Memorializing Disability: Lessons for Museums

Steven Lubar
17 min readAug 17, 2018


The landscape of memory in the United States includes many memorials to those killed in our wars. It includes many fewer to those killed in the course of their work. There are many monuments honoring those who fought, and a few to those who worked. There are very few monuments to those disabled in the course of their military service, or their work.

This paper asks a simple question: where are the monuments to those who were wounded or injured or disabled in the course of their career as soldier or worker? How have we remembered those who did not give, in Lincoln’s phrase, “the last full measure of devotion,” but those who survived their injuries and lived with their disabilities?

This essay is for the most part historical, looking at two case studies in nineteeth century America to consider the public notice and commemoration of people with disabilities. But I will end with a brief consideration of what the historical insight thus gained might suggest for museum and memorial work.

My examples are drawn from two related but distinctly different fields of history. Military history and labor history, though rarely considered together, have a great deal in common when considered as aspects of disability history. Simply put, injuries are common aspect of both military work and industrial work. Both fields of endeavor produce bodies with disabilities. There are many differences, of course — a central object of war is to kill and wound the enemy, whereas injuries are essentially a byproduct of industrial production — but in both industry and war, casualties are part of the assumptions of leaders, whether they be officers or managers, and workers, whether they be soldiers or employees.

The comparison may seem odd, but it is not a new comparison. In the nineteenth century, it was fairly common for the fatalities and injuries on the job to be compared to injuries and fatalities in war. And the comparison is unexpectedly useful. While disabled soldiers and disabled workers may have sustained similar injuries, and may have been similarly disabled, in the 19th century — especially by the end of the 19th century — they were regarded quite differently. When we compare the ways in which 19th-century Americans remembered and commemorated the injuries and disabilities produced by industry and by war, we can gain a better understanding of the ways in which Americans understood the nature of disability, and tried to remember the disabled, or to forget them.

Understanding the way we remembered and memorialized the wounded of our wars and our economy also allows us to understand historical memory more generally. It helps explain a great paradox of public history: how it is that by memorializing, we stop remembering. Seth Koven, in an article on the ways that Great Britain treated its wounded soldiers after World War I, writes:

Postwar reconstruction required that societies allow themselves to forget the wounds of war so that these could begin to close, to be concealed. By materializing memory in statues and parks, we satisfy our sentimental and nationalist cravings and allow ourselves to displace bodily pain and ignore the presences of the tens of thousands of disabled victims of wars.[1]

Remembering the Disabled Veteran

Most of the thousands of monuments to the soldiers of the Civil War recognized those who were killed in battle, or to all of those who fought — in the phrase used at the time, they acknowledge those “Who gave, or offered to give, their lives.”

Major General Phillip Kearny, at Arlington National Cemetery. His left sleeve is buttoned to his jacket. Photo Wally Gobetz, Flickr. CC.
Col. David Henderson. Photo by “Hank ” at Shiloh Discussion Group.

Wounded soldiers are occasionally seen in Civil War monuments. Some memorialize disabled heroes. The 1914 monument at Arlington National Cemetery to Major General Phillip Kearny, who lost his left arm in the Mexican War but went on to be a hero of the Civil War, depicts him on horseback, his left sleeve buttoned to his jacket. The inscription reads: “Gave his left arm at Shurambusco and his life at Chantilly Virginia.” David Henderson, Colonel of the 46th Regiment of Iowa Volunteers during the Civil War, and later speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is portrayed in the monument to him in Clermont, Iowa, with a crutch under his left arm.


One memorial portrays the wounded as a way of showing the compassion of another soldier. “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” Memorial at Fredericksburg, Virginia, captures the moment that Richard Rowland Kirkland “brought water to his wounded foe.”

Confederate Memorial, Raymond, Mississippi. From

Other wounded soldiers are displayed not for their own sake but as a way to mark romantic conventions of womanhood. The Hinds County, Mississippi, Courthouse monument includes an image of a wounded soldier being given a drink from a canteen by a woman; it honors those “heroic women who sustained and strengthened the weak.”

