War Wounds, Lost Income and the Reparations Debate

Benjamin Franklin, Civil War amputee. Source: Pinterest

As the reparations issue heats up across the country — Congressional Democrats are considering forming a commission on reparations, reports the New York Times — it’s just a matter of time before the divisive debate comes to Virginia. The Old Dominion, after all, was a slave state and a segregationist state. We have a history of racism and discrimination to grapple with that, say, Minnesota or New Hampshire do not.

Personally, I find the idea of holding individuals accountable for long-ago sins committed by members of the same race to be a moral obscenity. But as an amateur historian, I find the debate fascinating. The controversy should dredge up loads of intriguing material as Americans trace the impact of slavery and segregation and the efforts to ameliorate that impact.

Here is a study that you won’t hear cited by the reparations brigade: “The Impact of a Wartime Health Shock on the Postwar Socioeconomic Status and Mortality of Union Army Veterans and their Children.” The authors did not research the paper with reparations in mind. Rather, they were tracing the impact of disability on earnings and wealth in an economy dominated by farming and manual labor. But the findings bear upon the reparations debate. In any moral reckoning over the legacy of slavery, one must consider that 620,000 soldiers died from combat, disease and other causes in the Civil War. Even if we assign zero value to the deaths of Confederate soldiers in the war to end slavery, surely we must take into account the loss of 360,000 Union soldiers (who were, for purposes of the reparations debate, overwhelmingly white).

A central issue in the reparations debate is how much money should be paid to the descendants of slaves. According to Newsweek, estimates range from $6 trillion to $14 trillion, usually based upon calculations of the slaves’ lost wages and other economic damages incurred. But if society as a whole is to be held accountable for these losses, then any moral reckoning would have to take into account what society has already paid in. I am confident that the reparations estimates cited by Newsweek do not account for the economic value of 360,000 Union soldiers’ lost lives.

Those calculations certainly do not take into account lost income due to war wounds, many of which were debilitating. Based on a sample of 39,000 Union Army veterans, the authors of “The Impact of a Civil War Health Shock” found that 21% suffered from non-mortal wounds. Nineteen percent were discharged from the Army for disability. Among those who survived until 1900, 3% were amputees. (According to other sources, an estimated three-quarters of the estimated 60,000 known Civil War surgeries were amputations.)

In an economy built largely around manual labor, disabilities translated into lost income and wealth. “Wounds reduced median wealth holdings by 24% among younger veterans and by 35% among older veterans, controlling for age and enlistment characteristics,” the study says. Income and wealth losses were less for younger men, the authors theorize, because they were better able to adapt by changing occupations. Many became laborers. (Presumably, the occupation of laborer was less physically demanding than that of farmer.)

The negative effects were felt in the next generation. States the study:

Fathers’ severe wartime wounds affected daughters’, but not sons’, socioeconomic status. Daughters were shorter lived if their fathers were older at the end of the war and had been severely wounded compared to daughters of fathers not severely wounded or younger when severely wounded. We suspect that early life conditions disproportionately affected daughters. Our findings illuminate the long reach of disability in a manual labor economy.

I dispute the moral premise that contemporary “society” — including Americans of Italian, Jewish, Swedish, or Scotch-Irish Appalachian descent whose ancestors never owned slaves — should be held responsible for slaves’ lost wages and other sufferings. But if we accept that premise of holding “society” responsible, any honest accounting will consider the extent to which “society” has already repaid its debt.

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28 responses to “War Wounds, Lost Income and the Reparations Debate”

  1. Excellent point. No one thinks of all the points any longer. Every group is out for whatever they can get.

  2. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    Dear Jim,

    Humbug! This whole debate is nothing but humbug! It is a shake-down, pure and simple, and one designed to inflame feelings. Even if enacted, it will not end anything, but the Left will merely look for new avenues of wealth redistribution to continue its cannibalistic coalition. Collectivism gives power to radicals and results, ultimately, in social war. One must reject their premises, not tinker with their conclusions. The full reparations of all sin and injustice is in the world to come, and it will be each answering for himself. The Left, however, believes only in this world. Their “heaven” is a dystopic quest for perfect equality, whose methods are endless coercion, whose source is a futile hatred of created reality, and, even more, its Creator.



