Caring for Veterans in the Nation’s Capital
Records of the U.S. Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C., 1851–1943
Spring 2015, Vol. 47, No. 1 | Genealogy Notes
By John P. Deeben
Even though he was no native son, 21-year-old Otis Gutermuth of Konigburg, Prussia, walked away from his civilian life as a boot fitter in New York and carved out a long and successful military career in post–Civil War America.
Initially joining the First U.S. Cavalry on July 23, 1868, Gutermuth eventually served five tours of duty—with a few short intervals between terms—that collectively spanned 18 years and 10 months. During that time, Gutermuth regularly earned ratings as an excellent trooper. However, the long years in the saddle at different posts on the western frontier exacted a physical toll on the immigrant soldier. After he reenlisted at Boston on October 24, 1893, Gutermuth’s final stint with the Third U.S. Cavalry came to a premature end when he was discharged for disability at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, on Christmas Day, 1896.1
Apparently unable to work and suffering from chronic inflammation that crippled his extremities—exacerbated even more by the lingering effects of old dislocations, fractures, and sprains suffered while in the saddle—Gutermuth eventually ended up at a national military hospice in Washington, D.C., where he was admitted on April 29, 1904. A federally mandated institution designed to assist sick and indigent U.S. Army personnel, the home offered the destitute old veteran both physical and medical care, including a warm dormitory bed, and adjacent hospital facilities. It even had an asylum for inmates suffering from the mental hardships of military service that later generations would define as post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the assistance, Gutermuth's condition deteriorated, and a few short years later he took his own life on April 2, 1907.2
Since the middle of the 19th century, the federal government has recognized the need to provide care for some American veterans beyond the monetary support of pension benefits. Most people are familiar with the system of national homes for disabled Union veterans that opened around the country after the Civil War, but Congress established one of the first national homes for Regular Army and volunteer soldiers a generation earlier. Known initially as the Military Asylum in Washington, D.C., and later as the U.S. Soldiers' Home—made famous during the Civil War as the site of President Abraham Lincoln's summer retreat—the institution offered the first official sanctuary for the relief and support of invalid, disabled, and homeless veterans. The administrative records of the U.S. Soldiers' Home at the National Archives document the inmates who sought out sanctuary and treatment from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries.
Congress Sanctions Army Veterans Home
Congress established the Military Asylum at Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1851 (9 Stat. 595), with temporary branches located at New Orleans (1851) and East Pascagoula (Greenwood's Island), Mississippi (1851–1858). An additional branch called the Western Military Asylum operated at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, from 1853 to 1858. According to the statute, eligible candidates for the asylum included any veteran of the U.S. Army who served "honestly and faithfully twenty years," as well as any Regular or volunteer soldier suffering disease or wounds "incurred in the service and in the line of duty, rendering him incapable of further military service." Inmates of military age (under 50 years old) who recovered their health sufficiently to render further military duty would be discharged from the home. The law also extended the services and privileges of the asylum to retired military pensioners as long as they transferred their pension benefits to the institution for the duration of their stay and treatment. The only military personnel barred outright from the Military Asylum included soldiers convicted of felony or "other disgraceful or infamous crimes of a civil nature" while in the service of the United States.3
A board of commissioners governed the administrative aspects of the asylum and comprised most of the top War Department officials at the time, including the general-in-chief of the Army, the generals commanding the eastern and western military divisions, the quartermaster general, commissary general of subsistence, paymaster general, surgeon general, judge advocate general of the Army, and the adjutant general. After the home began accepting Army Air Corps personnel in 1917, and especially following the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as a separate military branch in 1947, additional administrators were added to the board, including the surgeon general and judge advocate general of the Air Force, and the director of personnel planning for the Air Force. Congress also vested immediate oversight of asylum operations to several officers appointed or detailed from the Army, including a governor, deputy governor, a joint secretary-treasurer, and a medical officer.4
