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Origins of Invalid Detachments and Invalid Corps: A series of War Department general orders trace the evolution of the Invalid Corps, March-June 1863

By Bret Schweinfurth, with images and documents from the author’s collection 

We have nothing to do,” Richard H. Thornton wrote home to his folks in early 1863 from McDougall Hospital at Fort Schuyler, N.Y. A private in the 141st New York Infantry, he had suffered a thumb wound after accidentally discharging his musket after post duty.

Richard H. Thornton’s thumb wound from the accidental discharge of a musket landed him in a military hospital as the Invalid Corps evolved. Cartes de visite by Hugo Bartels of Washington, D.C. (top right) and unidentified photographers.
Richard H. Thornton’s thumb wound from the accidental discharge of a musket landed him in a military hospital as the Invalid Corps evolved. Cartes de visite by Hugo Bartels of Washington, D.C. (top right) and unidentified photographers.

Having nothing to do was a common complaint from soldier-patients. There was, however, tasks that should be performed as stated in Guideline 10 of General Order No. 36 issued by the War Department in 1862: “The Chief Medical Officer in each city is authorized to employ any cooks, nurses, and attendants, of any convalescent, wounded, or feeble men, who can perform such duties, instead of giving them discharges.”

With Guideline 10 in place, hospitals could only use patients if they were going to employ them on the hospital rolls, and take full possession of the soldier: The soldier would be removed from their original company roster, and only be borne on the hospital roster as staff.

Evidence suggests this scenario lay in Pvt. Thornton’s future. The surgeon in charge, Robert Bartholow, had sent for Thornton’s descriptive list. In his letter home, Thornton noted, “the surgeon can keep me here if he wants to for a nurse or anything else though I have not done anything yet.”

As Surgeon Bartholow waited for Thornton’s descriptive list, the U.S. Army searched for better uses of the recovering soldiers who filled its military hospitals.

The Army announced a solution with General Order 69 in March 1863: “Paragraph 10 of General Order No. 36, of 1862 which authorizes the chief medical officer in each city ‘to employ as cooks, nurses, and attendants any convalescent, wounded or feeble men, who can perform such duties, instead of giving them discharges,’ is hereby modified as follows: At every U.S. General Hospital, the feeble and wounded men, unfit for field duty, but not entirely disabled, instead of being discharged, will be organized and mustered in detachments. From these Invalid Detachments the military commanders will make details for provost, hospital, and other necessary guards; for clerks, hospital attendants, nurses, cooks, and other ‘extra-duty’ men.”

This order established Invalid Detachments as an entity.

Soldiers placed in these detachments were now listed on three different rolls/rosters: The hospital’s attendance roll, the original company roll, and an Invalid Detachment roll.

This complicated the military payroll system. When the soldier’s original company received its pay, the officer in charge used the roster to disburse the money. Soldiers listed as absent in hospitals would have to be paid on the hospital roll. If the soldiers were on an Invalid Detachment, the paymaster would not leave pay for the soldier. Instead, the officer would mark that the soldier was unpaid—delaying his payment until the next visit.

Sometimes, officers or surgeons had to send a note to the paymaster stating the soldier was unpaid. Such was the case with infantry privates Thaddeus C. Miller of the 103rd New York and Abel B. Butterfield of the 5th Michigan. They were part of the 3rd Division Invalid Detachment in Washington, D.C. Charles Hall, the lieutenant in command of the detachment, wrote to the paymaster that Miller and Butterfield “had been on Invalid Detachment but not paid.”

To further complicate matters, the War Department released General Order 105 in April 1863. It stated that, “The organization of an Invalid Corps is now authorized, By taking those officers and enlisted men of commands now in the field who, from wounds received in action or disease contracted in the line of duty, are unfit for field service, but are capable of effective garrison duty, or such other light duty as may be required of an Invalid Corps,” and “by taking those officers and enlisted men still in the service and borne on the rolls, but who are absent from duty, in Hospitals or Convalescent Camps, or are otherwise under the control of Medical Officers.”

