Friday, November 8, 2013

The Invalid Corps: Civil War Wounded Warriors Serve the US and Save Laurel

Col. Charles F. Johnson

This Veterans Day weekend, as we honor our veterans and also celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, is perhaps a good time to reflect wounded warrior members of the Civil War’s Invalid Corps. Some of these soldiers served in, and saved Laurel, Maryland from attack.

More than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were wounded during the Civil War. Many of them suffered debilitating injuries and amputations, others were seriously weakened by disease. Like today’s soldiers, many still wanted to serve their country. Those discharged because of their condition often found limited work opportunities outside of the military.  They also discovered a society uncomfortable with people with disabilities. What to do with the many soldiers unfit for active duty or pensioned because of illness or injury? The Invalid Corps was the Union Army’s response.

Invalid Corps PosterCreated in April, 1863 the Invalid Corps was organized by level of disability. One section was for those who could use a gun and do garrison duty. A second was for those who were severely disabled, i.e. had lost an arm, but could do hospital duty. They were issued swords. 

The idea was that these men, still able to serve, but in a limited capacity, could free up others to engage in active combat. Close to 60,000 men served in the Union Invalid Corps. (The Confederacy established a similar body in 1864.)  Within the military, feelings about the corps were decidedly mixed, with some claiming it was filled with “ne’er-do-wells and malingerers.”Their distinctive light blue uniform also singled them out as “different.” The Corps’ name also had an unfortunate connotation, since in the Union Army its initials “IC” also stood for “Inspected, Condemned,” As a result, it was renamed in Veterans Reserve Corps (VRC) in 1864.  Despite the disparagement, the many of VRC’s members served with distinction. VRC units provided the honor guard for Lincoln’s visit to Gettysburg, guarded prisoners, quelled draft riots, played a critical role in defending Washington and also, importantly for Laurel, guarded the railroad.

Saving Laurel

While researching the Laurel Museum’s current exhibit “Stationed in Laurel, Our Civil War Story”( we realized that these wounded veterans, members of the Veterans Reserve Corps, not only guarded Laurel later in the war, but in one case its presence saved the town from attack. Two VRC units, the 6th and the 18th Regiments, are known to have been stationed in Laurel while guarding the line between Washington and Baltimore.

Col. Charles Johnson, who headed the VRC’s 18th Regiment had been gravely wounded in the groin in June, 1862, and was honorably discharged. Like many men he found job prospects outside the military limited, and rejoined upon creation of the Invalid Corps, where he qualified for full pay, rather than a pension. His 18th Regiment guarded Laurel from July5 to October 5, 1864. 

In July, 1864 Brigadier General Bradley T. Johnson lead a contingent of 1500 cavalrymen. They hoped to break up the railroad at Laurel on his way to Point Lookout to free Confederate prisoners. Scouts brought news of a sizable Federal force posted at Laurel, so the Confederates struck the tracks at Beltsville, instead. The Federal force was Johnson’s 18th Regiment of the VRC, stationed in Laurel.

In a July 20, 1864 letter to his wife Johnson wrote:
…the “sympathizers” (local Southern sympathizers)]...endeavored to get this little band of’ ‘Invalids ’gobbled up” by the enemy…I discovered that the reason that the rebs did not attempt to destroy the bridge at Laurel was they informed the rebs that it would require at least 5 or 600 men to dislodge me as I had a good position and …intended to fight it out at that point..and it would take too long a time to ‘whipe us out’ for them[i.e. Confederate forces] to stop.
Col. Charles Johnson July 20, 1864

Charles Johnson, after service that included working with Freedman’s Bureaus in the South died in 1867, partially of his wounds. The VRC was disbanded in 1866 at the end of the war, and is largely forgotten.  As we honor the men and women of today’s military, taking a moment to recall the service of these wounded warriors from 150 years ago seems particularly appropriate.

“Stationed in Laurel: Our Civil War Story” runs through December 22 at the Laurel Museum, 817 Main Street, Laurel, Maryland. 

For more information on the Invalid Corps see:
The Civil War Letters of Colonel Charles F. Johnson, Invalid Corps. Fred Pelka. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 2004.  The introduction gives an excellent overview of the Invalid Corps.

“Invalid Corps”  Col. R. Gregory Lande, MC USA (Ret.); Military Medicine, Vol. 173, June 2008.


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