But there are very few monuments that commemorate not the dead, nor all who fought, nor wounded heroes, but rather the 400,000 disabled veterans of the War. The most important is the Pension Building, in Washington, built to house the clerks who distributed pensions to veterans and families of soldiers killed in the War. The entire building serves as a memorial, a practical memorial. The frieze that decorates the building includes a section showing the wounded soldiers marching along with others. For a while, the Army Medical Museum served a similar purpose; disabled soldiers visits were not only for medical purposes but took on ceremonial and commemorative purposes as well.

A detail from the frieze at the Pension Building, now the National Building Museum.

So, one can find a few monuments to people with disabilities — to individuals, or places where disabled veterans are noted. But we look in the wrong place if we hope to find the wounded veterans of the Civil War monumentalized in bronze and stone on battlefields and cemeteries. In the late 19th century, the individual soldier himself was considered as a monument to his disability. His body was his memorial.

In 1917, The Times of London wrote of wounded soldiers that

“In their bodies they bear the heritage of all our endeavours since we became a people; the qualities they incarnate are those that have upheld our name in strength and honour.”[2]

Nineteenth-century Americans believed this, too, and in the late 19th century, the disabled veteran was put on view — or is it more accurate to say, put himself on view — and was honored as a living monument to the heroism that had caused his disability. An 1888 description of the United States Soldiers’ Home at Santa Monica made this notion explicit:

From time immemorial the warworn and decaying soldier has been recognized as belonging to the realm of the picturesque; and like other ruins, the more dilapidated his condition, and the more abject his misery, the more available he becomes for the purposes of the poet, the novelist, and the artist.[3]

The disabled veteran became his own living memorial; his disability was inscribed in his body, his body made public as a lesson, a public history display. Consider this story from an 1825 issue of Niles Register, about a veteran of the Revolutionary War:

“Here, boys, are the marks of war,” said an old veteran the other day as he opened an old revolutionary vest, full of bullets and bayonet holes, and showed the scars on his breast. He was wounded, dreadfully wounded, nine times wounded, in the battle of Fort Grisworld. His breast was literally torn open by bayonets and musket-balls, so that the beating of his heart was distinctly seen… The young soldier unexpectedly recovered and is now a venerable and respected inhabitant of this town. “Here, boys, are the marks of war,” and his whole soul seemed beaming from his keen eye, as he exhibited his numerous wounds to a group of youths who had gathered around, and gazed with admiration on one who, in olden time, arose, as it were, from the dead.[4]

Because disabled veterans were monuments to the history they had seen, the homes for disabled soldiers that were built across the country after the Civil War also became living monuments to the heroism of America’s disabled veterans. After the Civil War six branches of the National Home for Disabled Soldiers were established. In 1877 these homes cared for almost 13,000 disabled veterans. There were also many homes run by the states. Americans regarded the institutions as places to visit, places where they might pay homage to the heroism of the veterans. They served not only their practical purpose as places where people could be cared for, and places where the community could gather to honor veterans; but also as sites of memory.

Consider this description of the Home for Disabled Volunteers at Dayton, Ohio, from the November 1875 Ladies’ Repository.

It consists of five hundred acres of farm land, three miles west of the city of Dayton, built up, within the last few years, to the status of an industrial village, with its extensive hospital, its beautiful church, soldiers’ quarters, officers’ houses, workshops, flower-gardens, aviary, menagerie, lake (the home of swans and wild geese), amusement hall, music hall, dining hall, deer park, offices, schools, and cemetery, gardens, parks, shrubberies, and fruit plantations, with broad avenues running in every direction; so that the Soldiers’ Home is not only a HOME to its twenty-five hundred inmates, but is also one of the most attractive pleasure-resorts for visitors and picnic parties, farm societies, Churches, and Sunday-schools, in all parts of the State. During eight years, it has been visited by over two hundred thousand persons, as well as by General Hooker, General Sherman, President Grant, Bishop Simpson, and other notables.[5]

“This constant stream of visitors” — some 55,000 people visited in 1887 — “adds greatly to the liveliness of the scene, and must be a great source of amusement to the veterans” reported the Overland Monthly in 1888.