The Military Asylum at Washington, D.C., derived financial support from a number of sources. The 1851 statute authorized the home to use any unexpended balance from an appropriation of March 2, 1847, which had been set aside by Congress to benefit honorably discharged invalid soldiers. A portion of tribute money levied against Mexico by the U.S. military during the Mexican War, totaling $118,791.19 and earmarked for the benefit of veterans who served in Mexico, also went to the asylum. Regular payroll withholdings (25 cents a month, later reduced to 12½ cents) from all military personnel helped to finance the home as well and guaranteed the participating servicemen access to the asylum's services. Other financial contributions—mostly involuntary—from military personnel included forfeitures of pay on account of desertions, fines and pay stoppages resulting from court-martial sentences, and unclaimed pay of deceased soldiers (although the latter remained subject to reclamation by heirs). A portion of military hospital and post funds, not exceeding two-thirds of the balance on hand after yearly expenses, was also funneled to the asylum’s coffers.5
On March 3, 1859, Congress changed the name of the Military Asylum to the United States Soldiers' Home and also extended eligibility for admittance to veterans of the War of 1812.6 The Soldiers' Home gained lasting attention during the Civil War when President Lincoln relocated to a vacant cottage on the grounds to escape sweltering and unhealthy conditions in the nation's capital during the summers from 1862 to 1864. The name of the Soldiers' Home did not change again until the latter 20th century, when the Department of Defense redesignated it as the U.S. Solders' and Airmen's Home on September 7, 1972. On November 5, 1991, the name changed again to the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) as part of the National Defense Appropriation Act of November 5, 1990. The AFRH in Washington, D.C., with a sister campus in Gulfport, Mississippi, for naval personnel, operates today as a treatment facility and retirement community for the nation's veterans.7
Records Show Service of Individual Veterans
At the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., records relating to veterans or inmates who lived at the Soldiers' Home or received treatment are located in the Records of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (Record Group 231). The series "Registers of Inmates, 1851–1908" (entry 13) includes the earliest and most basic data about individual soldiers. The registers are organized chronologically with entries listed alphabetically by surname and then by date of admission. The entries contain pertinent information about each inmate, including their name and patient number, date of admission to the home, place of birth, time of military service, the nature of their infirmity, and information about family (whether the veteran had a wife and children and their place of residence, although most entries did not identify them by name). A related "Descriptive Book of Inmates Admitted, May 1851–Dec. 1878" (entry 11) captured virtually identical data, as well as a separate register for men admitted to the temporary asylums at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and Pascagoula, Mississippi (entry 12).8
The entry for Joseph G. L. Schneider in the general inmate registers demonstrates the typical progression (and sometimes contentious nature) of a veteran's stay at the Soldiers’ Home. One of the earliest patients admitted to the home on April 16, 1852, the German native apparently suffered from general disability after serving in the Army for little more than one year. Schneider left the asylum voluntarily in June 1852 but was readmitted on July 3, 1855. He left of his own accord again on May 28, 1856, and returned for additional treatment on February 20, 1860. Although no specific medical information was provided, treatments apparently became more difficult, because Schneider abruptly left the home without permission a short time later on April 16, 1860. He returned again on March 22, 1865, but was dropped once more from the inmate rolls after leaving without permission on October 5, 1866, and this time his clothing was also confiscated. Schneider reentered the home for the last time on March 6, 1869, and apparently remained there until he died at the asylum hospital on April 9, 1877.9
Other records provided more specific information about the military service of asylum residents. A series of "Daily Registers of Admissions and Readmissions of Inmates, March 1881–September 1908" (entry 23) showed the name of each veteran as well as his rank, military unit (company and regiment), and term of service. Personal information included his age; place of birth (state or kingdom, and town or country); occupation; date admitted to the home; and the amount of monthly pension payments. A typical entry for veteran Rufus Burnam identified the 50-year-old teamster as a native of Williamton, Illinois, who entered the Soldiers' Home on January 18, 1896, following a 26-year military career as a private in Company G, Ninth U.S. Infantry.10 A related "Descriptive Book of Temporary Inmates, 1889–1913" contains similar information, showing that Pvt. Christian Keller of Company H, 19th U.S. Infantry, received a pension rate of $12 a month after being admitted on May 20, 1886. Keller died in Brooklyn, New York, while on furlough from the home on August 29, 1899.11
