devilish glee –

This man in vain you strive to gain

With tender words and soft appealings,

But good dry blows – he yields to those,

And there at last you touch his feelings!

“Well, as for me, I stood up stout

Until Cold Harbor, dark and cruel,

And there this leg was counted –

At last your uncle had got his gruel!

I had been scratched three times before,

But not enough to hurt my beauty,

And for thirty months and something more

I had scarcely been a day from duty.


“And now my friends, I’m pegging my way

From town to town and county to county

(You see we privates had very small pay,

And the old Sixty-oners got no bounty),

A-peddling my salve wherever I raid;

And I don’t feel ashamed, now, nary a particle,

For selling salve is an honest trade,

And this of mine is a prime old article!

Good for any kind of a bruise,

From a gun-shot wound to the bite of a mouse,

Or a cut or a burn – all ready for use,

And an excellent thing to have in the house!

Buy a box? Thank’ee! And you, Sir? Two?

I guess ‘tain’t for nothing I’ve taken this tramp!

Yes, my good Sir, another for you;

It only costs you a twenty-five stamp.

And another one, too!

Oh, bully for you!

I’d gladly give you a dozen more,

You all take so kind to the old First Corps!”


And while he paused in his simple strain

‘Twas little, he recked of trade or gain;

For, lost in his tale, his soul had wrought

A grander vision, a nobler thought.

He thought of his country’s triumph – the price

Of his own most costly sacrifice;

And a loving glance, suffered and dim.

Fell down upon his shattered limb.

I saw a tear on his eyelid flash –

I saw it fall from the quivering lash;

And he spoke these words, unheard of men;

“All that I gave I would give again!”


Oh, well tried soul! Through toil and pain

Well hast thou wrought, nor wrought, in vain.

Thou has fought in the van of a noble host;

Thou hast saved a land that was well-night lost. And the sight of thy tattered suit of blue

Shall hold men honest and keep them true –

True to the pledge which, in darker years,

We made in sorrow and signed in tears –

That ever and ever our faith holds good

To the law of human brotherhood;

That the souls of the leal and true are white,

And that man shall be man, and right shall be right.

[1] Learn more of this story at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD.


[2] Sarah Handley-Cousins, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2019), 85.


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