The North’s war pensions were costly – from 1866 to 1917 the total disbursement for pensions was over $5 billion – though including the negligible amount for the Indian and Spanish Wars. It is said to be the “largest expenditure for pensions of any sort in the history of the world.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
The North’s Powerful Pension Attorney Lobby
“Disability pensions for [Northern] Civil War soldiers were authorized on a liberal scale by acts passed in Congress in 1862, 1864, 1865, 1872 and 1873. In 1872, [James A.] Garfield said in the House that the expenditure for pensions, then standing at $27,000,000, had reached its peak, would remain stationary for a few years and then decline.
His prediction might have proved correct but for the activities of the pension attorneys.
These men were numerous in Washington. They helped a soldier file his claim and received a fee fixed by the government. When the claim was good they rendered proper services. But as the good claims became fewer, some attorneys took up bad claims many of which were rejected by the Commissioner of Pensions.
Then grew up the habit of referring such claims, approved by a lenient committee, to Congress as private bills, where they usually passed without inquiry on the floor of either house. In carrying out this process the pension attorneys became a powerful and persistent lobby.
They went further than mere private bills and sought to get laws passed for more liberal pensions. To carry their schemes through they established newspapers and appealed to the soldier vote. They had a strong influence in the Grand Army of the Republic, composed of officers and soldiers of the Civil War.
Their first striking success was in 1879 when the Arrears-Pension Act was passed . . . [and] gave [a lump sum to] any pensioner the arrears from death or discharge to the time a pension was applied for. Under the stimulus of the attorneys the act was passed with the strong support of each party.
Under it the pension bill rose from $27,000,000 in 1878 to $56,000,000 in 1880; and the number of applicants increased from 44,587 to 141,466 in the same period. The pension attorneys were rewarded for their efforts by this vast increase in business, though the legal fee did not exceed $10 for each claim.
When [Democrat Grover] Cleveland was President he adopted the plan of examining carefully the private pension bills sent him for signature. Many of them he signed, and many he vetoed after satisfying himself they were unwarranted. Against him the pension attorneys opened their powerful batteries and reminded the public he was elected by the votes of former Confederate soldiers.
Cleveland did not modify his course and when the lobby got Congress to pass a bill in 1887 to allow pensions to all [Northern] soldiers dependent on their own labor and not able to earn a living he vetoed that bill also. For his entire pension policy he was severely arraigned in [the election of] 1888 and the assault was a strong factor in his defeat.
[Republican] President [Benjamin] Harrison took office pledged to a liberal pension policy. In his first annual message . . . Harrison urged the passage of a dependent pension law [and] Congress complied . . . In its second year of operation, when it was fully acting, the total expenditure for pensions had increased by $68,000,000 a year, and in the course of seventeen years by a total of $1,058,000,000. It was passed as a political measure, with an eye to the old soldier vote.”
(Expansion and Reform, 1889-1926, John Spencer Bassett, Kennikat Press, 1971 (original 1926), pp. 18-21)