Monday, March 10, 2008

Medical Department #13 - Ambulance Chasing...Civil War Style

A few months ago, I posted a short entry regarding a Civil War pension attorney document in my collection and the extensive research that a group headed by Peter Blanck, PhD, JD, had done in looking at the pension system and the pensioners themselves. Since then, I had the great privilege of conducting an interview with Dr. Blanck for my "Medical Department" column in The Civil War News, which I am pleased to provide below with links to some of Dr. Blanck's work:

By James M. Schmidt
from the Feb/Mar 2008 issue
of The Civil War News

“It is interesting to note that criminals have multiplied of late, and lawyers have also; but I repeat myself.” - Mark Twain

While many Civil War enthusiasts - especially those who have researched ancestors that fought in the war - might be familiar with pension records as source of useful information about the service of a particular soldier, they are probably less aware that those very documents also tell an important story of how veterans, attorneys, physicians, and bureaucrats shaped the pension system for years to come.

In looking through some Civil War ephemera in my own collection, I came across a four-page circular - “Diseases Resulting in Other Disabilities” – from “J.B. Cralle, U.S. Claim and Pension Attorney.” On the first page, Cralle details - with the aid of “two eminent physicians” - primary diseases or injuries that could result in subsequent disabilities, and for which veterans may be due an increased pension. The next three pages of the four-page pamphlet detail the increases that Cralle was able to secure for more than three hundred Union Army veterans.

To learn more about my document, pension attorneys, and the Civil War disability system in general, I contacted Peter Blanck, currently “University Professor” at Syracuse University (the school’s highest faculty rank, recognizing exceptional contributions in scholarship, and granted to only eight prior individuals in the history of the university) and Chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI).

Blanck and his many colleagues have done extensive research on the evolution of pension law. Their studies -based on Union Army veteran data from the University of Chicago’s Center for Population Economics’ “Early Indicator” project (readers were introduced to this project in my April 2006 column) - reveals much about the social, political, and economic aspects of the evolving pension law and prevailing attitudes about the attorneys and pensioners themselves. BBI has a comprehensive website, with full text access to some of the interesting and detailed studies they have published in medical and legal journals, including:

“Union Army Veterans with Hearing Loss and the Evolutions of Disability in America During 1862-1920” (2004) - a short article from The Laryngoscope, in which they examine the prevalence of hearing loss in Union Army veterans and compare Civil War pension and contemporary disability programs by examining monthly dollar awards.

“‘Never Forget What They Did Here’: Civil War Pensions For Gettysburg Union Army Veterans and Disability in Nineteenth-Century America” (2003) - a very interesting article from the William and Mary Law Review, in which they specifically follow the post-war disabilities of Gettysburg veterans, comment on the public's perception of disabled veterans, and the important part that the pension system played in maintaining party loyalty
“Civil War Pension Attorneys and Disability Politics” (2002) - a remarkably detailed and annotated eighty-page study, published in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, that provides a detailed examination of the pension disability program established after the Civil War for Union Army veterans.

These reports, and many others, can be found at BBI's publications archive.
Dr. Blanck received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard University and his J.D. from the Stanford University School of Law. The recipient of numerous honors, he is the author of nearly two hundred scholarly papers and testifies to Congress regularly on matters of disability policy. Happily, Dr. Blanck is also very approachable, and kindly answered some of my questions.
In their research, Dr. Blanck and his team had already identified J. B. Cralle as a leading pension attorney, with at least 189 cases to his credit in their dataset. The circular confirms that Cralle had hundreds more clients still, and he was not alone. “There were many successful Washington, DC, pension firms such as his,” he told me, adding, “this was a new time for lawyers and as law firm organizations, the pension attorneys and their firms were among the largest professional organizations of their times.”

Even Dr. Blanck was impressed that the circular showed the “reach of Cralle’s veteran-clients, from all over the north.” Indeed, a quick glance at the hundreds of names in the circular shows clients from Maine to Florida and from Maryland to Dakota Territory.

After some research of my own, I discovered that Cralle’s firm also did patent business. This doesn’t surprise Dr. Blanck. “At that time, attorney specialization was just starting and the organized bar was still young,” he said. Law training was still by reading and apprenticeship, and “although some specialization may have occurred at the time - for example, in the pension area,” he told me, “it was certainly not marketed as we know it today.”

If you're like me, your local billboards, television, radio, and phone book are decorated with advertisements for “accident and injury lawyers. One of the more successful ones in these parts goes by the colorful handle of “The Hammer.” As for my circular – and others like it from competing firms – Dr. Blanck told me that “they were a forerunner to the legal advertising and lobbying activities,” we see today.

Though the Cralle circular is not dated, Dr. Blanck found clues in the document that help narrow the possibilities. “It was likely distributed after 1890, when disability pension law was opened up to those with disabilities, even if not directly linked to war injuries, combat or otherwise,” he told me, adding, “so long as they were not the result of ‘vicious habits or gross carelessness.’” For example, Dr. Blanck noticed that the circular is focused on getting increases in existing pensions. “This was a common practice at the time,” he told me, “particularly as the veterans aged.”

While Dr. Blanck and his team – and others – have done a considerable amount of research on the pension attorneys and the veteran pensioners themselves, he acknowledged that there was limited research and data on another critical part of the pension process: the physicians. “We do know that there was often a discrepancy between physicians’ ratings of disability and the actual award by the pension bureau,” he said. “Basically, the pension bureau was the gatekeeper and saw it as their responsibility to cut back on expenditures where possible, especially when physicians were too generous,” he added.
Certainly, the increases that Cralle secured for his clients would seem paltry today; for example:

“Emery T. Rowe, Dounsville, NY, injury of spine, resulting in disease of head, $16 to $24.”
“John Ferryman, Cambridge, OH, disease of lungs, $10 to $30”
“George W. Bale, Strohl, NE, gunshot wound of right thigh, $4 to $8

Dr. Blanck told me, though, that “the dollar amounts were not insignificant given the income levels at the time.” For those veterans and families who relied on their pensions for the majority of their income, and increase of $4-8 per month would be very welcome.

For all their extensive work to date, Dr. Blanck insisted that his team had “just skimmed the tip of the iceberg” of the available data. “There is a lot more to learn about how attorneys, physicians, and pension bureaucrats shaped the system and the American welfare state, with influence still today,” he told me.

A lot more to learn, indeed, for as Dr. Blanck concluded, “there is a limitless supply of interesting stories of Civil War veterans in their search for pensions and the influence pensions had on their lives, their families, and others for decades to come.”


Anonymous said...

In researching the validity of a post-Civil War pension table, I came across your blog and found it most helpful, thank you. I will be posting my document on Monday, March 2, 2009 and thought you might find it interesting. My project, McGinty Chonicles, is the research of my family's history in America from the early 1800's and I present it from the viewpoint of my Great-grandfather, John L. Sigley who, among other occupations was a correspondent for several publications. Many of my readers of both the "Chronicles" and of my own blog, will find yours very interesting and I am including it in my blogroll.

Jim Schmidt said...

Brian - Thanks so much for the kind comment. I visited the Chronicles and was enthralled! The sharing of the primary documents is a great favor to all your readers, indeed. I really look forward to seeing the pension document in a week or so and will hi-light it on my blog after it's posted. In add'n to the Civil War documents, two others really caught my interest - the patent attorney booklet and the Pierce's Memorandum book.

Keep up the great work and best wishes for success to you in your writing as well!

Jim Schmidt

FatBelly said...
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