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“Old Soldiers Never Die…”

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View of National Building Museum, which was the Pension Bureau Building. Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez, 2020.

Wednesday is Veterans Day in the United States, a day dedicated to remembering and honoring the men and women who have served in the nation’s uniformed services. The holiday was established by an act of Congress in 1954 and was selected to replace Armistice Day, which marked the anniversary of the day when the fighting ceased on the Western Front in World War I. Armistice Day had been established by an act of Congress in 1938, although the anniversary of the date had been commemorated each year by a presidential proclamation beginning in 1919.  Some of the nations which were part of the Entente Powers during World War I, such as the United Kingdom, and Canada, also mark the day as Remembrance Day.

Support for veterans has a long history in the United States, beginning with the veterans who served in the American War for Independence, many of whom received land grants for their service. The structure for administering pensions and bounties remained nascent until after the War of 1812, when the Pensions Bureau was organized and set up within the War Department. The bureau, which for most of its existence was part of the Department of the Interior as the Bureau of Pensions, would go through several organizational changes before being folded into the newly created Veterans Administration in 1930. The Veterans Administration itself would ultimately be raised to cabinet rank in 1989 by the Department of Veterans Affairs Act.

Until 1865, the number of actual veterans was relatively small. But with the conclusion of the Civil War, over one million men became veterans of the Union army and navy. Congress first awarded pensions to disabled veterans of the Union army and navy in 1862 ; later provisions would extend pensions to the aged. Widows and orphaned children also were included. Although Confederate veterans were not initially eligible for federal pensions, this policy was changed after the turn of the 20th century.

To administer this pension system, the Bureau of Pensions expanded until it became, for a time, one of the largest civilian agencies in the Federal government. To house the employees and the agency’s records congress authorized a modern, fire-proof building. The job of designing the building was given to Montgomery C. Meigs, the former Quartermaster General of the Union Army. During his army career, Meigs had been involved in supervising civil construction projects in the Washington area such as the Cabin John aqueduct. He also was instrumental in creating Arlington National Cemetery. Meigs’ design included innovations such as flow through ventilation, the use of ergonomically designed stairs, and the installation of dumbwaiters for moving boxes of records between floors. In the exterior design he provided for a frieze, created by Casper Buberl, that shows various aspects of Civil War military life. Meigs specifically required that one design depict freedmen teamsters as part of the army.

Frieze of the National Building Museum, showing Union troops. Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez, 2020.

The building while innovative, was considered ugly. It was used for several decades by the Bureau of Pensions and other federal agencies, and gradually fell into disrepair. In the late 1960s, about a decade after the death of the last Union veteran, the building was listed on the National Register of Historical Places. It was refurbished and since the 1980s has been the home of the National Building Museum.

Today’s Department of Veterans Affairs is a descendent of the Bureau of Pensions and other federal agencies.


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