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Abraham Lincoln's Home for Veterans

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 8, Number 10

VA hospitals are havens of repair for those able to return after combat. To visit one is to see the remnants of those once full of life. They mill about on wheel chairs or supported by canes, some blind and yet all thankful that their service did something for the free. One such haven for those alive or buried is Togus in Maine where I was a patient. There are others throughout the United States, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC. Visit one and you'll never forget it.

In a remote forested bypass about four miles east of Augusta, Maine sits Togus--500 acres of habitat, wildlife and buildings along with two massive graveyards. This is the site of a national cemetery, the final resting place of American Civil War veterans, many from wars that followed and even one dating back to the War of 1812. In its midst is a hospital, medical clinic and home for American veterans, many deprived of limbs, lungs, and thought.

It is the remnant of a dream brought forth by the greatest humanitarian of all humanitarians--Abraham Lincoln, Americas 16th president, a month before his assassination on April 14, 1865. The wounds of America's Civil War must have been heavy on his mind the night of March 3, 1865, when Lincoln went to the Capitol to sign the final bill passed by Congress. He signed the act silently and without known written comment, and established The National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. It was an act of heart.

The name Togus is drawn from an Indian name, Worromontogus which means mineral water. Originally a summer resort known as Togus Springs, it was built by a wealthy granite merchant named Horace Beals from Rockland, Maine, whose dream was to establish a second Saratoga Springs. He spent more than $250,000 for a hotel, stables, a bowling alley, farmhouse, bathing house, driveways and a racetrack. It opened in 1859. But business was bad during those Civil War years and in 1863 it closed to become known locally as Beals' Folley. Then, along came the U.S. government and got the land and buildings at a bargain price of $50,000.

The Civil War years brought America's deadliest war in which 618,000 Yanks and Rebs - all Americans - were slaughtered over issues of state's rights and slavery.

Lincoln was dead when the first veterans were admitted to Togus during the punishing cold on November 10, 1866. They came by covered wagon, on horseback, limping, on crutches. Some were among the 400,000 veterans who bore the marks of what was called the Army Disease--morphine addiction. The drug was used for pain, especially the pain from amputations, which were common. They displayed what we refer to today as, "The Thousand Yard Stare." Vacant eyes. They came here to die.

Today, traveling the pristine road leading to the Togus campus, I shut my eyes and ears and imagine the rat-a-tat-tat of the regimental drums as the corps limps toward its new home, each member with a Civil War discharge in his pack. A few marching to Hay Foot! Straw Foot! From the forest I sense the sounds of fifers and hear the hummers. When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again Hurrah! Hurrah! I hear the Confederate parody, For Bales, and the angry northerner vocalizing, Johnny, Fill up the Bowl. There's the thump, thump, thump of John Brown's Body Lies a Rotting in His Grave, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the beloved Dixie, which some heard Abraham Lincoln sing.

Around campfires and bundled around wood stoves I hear them speak of heroes at Ft. Sumter and the Battle of Bull Run; Stonewall Jackson, wounded by friendly fire and later died at the Battle of Chancellorsville. And a few who survived the horrors of Andersonville Prison in Georgia, hiss at the name of Captain Henry Wirz, proprietor of the hell that interned over 49,000 Union prisoners between 1864-65. More than 13,000 died there of starvation or disease, all in pain.

Known to all as their home, and later known as the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Togus became the resting place for the first 400 patients until a building program in 1868 provided living quarters for 3,000 veterans. It was much like a military camp with the men in barracks wearing modified Army uniforms. A 100-bed hospital was completed in 1870 with minimal medical care. But as day follows night, so does death follow life. And the nearby veterans cemetery rolls mounted. The National Cemetery had 5,373 graves in 2003 when I was a patient there, row on row, with its first Civil War veteran buried in the West Cemetery in 1867.

Togus evolved into a Veterans Administration facility after the Consolidation Act of July 1930 when all agencies administering benefits to veterans and their dependents were united. Thus the role of Togus changed from domiciliary or home to a full-service medical center with the biggest impact occurring after World War II when a large number of returning veterans needed medical care.

Currently Togus provides medical services to about 30,000 veterans. Its director in 2003 was Jack Sims. No honorably discharged veteran who applies is turned down. But, there's a void in the facility with which Abe Lincoln, Ol' Doc Taylor and Hippocrates might take issue. It sometimes takes five months for a patient to be seen by a primary care person, and more than likely it doesn't turn out to be a physician. In November 2003, this massive complex had one cardiologist on board with a second scheduled to arrive. It took one patient with an irregular heart beat and misaligned mitral valve, complaining of shortness of breath and fatigue, four months to be seen. The patient is alive but not breathing any easier. The medical facility had two pulmonologists. It could use a half dozen, but the money isn't there. Physicians in metropolitan cities earn considerably more than the VA can pay.

The primary care clinic at that time was manned by four physicians and three lady nurse practitioners.

Abe Lincoln stands highest among our presidents. He was a man of his word. He was self-educated from borrowed books. Yet, he wrote his own speeches, he was humble, he spoke eloquently, and was never perceived as cocky. Not having a padded daddy, he couldn't attend Harvard or Yale. As president, he clearly did not invade Confederate territory but responded only when attacked. No president today can wear his shoes.

David B. Alter knows of what he writes. He enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and was wounded at Guadalcanal. After the war, he completed high school and went on to the University of Missouri-Columbia, earning a degree in journalism. He specialized in investigative reporting and worked at several major newspapers. He later worked as science writer, editor, and in public affairs for the aerospace industry and NASA. An ardent critic of today's medical practitioners and hospitals, Mr. Alter conducts research in the health care field. He is driven by his opinion that medical practitioners "are too much enamored with their fees and less with their patients." He "loves writing from the inside out," and continues to work as a free-lance writer even today, his 83rd birthday. He resides in Longmont, Colorado and would enjoy hearing your comments ().