General Orders 105 and 69 existed simultaneously. General Order 105 removed men from their original company roster to an Invalid Corps roster. By contrast, the Invalid Detachment established in General Order 69 listed the soldier on three separate rolls.

By definition, both general orders addressed that the soldier must be unfit, but did not detail what unfit meant. General Order 105 stated that for a soldier to be considered for Invalid Corps the soldier must be “unfit for field service.” General Order 69 stated that for the soldier to be considered for Invalid Detachment, he must be “unfit for field duty.”

To clarify the meaning of unfit, the War Department issued General Order 130 in May 1863. It stated, “In executing the provisions of General Order, No. 105, from this department, in regard to the selection of men for the Invalid Corps, Medical Inspectors, Surgeons in charge of the hospitals, camps, regiments, or boards of enrollment, military commanders, and all others required to make the physical examination of men for the Invalid Corps, will be governed in their decisions by the following list of qualifications and disqualifications for admission into this corps.” The list included physical infirmities that qualified or disqualified a soldier for Invalid Corps service.

The terms Invalid Detachment and Invalid Corps, similar in name and released a little over a month apart, created confusion among service members. One example involved Pvt. Micheal Kearns (Keaness) of the 1st New York Artillery, who served in an Invalid Detachment. His papers correctly stated he was put on Invalid Detachment, but a reference to where he had gone put him in the Invalid Corps; Kearns was never in the Corps.

“We are to be armed with swords and pistols, six shooting revolvers. Our clothes are to be the same as ever but our jacket’s which will be sky-blue trimmed with dark blue.”

—Private Thornton

The Invalid Detachment and Invalid Corps placements confused officers waiting for their soldier to return. A soldier on an Invalid Detachment stood a chance of recovering his health and returning to his regiment. A soldier in the Invalid Corps would not return to his original regiment. It was a one-way street. General Order 105 made the distinction with this statement: “The Provost Marshal General is charged with the execution of this order, and the troops organized under it will be under the control of his bureau.” No such provision was made for Invalid Detachments, and they remained the responsibility of the Medical Department.

In June 1863, the military issued General Order No. 173 to end the confusion. It phased out Invalid Detachments and ordered that wounded, injured or disabled soldiers would be examined and considered only for the Invalid Corps. If not qualified for the Corps, the soldier would receive a medical discharge and leave the army. The official language reads, “General Order No. 69, War Department, March 20, 1863, is hereby revoked, and officers and enlisted men referred to therein shall be examined for admission into the Invalid Corps, and if found to meet the requirements of General Order No. 105 and 130, shall be transferred to the Invalid Corps in the manner prescribed in General Order No. 105.”

General Order 173 added that soldiers not qualified for the Corps would receive a medical discharge from the army “Immediately only on the receipt of these roles the corps commanders having examined and endorsed them in accordance with General Order No. 105, War Department, 1863, shall issue orders transferring all such officers and men to the Invalid Corps, and dropping them from the rolls of the active force, and will forward the rolls, with a copy of his order of transfers, to the Provost Marshal general at Washington. The previous military history of every officer and soldier will, as far as practicable, be stated on the invalid roll.”

This series of General Orders traces the War Department’s evolving policy for wounded and sick soldiers. It resulted in a new military organization, the Invalid Corps, that put still useful soldiers in a variety of support roles and freed able-bodied men for frontline operations.

Back at McDougall Hospital at Fort Schuyler, the orders impacted Pvt. Thornton’s future in the army. On July 1, 1863, the army transferred him to the Invalid Corps.

Thornton shared the news with his family: “I am detached from my Regiment, they have nothing to do with me or I with them now and I am in the second Battalion of the invalid Corps. We are to be armed with swords and pistols, six shooting revolvers. Our clothes are to be the same as ever but our jackets which will be sky-blue trimmed with dark blue they are made the same amount as the one I had on when you saw me last. Our duty is light and will be. It is mostly to eat the Government rations.”

The title Invalid Corps was later changed to Veteran Reserve Corps under General Order 111 in March 1864.

Bret Schweinfurth is a longtime student of the Invalid Corps, collector of related artifacts, and a living historian. He began researching the Invalid Corps in 1999.

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