An earlier "Muster Roll of Inmates" dated February 1870–November 1879 (entry 19) and a "Monthly Register of Inmates Admitted, Released, Dismissed, or Deceased, July 1873–December 1878" (entry 20) both recorded the same military information as the daily registers of admissions, including the veteran’s rank, company, regiment, and years in service. The muster roll also contained quarterly recapitulations of the entire population of the Soldiers' Home, along with the total number of patients receiving benefits from the home, including the number of patients present (ordinarily, sick, or confined); absent without leave; admitted or discharged at their own request or for misconduct; transferred to the insane asylum; receiving outside commutation; and died. An average census for the quarter ending December 31, 1875, for example, showed 432 inmates at the Soldiers’ Home, including 283 present; 30 sick; 34 absent on furlough; and 85 receiving outside commutation. During the same period, five patients passed away.12
Additional military information is located in the series "Discharges, Warrants, and Other Personal Papers of Inmates, 1869–1922" (entry 38). These records mostly include original discharge certificates, presumably submitted by inmates as verification of their veteran status to gain admittance to the home. Many of the discharges listed a full range of military data including battles and campaigns. We learn from James Perry's certificate that he witnessed considerable combat while serving with Battery D, 12th Field Artillery, from 1914 to 1919. After performing Mexican border duty from May 20, 1916, to May 22, 1917, Perry participated in all of the principal Western Front campaigns during World War I, including the Toulon Sector (March 24–May 13, 1918); the Aisne offensive (June 4–5, 1918); Chateau-Thierry (June 6–July 9, 1918); the Aisne-Marne offensive (July 18–25, 1918); St. Mihiel (September 12–16, 1918), and the final Meuse-Argonne offensive (October 28–November 11, 1918). He also served with the Army of Occupation from December 13, 1918 to July 21, 1919.13
A few records provided more statistical summaries of residents at the home, including the series "Consolidated Morning Reports of Inmates, 1857–1927" (entry 17) and "Monthly Returns Relating to Inmates, Jan. 1879–Dec. 1908" (entry 22). Both sources note the daily number of inmates present for duty or extra duty as well as those sick, invalided, or confined (noncommissioned officers and privates were counted separately); temporary inmates admitted or dropped during the month; inmates absent (including those sick, on leave, or absent without permission); and alterations (gains and losses) since the last report, which were further classified as patients admitted, discharged, dismissed, dropped, transferred, deserted, suspended, and died. Daily remarks in the consolidated morning reports also noted changes in the status of individual inmates, including men admitted or readmitted, reported sick, or transferred from sick to present for duty.14
Records Contain Details About Illness and Death
Most veterans who entered the Soldiers’ Home suffered from a host of physical and psychological maladies that developed as a result of their military service. The “Register of Persons Admitted to the Hospital, 1872–1927” (entry 31) records general information about the medical condition of inmates who reported sick at the home. The register lists the patient’s name, age, nativity (country of birth), and military unit (either the regiment or corps from which he was discharged). Medical information included the diagnosis of the inmate’s medical condition, the date admitted to the hospital, and the date he either returned to the home or was sent to the mental asylum at Fort Bayard. The register also noted deaths and updates to the condition of individual patients (whether they improved or recovered) and their status (discharged, furloughed, or gone absent without leave).15
Inmates typically suffered from an array of ailments, ranging from alcoholism, diarrhea, tuberculosis, conjunctivitis, and paralysis to asthma, hernias, and common sprains. The "Register of Inmates Reported Sick, 1881–1908" (entry 32) documents specific medical treatments for such maladies. In addition to listing the usual personal data (patient's name, company, regiment, and age), the register also contains remarks outlining the doctor's diagnosis, medication, and therapy. When inmate Charles H. Fairex of Company G, 19th U.S. Infantry, was admitted to the asylum hospital with chronic diarrhea on March 31, 1891, the attending physician prescribed a quinine mixture treatment that was administered in several doses on April 1, May 26, May 30, and June 15.16 Other records showing hospital activity include a daily register of sick inmates excused from duty by the attending surgeon, dated August 1891 to October 1907 (entry 33) and a later register of hospital admissions and discharges from September 1939 to November 1943 (entry 34).
