Veterans, Tramps, & the Economic Crisis of 1873

Veterans, Tramps, and the Economic Crisis of 1873
by Charles Baker

Once I built a railroad, made it run,
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?...
Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum.
Half a million boots went sloggin’ through Hell.
I was the kid with the drum.
                —E.Y. Harburg, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (1931)

In the current economic downturn, comparisons to previous hard times in the United States are inevitable. Few go back farther than 1929. However, one historian, Scott Reynolds Nelson, in his essay “The Real Great Depression,” finds our situation today most comparable to the Panic of 1873, set off by the collapse of a real estate bubble in Europe, the crash of the Vienna stock exchange, British banks’ unwillingness to risk lending, and the failure of complex financial instruments created to finance railroad construction in the U.S., among other factors.  (Sound familiar?) This severe depression lasted over four years, and in some ways the country did not recover until 1896, after another severe crash in 1893.

Reynolds notes:

Between 1873 and 1877, as many smaller factories and workshops shuttered their doors, tens of thousands of workers—many former Civil War soldiers—became transients. The terms "tramp" and "bum," both indirect references to former soldiers, became commonplace American terms. Relief rolls exploded in major cities, with 25-percent unemployment (100,000 workers) in New York City alone.

Reading this, I wondered: what is the connection between Civil War veterans and the emergence of America’s first sizable homeless population? Consider some background information on the veteran population of 1873. 

The Civil War cast a long shadow over the end of the nineteenth century—indeed; many of its conflicts are unresolved to this day. Of the North’s population of 22 million, 2.2 million fought in the War Between the States; of the South’s population of 9 million (5.5 million free, 3.5 million slaves), one million fought. 6% of Northern males and 18% of Southern males between the ages of 13 and 43 died in the war – 620,000 deaths, about two-thirds of which were from disease. This last statistic provides only a first glimpse of the quality of military medical care at the time.

Anesthesia during surgery was in use during the Civil War, but far from universal. The war was over before Louis Pasteur made his first suggestions connecting germs with disease, and his theories did not find immediate acceptance. Antiseptic procedures—washing hands, sterilizing instruments, using clean dressings – were unknown. About 75% of amputees survived; post-surgical fevers were expected. Basic sanitation in army camps was poor to nonexistent. More soldiers died of diarrhea and dysentery than of combat wounds. Conditions in prisoner of war camps were certainly no better and often far worse. 

An 1862 law provided pensions for veterans, but only for directly war-related disabilities. Coverage was expanded over the years until the entire system was revamped in 1907 to award pensions based on age and length of military service. Confederate veterans were never covered by the Federal system, but only by their individual states’ pensions and old soldiers’ homes.

Union soldiers waiting court-martial (NARA, 111-B-2738)

Desertion was common in both armies, for many reasons—poor conditions, delayed pay, ignorance of military discipline, lack of sympathy to the cause of either army, or a soldier’s worries about conditions at home and the feeling that he was needed more there.

There were occasions when "whole companies, garrisons, and even regiments decamped at a time." In some cases deserters banded together, roamed the country, fortified themselves in the mountains, and made raids upon settlements, stealing cattle and robbing military stores.

 –Desertion in the Civil War Armies, on Southern desertion,

Did desertion make it less likely that a soldier would ever return home? I don’t know. However, records show that even some deserters qualified for pensions, after legal intervention to amend their military records.

After the war, according to A Brief History of Hobos and Their Signs, many Civil War veterans couldn’t, or didn’t want to, return home and took jobs with the expanding railroads. Between 1866 and 1873, 35,000 miles of new track was laid across the country, much of it as part of the Transcontinental Railroad. The laborers moved west with the track that they laid.   The Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed led men to climb aboard the freight trains in search of work.

According to Todd DePastino, author of Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America, (, the word "tramp" was used during the Civil War to mean a long grueling march to battle. But in 1873, the first year of a major economic depression, "tramp" began to refer to the new kind of vagrant who was on his own grueling march with "no visible means of support." It fits, because many tramps of the 1870s were Civil War veterans, and they hitched rides on railroads that had transported troops during the war.

