The Veterans Reserve Corps
At White House Landing, Virginia, the 18th Regiment of the 2nd Battalion of the U.S. Veteran Reserve Corps was engaged in a skirmish with a detachment of Major General Wade Hampton's Confederate raiders on June 20, 1864. A Union courier galloped up to the officer in command with an urgent query from headquarters. "Will your invalids stand?" he asked.
Colonel Charles F. Johnson, perhaps annoyed at a second imploring message from headquarters, replied, "Tell the general that my men are cripples, and they can't run."
Once described as "a strange little detachment of hopelessly crippled men who did not seem to think that mere physical disability need keep a man out of the army," the Veteran Reserve Corps more than paid its military dues. In the more than two years of the unit's service, these "hopelessly crippled men" guarded tens of thousands of Confederate POWs, helped repress Northern anti-draft riots, formed the honor guard for Abraham Lincoln's appearance at Gettysburg, defended railroads and supply depots throughout the occupied South, and manned Washington's defenses during Confederate General Jubal Early's audacious 1864 raid.
It was never intended that the Veteran Reserve Corps see combat. Among its ranks were men who could not march or even walk any distance, and others who could not carry packs or cartridge belts. Sentries who could not walk were assigned guard duty on riverboats or were allowed to stand guard while sitting down. Rather than march from one post to another, it was assumed these men would travel via railroad or river transport. But wars seldom work out the way adjutant generals intend, and several units of the Veteran Reserve Corps eventually found themselves in harm's way.
Colonel Johnson's 18th Regiment was a good example. It was composed, in Captain J. W. De Forest's words, "of men who had been declared unfit not only for field service but for garrison duty; of men so far crippled and enfeebled that the inspecting surgeons had judged them unable to carry a weightier weapon than the sword." Nevertheless, by early 1864 the regiment had already racked up an impressive record guarding 3,000 Confederate prisoners, with only two escapes, when it was shifted south to support Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant's move against the Army of Northern Virginia.
At the end of May 1864, Johnson was ordered to march with other units from the Union base at Belle Plain to Port Royal, Va., some 25 miles away. Army physicians concluded that two-thirds of the 474 enlisted men could not march at all, and had to be sent south via riverboat, while those making the march could not carry knapsacks. All of the officers, says De Forest, "refused to be examined, or represented themselves as fit for the field." The first night "was passed in a furious storm of rain and hail, without tents or other cover, the men wrapping themselves in their wet blankets and finding what shelter they could."
By the second day of the march, says De Forest, Johnson requested "that his command might be left to make its own way," since his men could no longer keep up with the rest of the column. All that day, Johnson and his officers "ordered, pleaded, persuaded, reasoned with the poor fellows who dropped by the roadside; halted those who could walk to enable those who could only limp to catch up; marched fifteen minutes at a time and then rested ten; accomplished in thirteen hours only twelve miles. On the morning after the conclusion of the journey but 42 of the 166 were able to fall in for roll call."
It was then that the U.S. Army, in its infinite wisdom, decided to transfer the 18th's medical officer to Washington. Johnson himself tended the sick. At Port Royal the reunited regiment finally received its pup tents. On June 20, still exhausted and recuperating, the 18th was attacked by Hampton's raiders, and Johnson delivered his cool assessment of the men's willingness to fight. Several of the men, their enlistments up, were on transports about to set sail for the North. They returned to the camp, borrowed arms, and "begged to go into line of battle with their old comrades."
The Veteran Reserve Corps came into being through a series of administrative half-steps. By April 1862 the original hope of a 90-day war had died at Bull Run (Manassas). Casualty rates for the recent battle at Shiloh had been appalling, worse than anything Americans had ever experienced. The all-volunteer armies were already strapped for manpower, so much so that both sides would eventually introduce conscription.
As a first step in maximizing available manpower, the U.S. War Department on April 7, 1862, authorized the chief medical officer in each military command to employ as nurses, cooks and hospital attendants "any convalescent wounded or feeble men who could perform such duties, instead of giving them a discharge," as had been the general practice. This arrangement, however, proved unsuitable. The men so assigned were often permanently lost to their commands, remaining at their hospital assignments long after they had recovered from their wounds or illness. Even worse, they were retained on the rolls of their original regiments, inflating their units' strength on paper and cutting into each state's quota of "able-bodied men" required for Federal service.
The system was modified in March 1863, when the adjutant general's office directed that "feeble and wounded men...who were unfit for field duty, but still not entirely disabled, should be organized into detachments under the charge of officers acting as military commanders." Men from these units were then detailed as clerks and nurses, and for guard and non-combat duty. But this setup also proved less than adequate. "As before, the hospitals continued to discharge thousands of soldiers whose disabilities merely unfitted them for the march and the bivouac, while leaving them entirely competent to act as garrison troops and provost-police."