  3. spencer Avatar

    Interesting theory. Next try blaming the freed slaves for lost productivity, consider that reparations made!

    I’m not pro reparations but articles like this (and the comments that follow) make me much more receptive to the idea. Of course it will go no where in the end but it deserves debate and resolution (a simple apology and moving on most likely). Why be on the side of perpetuating an injustice when you know the chance of reparations being paid are zero? It’s an ugly look that closes the door to healing for a huge part of the population that still feels less American than they should.

    1) Individuals are not being punished, the country is (notably the institutions still in existence today that benefited from the exploitation of living, human, feeling people).

    2) Union troops received pay and received a pension after the war. Death benefits were paid to their families. Freed slaves (who obviously were never compensated for their labor) received vagrancy laws and poll taxes. Freed slaves were taxed to pay for the benefits received by all veterans of the war, even those that fought to enslave them. To equate the two is offensive and makes any argument of the point seem frivolous.

    1. If injustices are being perpetuated today, we should deal with those injustices directly. There is no way to compensate the slaves for the ills done to them — they died long ago. Our vision should be to create opportunity for all. And that starts by recognizing that the remedies and rhetoric of the social justice movement do more evil than good for the people the SJWs purport to help.

  4. CrazyJD Avatar

    >>>I’m not pro reparations…

    Yet everything you say indicates that you are willing to dredge up these issues and play into the hands of the Left. So I guess we know where you’re real sympathies are. Your comments ignore Andrew’s points.

    1. Crazy, it’s unlike you to overlook key caveats like this:

      “Personally, I find the idea of holding individuals accountable for long-ago sins committed by members of the same race to be a moral obscenity.”


      “I dispute the moral premise that contemporary ‘society’ — including Americans of Italian, Jewish, Swedish, or Scotch-Irish Appalachian descent whose ancestors never owned slaves — should be held responsible for slaves’ lost wages and other sufferings.”

      1. spencer Avatar

        If that was directed to me, I didn’t overlook them. I addressed that too.

        Individuals aren’t being punished, the country and its institutions are. Reparations made (if they ever would be) will be in the form of free tuition for descendants of enslaved people at Harvard, stuff like that. We wouldn’t be giving out money on the street corner.

        The objective wouldn’t be to punish, it would be to lift up. Not even the most conservative on this board could deny that AA are born into a system that disadvantages them (from redlining, to RPS to incarceration). They have to be exceptional to achieve parity with the average white person. Did any of us living create that system? No. Do we let it continue for another generation? Probably.

        If we are talking morality, is doing nothing to put future generations on a more equal path (even if it comes at our expense-the liberal in me) more moral than expecting all Americans (even those naturalized yesterday) to contribute to the general welfare?

        1. I like your idea much better of focusing on what we can do to create opportunities for African-Americans rather than hand them a bunch of money because their ancestors were slaves. The debate should address the issue of how best to help those who need it without reducing them to a state of dependency on government handouts. As the old saying goes, don’t give a man a fish, teach him out to fish.

    2. spencer Avatar

      I pretty much countered his points. Is that not addressing them? One- armed men can’t plow very well. The economy suffered. That man and his family was compensated.

      The end of slavery left the South in economic ruin. Crop yields were down. The economy suffered. The slaves were not compensated. In fact loitering and vagrancy laws were passed, the punishment for breaking them was, you guessed it, free labor.

      Tell me again how lost productivity in the North after the war should make the ancestors of enslaved, and later jailed for being poor (after a life of zero income and zero family wealth) people feel adequately compensated?

      1. I suspect that freed slaves felt a lot more gratitude to the 360,000 Union soldiers who gave their lives and the thousands more who lost their limbs than you do.

        1. spencer Avatar

          They probably were grateful, until within a few years it was understood that their lot hadn’t really changed. Let’s not forget that for all intents and purposes, the South won that war (especially south of the Mason Dixon).

          Freed slaves’ freedoms dried up long before the military pensions up North did.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            This sort of talk proves a point made earlier in another context, namely:

            Frankly, the ignorance of the New York Times and its kind is astounding if one has spend decades fighting for a particular issue the Times now addresses. Where have these clowns been for the past 40 years. Aren’t these people paid to see what is going on in front of their nose in the real world. Should not they be empowered to educate the reading public with the news of it every day for decades. What has been happening to America to breed such incompetent and base ignorance?

