Disabled Veterans, New Histories

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Disabled Veterans, New Histories

Solicited by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History. Endorsed by the Disability History Association (DHA)

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 11:15 AM - 11:45 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Disability Studies; Military; Social and Cultural


Over the last few decades, a number of historians have turned their attention to the histories of disabled veterans in the United States. Yet, even as scholars have amassed a growing body of work on disabled vets, it is clear that much more work needs to be done. This panel brings together examples of some of the latest work on disabled veterans. It moves beyond better-known aspects of disabled veterans’ history to examine disabled vets whose histories have thus far been ignored by the vast majority of scholars. 

Sarah Handley-Cousins examines the intersection of (fears of) disability, criminality, and veteran identity in decades following the U.S. Civil War. Picking up about twenty years later, Evan Sullivan argues that despite the complex neurological and physical wounds suffered by blinded veterans in World War I, news and rehabilitation articles promoted a sanitized image of the blinded Great War veteran as a means of motivating other disabled soldiers to “make good.” John Kinder looks at similar ideas of performative patriotism and sympathy, arguing that zoos throughout the United States regularly hosted blinded veterans to promote a culture of thankfulness, temporarily acknowledging physical and mental ailments while downplaying the permanent nature of injuries. The three papers more broadly seek to show how war prompts re-conceptualizations of the concept of disability in society, ultimately exploring the value systems of soldiers and civilians alike.

Papers Presented

A Veteran of Crime: "Criminally Insane" Veterans in the Gilded Age

In 1882, just as John P. Gray, superintendent of the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, returned to his office after consulting on the case of presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, a Union veteran named Henry Remshaw burst in and shot Gray in the face. In the following weeks, Remshaw was declared insane and was himself committed to the Utica asylum. The dramatic event fed into the contentious national discourse about veterans, particularly fears that the war’s upheaval and violence had rendered some soldiers criminally insane. In this paper, I will discuss research from my new project on the intersections between disability, criminality, and veteranhood in late nineteenth century America.

Presented By
Sarah E. Handley-Cousins, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Visualizing Blinded Veterans: Negotiating Cultures of Veteran Disability after the Great War

This paper seeks to contextualize how American society mobilized the image of the blinded veteran in the interwar years. Instead of confronting their readjustment challenges or complex wounds, stories on blinded veterans either appealed to public sympathy or portrayed them in a way to motivate other veterans to “make good.” Sanitizing their wounds created unrealistic atmospheres of readjustment. Blinded veterans have been a relatively small part of the historiography, yet examining their visual culture shows how they played a large performative role for veterans more broadly.

Presented By
Evan P. Sullivan, SUNY Adirondack

“Words Are Not Enough”: A Brief History of “Thanking” Disabled Veterans for their Service

Near the end of World War II, the Philadelphia Zoo hosted a group of blinded soldiers from nearby Valley Forge General Hospital, the largest military hospital in the United States at the time. Escorted by members of the Salvation Army Women’s league, the men were afforded a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo grounds. An employee documenting the event snapped photos of the blinded vets petting a python and stroking the trunk of an elephant. Similar rituals took place across the country as politicians, cultural elites, and ordinary Americans sought to “thank” the nation’s war-wounded through public (and often publicized) displays of patriotic sympathy. Decades later, Americans continue to venerate the bodily sacrifices of disabled military veterans. Drawing upon historical newspapers, memoirs, and popular culture, this talk charts the rise and fall (and rise again) of public sentiments toward disabled veterans. More than an individual expression of appreciation, the thanking of disabled veterans is a deeply political gesture, bound up in ideas about patriotism, masculinity, and the values of military service. This talk offers a rough typology of some of the ways Americans have tried to express thanks to disabled vets (e.g., handshakes, ceremonies, tours, t-shirts). Ultimately, I examine how American institutions developed a performative culture of thankfulness when it comes to disabled veterans, a series of public rituals, recitations, and displays that temporarily acknowledges veterans’ physical and mental ailments while downplaying the permanent nature of their injuries.

Presented By
John M. Kinder, Oklahoma State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: David A. Gerber, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
David A. Gerber is University at Buffalo Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow in History and Disability Studies at the University at Buffalo.  He is the author of a number of monographs in immigration and ethnic history and co-editor of works in the same field.  Among his works in the history of disability is, as editor, Disabled Veterans in History second, expanded edition ( University of Michigan Press, 2013), and as coauthor, with Bruce Dierenfield, Disability Rights and Religious Liberty in Education: The Story of the Law Suit that Became Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District (University of Illinois Press, 2020). His current research interest is in high-ranking military personnel as prisoners of war in the Pacific theater during World War II in connection with physical and psychological injuries.

Presenter: Sarah E. Handley-Cousins, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Bio: Sarah Handley-Cousins is a clinical assistant professor of history and associate director of the Center for Disability Studies at the University at Buffalo. Her first book, Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in July 2019. Her article, “Wrestling at the Gates of Death: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Nonvisible Disability in the Civil War North,” received an honorable mention for the 2017 Disability History Association Best Article or Chapter Prize. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post. Handley-Cousins has served as an editor of the history blog Nursing Clio since 2015, and is one of the founders and producers of Dig: A History Podcast.

Presenter: John M. Kinder, Oklahoma State University
John M. Kinder is the Director of the American Studies Program and Associate Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran, which was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015. He is currently working on two book projects: a co-edited (with Jason Higgins) volume on marginalized veterans in American history (under contract with the University of Massachusetts Press) and an international history of zoos during World War II. 

Presenter: Evan P. Sullivan, SUNY Adirondack
Evan P. Sullivan is an Instructor of History at SUNY Adirondack. He holds a PhD in History from the University at Albany, SUNY. His dissertation examined sensory histories in First World War American rehabilitation, looking at blinded and deaf veterans, as well as the visual, tactile, and gustatory landscapes of hospitals, and how they shaped meanings of disability, gender, and race. Evan is a regular writer for Nursing Clio where he publishes articles on modern disability history, histories of alternative medicine, and histories of rehabilitation and prosthetics.