When the tramp army appeared in 1873, most of those in business, government, and charity work denied any connection between the depression and the legions of men on the road. No one, except those in the labor movement, recognized that the vast majority of tramping men were simply out of work. The word "unemployment" didn't exist yet! Wage labor was still a relatively new thing, and not until the Civil War did a solid majority of households, at least in the North, live on paychecks. As many are discovering today, jobs are hard to find during hard times.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that society was changing so rapidly to a nation of wage-earners that even in 1865, many soldiers could not return to their old way of life because it no longer existed. And when hard times hit, were former soldiers among the first to be thrown out of work? I don’t know.

Of course, not all Civil War soldiers became tramps. Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) membership, comprised presumably of veterans with fixed addresses, peaked at 400,000 in 1890; peak membership in the United Confederate Veterans was 160,000. The number of men tramping is difficult to gauge, but “the writer Josiah Flynt (1869-1907), who tramped across the United States, estimated in the 1890s that about 60,000 men were on the road.” (David Levinson, Encyclopedia of Homelessness) (But Levinson also writes of “the depressions of the 1870s and 1890s, when the numbers of tramps and hoboes grew into the millions.”) And the transient population was very fluid, with many tramping only for a few months or a year.

DePastino writes in Citizen Hobo:

The Civil War did indeed shape the contours of the tramp crisis. The very term “tramp” gained currency during the war to denote the kind of exhausting marches to which virtually all combatants were subjected. More importantly, the war had also spurred railroad construction in the North to facilitate the rapid movement of troops. The first men to clamber aboard a boxcar were not homeless job seekers, but soldiers headed toward or away from battle lines. 

Scattered accounts also suggest that the trauma of war itself created a population of the walking wounded, those afflicted by an “acute mania” that prevented them from settling down or adjusting to domestic life. Prisons of the late 1860s swelled with demobilized veterans, many of whom had hitched freight rides home after being mustered out of the army. Memories of the terrors and thrills of combat, as well as the camaraderie of camp life, caused more than a few veterans to chafe against what one soldier called the “monotonous quiet of home” and to turn to a life of unfocused wandering.

[A] charities official in 1877 explained that the war had taught “to a large number of laboring men, the methods of the bivouac.” Having learned how to travel quickly, find temporary shelter, forage for food, and otherwise “trust to-morrow to take care of to-morrow,” the Civil War veteran, according to this theory, possessed the skills necessary to live without working.

This brings to mind passages in Nam Au Go Go, John Akins’ memoir of his Vietnam tour of duty and its lasting after-effects:

The values I grew up with seem to be a sham. Nothing matters. The old American dream is snuffed in the dark night, crushed like a coconut under a tank tread.

Find that adrenalin fix and live for today. Forget about tomorrow. That is the way to deal with combat.

My whole existence is simplified. We try to keep each other alive a little longer... But here’s the price I, as an adrenalin junkie, pay – a darkened soul, a deadened heart... Home is where? It’s right here man, Nam au Go Go, where the action is.

Sensational newspaper articles reflected and shaped attitudes toward the “Tramp Menace.” Public reaction to the unpleasant phenomenon of homeless tramps, predictably, was to pass punitive laws. Vagrancy laws were strengthened to include not just disorderly conduct but even the simple act of being in public not working. 

The Panic of 1873 resulted in the failure of many small businesses but the dominance of larger companies, a growing gap between rich and poor, and an increasingly bitter distance between employee and employer, culminating in the most violent labor strikes the United States had seen. When better economic times returned, these divisions did not disappear, nor did tramping come to a sudden end.

What long-term effects might we expect from the current recession, if the experience of 1873-1877 is any guide? I will return to Reynolds’ essay to close:

The post-panic winners, even after the bailout, might be those firms — financial and otherwise — that have substantial cash reserves. A widespread consolidation of industries may be on the horizon, along with a nationalistic response of high tariff barriers, a decline in international trade, and scapegoating of immigrant competitors for scarce jobs. The failure in July of the World Trade Organization talks begun in Doha seven years ago suggests a new wave of protectionism may be on the way.

And, surely, we can expect that veterans’ efforts to reintegrate into civilian life will be all the more difficult.