            I suspect that much of this long term ignorance, and its emergence only now from long and readily observed facts for decades in the form of newly birthed true believers, is one manifestation of the almost total collapse of higher education in the liberal arts in this country. So now, when the ill-educated are ‘woke’ finally, their knowledge and understanding is so shallow, superficial, theoretical, ideological and agenda driven, that they are far more dangerous to us all than before. Hence, the very legitimate concern suggested in Susan Lascolette’s comment above.

            Now too, of course, we see this rampant and gross lack of education and real experience most everywhere in our society. A new Federalist article sheds light on one aspect of this massive public problem brought on by the collapse decent higher education in American for the great majority of its students.


  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    You’re looking at how slavery affected the following generations.

    Even severely wounded Confederates kept their land and passed it on to succeeding generations – while blacks did not – and they were systemically discriminated against so their succeeding generations did not accumulate wealth like white folks did.

    White folks kids went to decent K-12 schools while black kids were denied that opportunity. White folks kids went to College while black folks kids did not.

    Black folks went to jail over “crimes” that white folks were never even arrested for and if they were – paid fines.

    This discrimination continued for decades and has affected generations of black folks.

    Some discussion should take place – and more important – the truth about the facts should be part of that conversation.

    We can’t get anywhere if some folks just deny what happened.

    1. Everything you just said is public knowledge and has been drummed into our heads. But it’s only one side of the balance sheet.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Notice how these massive race, gender, and class demagogic campaigns since 2010 have been arising with regularity before, during, and now even after, national political elections – whether it be police brutally and college rape epidemics and Russian Collusion claims and investigations, or tearing down Civil War statutes (this time spreading to Lewis and Clark Statutes in downtown Charlottesville), or Civil War reparations, all trying to pit Americans one against the other on basis of class, income, race, and gender. Much of this hate fed political action is being generated on university campuses, including with UVA often at its center beginning shortly after Teresa Sullivan took office there in August of 2010.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        But you do NOT acknowledge that such discrimination has resulted in long term generational impacts – you act like since people today did not do it – there is no harm, no foul and many folks see continuing generational damage – that reparations should address.

    2. zenshinroshi Avatar

      Really the vast majority of Confederate soldiers had little or no land and in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan burnt the few acres we had. Most of my family never went beyond the fourth grade because they had to work. My father paid some reparations with 29th Inf at Normandy in the first wave was never the same. You can not walk in any black neighborhood without the dangers of being robbed beaten or killed. They love to target Asians even more.
      75% of a black high schooler in ultra-liberal Calfornia cannot read nor write, though they go to the same schools as Latinos and Asians and whites that can. The Black Ghetto subculture is violent full of antisemitism and race Hate The average per annum income of Sub Saharan Africans is 2,400 a year. Baby Daddy will not go to school, nor will they use cash wisely.
      Wise Black men know this like Andrew Young talking about the confederate flag claimed it doesn’t answer anything.
      “I would never trade the flag for a single job,” said Young. “The problems we face don’t have anything to do with the flag. The fact is that 93% of black people killed are killed by other black people. So black lives matter. Let us start believing that we matter.”
      Sheridan burned the south down doling staggering damage he was without question a war criminal. Incidentally, one of my ancestors was hung for his part in Bacons rebellion. Confederate veterans left for the west few had the means to rebuild their homes.

  6. spencer Avatar

    Isn’t it funny how conservatives are just now noticing the battles the rest of us have been fighting for centuries?

    “40 acres and a mule” was just some university PC crap I guess? Reparations have been debated for 150 years now. As a homosexual, I can assure you that gender and identity issues were just as much front and center when I was in high school and in college in the 1980’s. The riots at the Stonewall Inn were 50 years ago this year. In the early 1900’s women in New York could be arrested for wearing too many masculine articles of clothing. The ERA, civil rights movement… how does any of this seem new to anyone? What’s new is that the ground has shifted while you weren’t paying attention (what a luxury!) . But fear not, others’ gains don’t come at your expense.

    44 years before Pulse…

    1. spencer Avatar

      Reed: sorry for the flippant “what a luxury” comment. Just because you don’t have to think about black, queer, women’s issues… doesn’t mean that you aren’t dealing with any number of social ills yourself. We all struggle.
      My sincere apologies.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        I deeply appreciate your comment, Spencer. And I understand it. I attended to my first The Mattachine Society discussion in the 1960s. It was far from my last, insofar as lifelong friends.