The Soldiers' Home also made a concerted effort to document inmates who passed away. A "Register of Deaths, 1852–1942" (entry 35) noted the name of the deceased inmate as well as his age, date of death, nativity (usually listed as country of birth; later entries included the state), and the cause of death. In 1890, the entries also began listing the deceased’s military unit. The entry for Charles Cox, a 63-year-old veteran from Denmark who served in Company C, 17th U.S. Infantry, shows that he died on December 15, 1901, after being struck by an elevator weight at the home. He had apparently crawled into an open elevator shaft while intoxicated.17
"Certificates of Death, 1876–89, 1913–29" (entry 36) provide more detailed information. Several volumes of certificate stubs document the inmate's name, date of death, age, color, marital status, occupation, birthplace, duration of residence in the District of Columbia, place of death, cause of death (including primary and secondary causes), and duration of final illness. A remarks section at the bottom of each stub sometimes has comments about burial and autopsy details, and after 1880 they also included the nativity of the parents of the deceased. The later run of death certificates (1913–1929) comprise scrapbook-style volumes with carbon copies of the original certificates pasted onto each page. The information on the certificate duplicates remained essentially the same.18
The most thorough biographical information concerning deceased inmates, however, appears in the series "Statements of Service and Descriptions of Deceased Inmates, 1880–1940" (entry 37). The statements generally provided such details as the deceased inmate's name, place of birth, age, occupation, and a physical description including complexion, eye and hair color, and height. The forms also showed the date the soldier was admitted to the home, notations about health issues, and the date of death. A complete overview of the soldier's service record, as well, documents the date of each enlistment and discharge, place of enlistment, period of service, and cause of separation from service along with the veteran's rank, company, and regiment. After Otis Gutermuth died at the Soldiers' Home in 1907, his statement of service listed three stints in the First U.S. Cavalry from July 23, 1868, to July 23, 1873; October 30, 1873, to July 11, 1874; and September 26, 1883, to September 25, 1888. He then joined the Second U.S. Cavalry from October 9, 1888, to October 8, 1893, before finishing his military service with the Third U.S. Cavalry from October 24, 1893, to December 25, 1896.19
The Soldiers' Home Hires Some Inmates as Employees
Residents who found some measure of recovery from their maladies might also find employment at the U.S. Soldiers' Home. Early records of the home demonstrate that inmates often composed almost half of the institution's paid workforce and performed a variety of manual labor. A series of "Reports of Civilians and Inmate Employees" (entry 41), dated December 1851 to December 1862, usually included monthly and quarterly lists of "hired" persons and inmates on the payroll (some early reports consolidated both lists) and generally identified the employee's name, occupation, term of service, time served, rate of pay, and remarks, which usually included their date of discharge from employment. Pay rates ranged from $7 a month for manual labor jobs such as laundresses, cooks, and general farm laborers to $25 for stewards and $30 a month for the asylum's farmer and overseer.20
An early consolidated report for October 1853 shows 23 employees at the Soldiers' Home. More than half of them (13) included current residents, such as Carl Chappurean, who worked as an assistant cook, and John Staley, who filed papers as an office clerk. Inmates employed in more artisanal capacities included carpenter Ferdinand Foyle and Louis Hembert, who worked as a wheelwright. Residents John McEvoy and John B. Drake helped support the agricultural work at the home by tending the cow herd and driving the market wagon, respectively. Four other inmates supplied general farm labor, while two served as paid hospital attendants. Several women were also employed at the home, filling such roles as matron (Hester Stall), laundress (Sarah Gardner and Willa Stulz), cook (Catharine Batch), and baker (Agnes Haas). The remaining civilian employees included farmer and overseer Joshua Stalcup, steward Urban Stall, and three additional farm laborers.21
Similar employee lists, categorized by civilian hires and inmates, are also available for the temporary military asylums at Pascagoula, Mississippi (entry 42) for 1853, and at Harrodsburg, Kentucky (entry 43) from June 1853 to September 1858. The Harrodsburg monthly lists, in particular, reflected frequent changes in personnel that mirrored the seasonal nature of some jobs required by the home. In November 1854, for example, the home employed four civilians to butcher hogs during the fall harvest; the following month 12 different men were engaged to haul ice. On occasion, the civilian rolls only listed some employees by their first names—such as Tom, Tarelton, and Horace—suggesting they may have been slaves engaged to work at the home. (Sometimes, these employees were also identified as "Colored Men.") For the most part, the resident employees remained consistent from month to month, occupying such essential jobs as laborers, sick attendants, gardeners, and herdsmen.22
It seems to be a perpetual consequence of military service that veterans often require special assistance to address physical debilities or cope with the psychological residue of intense combat or sustained service under stressful, life-threatening conditions. In this respect, many veterans of the Mexican War, the Indian wars on the western frontier, and especially the Civil War—which introduced many of the harrowing tactics of modern or total warfare into the U.S. military experience—were not so very different from their Vietnam and Iraq counterparts of later generations. The federal government recognized the need to help such veterans and responded by creating the first national hospice to provide physical and mental healing. The U.S. Soldiers' Home offered a sanctuary for ailing and sometimes indigent veterans as they dealt with the traumas of their military experiences. In the process, the home kept an indelible record of those veterans—including their treatment, employment, and service to their country—during a vulnerable time in their lives when they might otherwise have been forgotten but for the foresight of a grateful nation.