And since there were no real standards as to who was eligible for these assignments, there was also a tendency for front-line officers to use these new units as a way to get rid of their problem soldiers. It was not until April 28, 1863, that the adjutant general's office, in General Order 105, declared that "the organization of an Invalid Corps is hereby authorized." The order delineated three categories of eligible soldiers and officers: "Men in the field who had been disabled by wounds or disease contracted in the line of duty; men absent from their colors in hospitals or convalescent camps, or otherwise under the control of medical officers" and "men who had been discharged for injuries received through honorable service."
The original plan for this new corps was for it to consist of three battalions organized according to varying degrees of disability. The 1st Battalion was for those least disabled and "able to bear a musket and do garrison duty." Those who had lost an arm or hand, or were otherwise so severely injured ''as to be fit only for hospital guards and attendants" went into the 2nd Battalion, "while the severest and most hopeless cases of disability" were assigned to the 3rd. Attempts to form the 3rd Battalion were soon abandoned, however, and those men originally assigned to it were folded into the 2nd. By October 31, 1863, the Invalid Corps had grown to 16 regiments of 491 officers and almost 18,000 enlisted soldiers, organized into 200 companies.
The new corps got off to a bumpy start, though its initial problems had less to do with military concerns than with appearance and perception. To begin with, the men of the Invalid Corps did not like their uniforms. Instead of the standard dark blue uniform, the new unit was issued "a sky-blue coat with collar, cuffs and shoulder-strap...of dark blue velvet and sky-blue trousers." The new uniform was becoming, but was never popular. The men did not like being distinguished from their comrades, while the officers complained that their jackets were impossible to keep clean in the field. Most refused to wear the mandated uniforms, and instead stuck by their old combat gear. After several months the Army relented and began issuing standard uniforms.
An equally irksome problem was the new unit's name. Many people with disabilities in 1863 found the term "invalid" every bit as demeaning as do disabled individuals today, and apparently the men of the corps were hazed about it by comrades from their former units. De Forest wrote that "men frequently begged to be sent back to their old regiments in the field rather than remain in garrison at the price of being called invalids." On March 18, 1864, General Order 111 renamed the unit the Veteran Reserve Corps.
Perhaps the most important day in the history of the corps was July 11, 1864. Jubal Early, moving down the Shenandoah Valley, had been sent north by Robert E. Lee in the hope of distracting Grant from his campaign against Petersburg, Va. Early decided that the best way to do this was by a quick march to Washington. Grant had left the fortifications virtually unmanned, taking the heavy artillery units south with him into Virginia. And so, when Early's 15,000 troops approached the capital on the morning of the 11th, coming to within four miles of the White House, all that stood between them and an incredible reversal for the Union was a ragtag assortment of government clerks collected for the emergency - and units of the Veteran Reserve Corps. The VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, dispatched by Grant when he realized the danger, arrived to reinforce those defenders just as Early's men moved forward to attack.
The official Union account of the battle describes how "during the raid of Early...upon Washington a large portion of the threatened front was held [by the Veteran Reserve Corps]." In the ensuing engagement, a regiment of the corps actually left the relative safety of its fortifications to charge the Confederates, "drove the enemy some distance, and maintained a sharp skirmish until night, losing 5 killed and 7 severely wounded."
Of course, the usual work done by the corps was less dramatic than charging enemy troops under the eyes of their president. Captured bounty jumpers and Confederate prisoners were escorted north, reluctant draftees taken south to their units. Some reserve regiments served in New York, Elmira, Boston and Detroit, guarding stores and protecting sensitive rail lines. Elements of the 3rd Regiment suppressed a rioting volunteer brigade in Burlington, Vt. The 16th Regiment battled the anti-draft, anti-boss revolt in the Pennsylvania coal fields, while the 8th arrested participants in the infamous "Chicago conspiracy," an alleged plot by Southern agents and their sympathizers to burn the city and release Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas.
On May 31, 1865, the Veteran Reserve Corps numbered 762 commissioned officers and 29,852 enlisted men. At one time it was twice as large as the entire prewar U.S. Army. But at the end of hostilities the corps was quickly mustered out. Many of its officers transferred into the newly founded Freedmen's Bureau to work with recently emancipated slaves.
Provost Marshal General James B. Fry wrote: "During its entire existence the corps was in performance of duties which would otherwise have been necessarily performed by as great a number of able-bodied troops detached from the armies in the field. Its career has been one of usefulness as well as of honor."
This article was taken from: Pelka, Fred. “Although crippled in body, the soldiers in the Veteran Reserve Corps were whole and strong in spirit.” (American’s Civil War, September 1994), 8, 80, 82, and 84. It is used with permission.
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