  7. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I’m exempt. At the time of the Civil War, my ancestors (those in the United States) lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line. And two of my second great grandfathers took up arms for the Union. And neither got a pension.

    One was with the Indiana Legion (state guard) that was a short-term call-up during one of Morgan’s Raids. He was a poor farmer and teamster. Methodist, often referred to by the elites as Baptists who could read.

    The other was a full-time volunteer that fought through Fredericksburg. His papers burned in a fire and since he couldn’t read or write, he relied on a pension lawyer who basically did nothing. He was an Irish Catholic, so his job opportunities were quite limited. No Irish Need Apply Signs were around until the 1920s.

    Or maybe I have a claim for reparations too.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      A Irish Catholic, uh, the poor devil. Sorry about that, TNT. At least he wasn’t a Jew, a Chinaman, a Jap, or anybody’s white trash born west of the Mississippi.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” I’m exempt”.

    We have an entire race of people who have been generationally harmed – this is no different than a disease some other ongoing damage to a segment of the population – that we recognize and we decide to do something more than say “I did not do it”.

    We are not looking who to blame it on and get compensation from them. It’s a serious societal problem with real consequences to all of us who pay taxes right now that go to pay for food, housing and other needs for people who, for decades even after they were released from Slavery were systematically discriminated against including denial of an education.

    I’m NOT in favor of just handing out money but I AM in favor of policies to better educate those in generational poverty. I’m NOT in favor of just giving them jobs that are just “jobs” – they need to earn the jobs with their education and skills but the kids who are now in school and behind academically – we need to do more than we are right now – INSTEAD of blaming public education and at the same time denying that we had anything to do with slavery.

    ALL of us are harmed by not addressing this issue – whether we think we are “responsible” or not – we still pay for it.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, it might be easier if you told me what, if any, social woe, I don’t have to pay for. My ancestors did not live in the South; didn’t own slaves, weren’t connected with businesses that used slave labor, and two fought for the Union in a war to end slavery.

      It’s not my fault as to what your southern ancestors did before, during and after the Civil War. Nor is it the fault of my ancestors. How about a federal income tax surcharge on any family and its descendants that owned slaves in 1860? My ancestors didn’t cause the societal problem. And I sure as all hell did not. This is yet one more vote-buying scheme from left-wing Democrats. Why don’t they first get rid of Northam, who came from a slave owning family and posed in blackface next to a guy in a KKK uniform?

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Question for you TMT :

        When debating an racist ideologue and political demagogue, how often does logic trump a cheap political stunt?

  9. spencer Avatar

    It’s pretty messed up to view helping other Americans succeed as punishment.
    You hear a lot of “teach a man to fish” rhetoric from the right. When asked to actually teach said man, the right exclaims “it isn’t my fault he is hungry!”.

    When did hypocrisy and a lack of personal responsibility become tenants of the Republican Party? You won’t even have a conversation about the lasting effects of slavery (today we all still benefit greatly from their labor) and belittle (SJW, the buzziest of buzz words!) those looking to break the cycle. If you think their ideas are silly, help them form better ideas. Don’t mock them for caring.

  10. zenshinroshi Avatar

    How many folks have ever lived in a high crime predominately black neighborhood? it is always the white folks from suburbia that have such notions. The black community is there own worst enemy and the next is the liberal white do-gooder enablers that refuses to see the dysfunction because of some white guilt. I work with hundreds of Asians they come here for the most part dirt poor little or no English most have been attacked in they live in the hood. ye tin 20 years they do fine study hard work hard.
    The criminal subculture despises whitey attacks him on sight, as she and he do Asians as well. All Asians are” chinks” It is not white supremacists that are attacking orthodox Jews in Brooklyn its young blacks. They also love to video their attacks there are literally thousands online. Read the Book Chinese Girl in the Ghetto.

    1. spencer Avatar

      The above comment was brought to you by the Proud Boys.

      I lived in Jackson Ward 1988-1990 and 2006-present. I know zero people who live in the suburbs (just urban and rural folk), social justice warriors or otherwise. Some of you are hilariously out of touch.

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