John P. Deeben is an archives specialist on the Army team in the Archives I Reference Section of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. He earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in history from Gettysburg College and the Pennsylvania State University.
1. Enlistment entries for Otis Gutermuth, July 23, 1868; October 30, 1873; September 26, 1883; October 9, 1888; and October 24, 1893; Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798–1914 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M233, rolls 35, 38, 41, 44, and 47); Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780’s–1917, Record Group (RG) 94; National Archives Building, Washington, DC (NAB).
2. Statement of service for Otis Gutermuth, April 29, 1904; Statements of Service and Descriptions of Deceased Inmates, 1880–1940; Records of Inmates, 1851–1943; Records of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Record Group (RG) 231; NAB.
3. U.S. Statutes at Large, Act of March 3, 1851, ch. 25, 9 Stat. 595–96. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi introduced the bill.
4. Ibid; Patricia Andrews, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the United States Soldiers' Home, Preliminary Inventory NM-61 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1965), p. 1.
6. U.S. Statutes at Large, Act of March 3, 1859, chap. 83, 11 Stat. 434.
7. "Records of the Armed Forces Retirement Home," Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. [Online version, www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/231.html, National Archives and Records Administration, June 13, 2014.]
8. Andrews, Preliminary Inventory NM-61, p. 4. Two additional series that relate specifically to the temporary regional homes includes "Lists of Men Admitted to the U.S. Military Asylum in East Pascagoula, Mississippi, July 1853; Mar.–Aug. 1855" (entry 15) and "Monthly Register of Men Admitted to the U.S. Military Asylum at Harrodsburg, Kentucky, 1853–58" (entry 16).
9. Entry for Joseph G. L. Schneider, vol. 1, 1851–1887; Registers of Inmates, 1851–1908; RG 231; NAB.
10. Entry for Rufus Burnam, January 18, 1896; Daily Registers of Admissions and Readmissions of Inmates, Mar. 1881–Sept. 1908; RG 231; NAB.
11. Entry for Christian Keller, May 20, 1886; Descriptive Book of Temporary Inmates, 1889–1913; RG 231; NAB.
12. Muster roll for October 30–December 31, 1875; Muster Rolls of Inmates, Feb. 1870–Nov. 1879; RG 231; NAB.
13. James Perry discharge certificate, October 22, 1919; Discharges, Warrants, and Other Personal Papers of Inmates, 1869–1922; Records Relating to Discharges and Confinement of Prisoners; RG 231; NAB. Other personal papers included certificates of service, which were issued to veterans “upon evidence that the original discharge has been lost or destroyed,” as well as commission papers, pension warrants or certificates, marksman certificates, naturalization applications (usually filed with discharge certificates because the applications were based on expedited citizenship for military service), and occasional correspondence.
14. Andrews, Preliminary Inventory NM-61, pp. 4–5.
15. Register of Persons Admitted to the Hospital, 1872–1927; Registers of Sick Inmates; RG 231; NAB.
16. Entry for Charles H. Fairex, Co. G, 19th U.S. Infantry, March 31, 1891; Register of Inmates Reported Sick, 1881–1908; RG 231; NAB.
17. Entry for Charles Cox, Co. C, 17th U.S. Infantry; Register of Deaths, 1852–1942; RG 231; NAB.
18. Certificates of Death, 1876–89, 1913–29; RG 231; NAB.
19. Statement of service for Otis Gutermuth, April 29, 1904; Statements of Service and Descriptions of Deceased Inmates, 1880–1940; RG 231; NAB.
20. Reports of Civilian and Inmate Employees, Dec. 1851–Dec. 1862; Records of Employees; RG 231; NAB.
21. Consolidated employee report for October 1853, in ibid.
22. Report of Hired Persons and Inmates for November–December, 1854; Monthly Reports of Persons and Inmates Employed at the U.S. Military Asylum at Harrodsburg, KY, June 1853–September 1858; Records of Employees; RG 231; NAB.