By 1890 the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), as a fraternal order of Northern veterans, had become not only indispensable to politicians for election victory, a guiding light for “correct” histories of the war in textbooks and a Northern view of American nationalism, but most importantly, a very powerful lobby for pensions.
In late January 1879, Congress passed the Arrears of Pension Act for Northern veterans who could collect past monies due for any claimed disability, which “placed a tremendous premium on deception and fraud.” Men who had an attack of fever while in the army persuaded themselves that every ill since being discharged was caused by that fever. By the time Grover Cleveland became president in 1885, the pension list had grown to 385,125 who drew more than $65 million annually from the public treasury, North and South.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Congressional Demagogues and Conscienceless Profiteers
“It has ever been easy to arouse popular excitement upon the treatment of wounded or disabled soldiers, and this noble sentiment has been often played upon by designing men. Moreover, the Democratic party has always been compelled to deal with more than the usual caution with the question when it affected soldiers who served in the Federal ranks . . . as any unwillingness to pass pension bills for such soldiers was certain to be interpreted as reflecting sympathy for the lost cause.
For this reason Grover Cleveland, as he looked over the pension system of the nation of which he was chosen president, must have summoned all of his courage. To allow the [pension] scandals which had developed to pass unrebuked was impossible for a man with his views of the duty as a President; to attempt to end them was to bring down more abuse from his enemies in both political parties.
Under a just system of army pensions the maximum of expenditure on account of any war is reached within eight or ten years of its close. Thereafter death steadily diminishes the number of legitimate pensioners . . . In 1866 there had been 126,722 pensioners drawing from the public treasury, all told, about thirteen and a half million dollars annually. As the years passed these numbers increased until, in 1873, there were more than 238,000 names on the roll, which called for some $29,000,000 a year.
From that time mortality should have materially reduced the number of pensions; and if the congressional demagogues had kept their hands off, this would certainly have happened.
In his first annual message to Congress [Cleveland] used the words: “It is fully as important that the rolls should be cleansed of all those who by fraud have secured a place within, as that meritorious claims should be speedily examined and adjusted.”
Conscienceless profiteers, intent upon coining into gold a noble public sentiment, had adopted the practice of disregarding the decisions of the Pension Bureau, and taking spurious claims directly to Congress in the form of private pension bills, which dishonest manipulators or too sentimental patriots steered through, as secretly as the rules would allow. It was a practice safe as well as profitable, for few politicians dared to resist, lest they be regarded as unpatriotic.”
(Grover Cleveland: The Man and the Statesman, Volume I, Robert McElroy, Harper and Brothers, 1923, excerpts pp. 189-191)