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Highlighting Kluge Scholars: An Interview with R.M. Bates

This is the first post of a new series titled Highlighting Kluge Scholars. For these I interview Kluge scholars on their work and time spent at the Library.

R.M. Bates is a 2018 Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellow at the Kluge Center from Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, UK. He is working on a project titled “Politics and Civil War Veterans’ Pensions in Gilded Age America, c.1878-1900.”

Could you summarize your project here for someone with no familiarity?

The large number of veterans of the American Civil War presented an unprecedented challenge to the institutions and resources of the United States. Although there already existed a system of benefits for the survivors of the nation’s earlier wars, it was dwarfed by the cost and coverage of the pension program that emerged for veterans of the internecine conflict during the final third of the nineteenth century. The significance of this system has long been apparent to historians – during the mid-1890s, for example, the U.S. Pension Bureau was distributing almost two-fifths of the federal budget and providing financial assistance to hundreds of thousands of veterans, widows, and dependent children across the country. My research addresses the manner in which this extensive system of military benefits was administered and, in particular, the extent to which this required a reformulation of the relationship between the federal government and its citizens.

What first attracted you to your field of study?

My initial concentration on American history stemmed from an interest in the Civil War, and especially in the long-term effects of the conflict on those who fought in it. The pension system is almost unavoidable for anyone with an interest in the post-war lives of Civil War soldiers. Almost every community in the North and West included men and women who received federal assistance, while the states of the former Confederacy created their own limited systems of veterans’ welfare. The evolution of such an expansive system of veterans’ welfare also seemed an interesting way to further explore my more recent interest in the long-term political consequences of the Civil War and, in particular, the role of the federal government in American life.

In what ways have you found Library collections useful in your project?

The Library of Congress has been a great place to develop this project! The Manuscript Division holds the papers of the presidents whose administrations are covered by my research – James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley – as well as some of the period’s most notable politicians. Probably of most use to me have been the papers of Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior under Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) and one of the era’s foremost advocates of civil service reform. His correspondence contains a great deal of relevance to my research but also offered wonderful insight into the politics of the era, highlighting other key issues which framed debates over the provision of Civil War pensions and enabling me to make links between figures which I may otherwise have missed! At the same time, as archival research has helped to generate new ideas, the Library’s incredible collection of historical scholarship has helped me to explore them further.

What have you found in your research that you found particularly interesting or surprising?

Some of the documents held in the Manuscript Division have thrown light upon the political significance of the Civil War pension system and shown that it was a subject of interest to many prominent figures. Up until now, most of my research has concentrated on the largely unknown bureaucrats who administered the pension system, so it has been a nice change to find the opinions of a few more recognizable names. The papers of Carl Schurz, for example, include a brief but intense debate between Schurz and E.L. Godkin, best known for his role as editor of The Nation during the late nineteenth century. Despite its brevity, this exchange between the two men concerning the administration of the pension system during the late 1870s prompted me to explore the politics of pensions as part of a wider series of administrative adjustments during the late nineteenth century, some of which were successful, but many of which were not.

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