In Washington, the Soldier’s and Sailors’ Home served the same dual role as care-giving facility and as memorial. A description of Catholic University in 1890 trumpeted the university’s proximity to the Home. Students were encouraged to visit the residents and learn of their heroism. The Soldier’s Home, a Catholic University official claimed, was “one of the handsomest parks in the United States.” No one, the article claimed, enjoys

this magnificent park, … the retreat of superannuated and disabled veterans of the regular army…, more heartily[,] or oftener avails himself of its privileges than the student of the Catholic University. There he may find the sweet consolations of solitude; there he meets the disabled veteran ending his days in the most peaceful of camps, and who is ever ready to regale the willing ear with memories of the battle-field.[6]

These homes were, as much as the monuments erected on battlefields or town squares, sites of commemoration and recognition. The stories disabled veterans told visitors comprised an important part of the public history of the disabled.

Forgetting the Disabled Worker

Workers’ memorial, Indianapolis.

There are many fewer memorials to the American worker than to the American warfighter. The Labor Heritage Foundation lists 170 “landmarks,” including memorials to workers killed in strikes or in industrial and mining disasters. Workers are represented in a variety of memorials, mostly erected in mid and late twentieth century. Some mark the sites of strikes. Some remember martyrs of the labor movement, or those wounded in police actions against strikers. Not far from the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis is a memorial for “all Indiana workers who have died at work or as a result of their labor.” A memorial at the Oregon statehouse calls upon readers to “Mourn the Dead and Fight for the Living.” Some unions and states celebrate Workers Memorial Day. No monuments I have found memorialize those injured or disabled in the course of their work.

Mother Jones Memorial. Wikimedia By Peter Greenberg — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

But the comparison of wounded soldiers and injured workers was an obvious one to 19th-century Americans. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1892: “Trainmen . . . suffer as if they were fighting a war, and the percentage of loss to numbers employed, if not so high as with soldiers, is frightful enough.”[7]

They were frightful indeed. In 1888, 1 in every 375 railroad employees was killed; 1 in every 12 was injured. In the most dangerous part of the work — enginemen, firemen, conductors, brakemen, trackmen and switchmen — the numbers were even more alarming: in 1882, 1 out of 50 of these workers was killed, and more than one out of 10 sustained serious injury.

Workers considered slight but visible disabilities to be a sign of courage, or at least of experience. A crushed finger showed that a brakeman was an experienced railroader, not a greenhorn. Working through injuries, historian John Willams-Searle writes, showed that “a worker had met adversity with manly character and survived.” Manliness in railroad work was compared by one observer to the manliness of a soldier. “Extreme caution is as unprofessional among men in dangerous trades as fear would be in a soldier.”[8]

Indeed, danger was central to railroad work, and for many railroaders, the most exciting part of it. Railroaders’ memoirs brag of their love of danger, their fearlessness, their risk-taking. Railroading, wrote one, was “a life that brave men love, and one that cowards cannot follow.”[9] So railroaders “equated mastery of fear with manliness, and risks successfully flaunted with skill.” Railroad work culture, writes Williams-Searle, “celebrated men who confronted risks coolly, skillfully, and bravely. Men killed in the line of duty were heroes; men who sustained injury but later returned to work were veterans. Disabled workers . .. however, often found themselves ostracized from and criticized by their former coworkers.”[10]

From Railway Conductor 10 (1893). Reproduced in Williams-Searle, “Courting Risk”

The men with disabilities were a reminder of failure; they were thought to lack “bravery, manliness and skills”; and in the eyes of their co-workers, they had only their lack of skill to blame for their injuries.[11] While those who could return to work were accepted, able-bodied workers were in general suspicious of their disabled peers. Injury was seen as a sign of incompetence, of weak character. Disability, many railroaders believed, was a sign of moral weakness and a failure of masculinity. This affected more than the workers themselves. It also helped to shape the technology and the environment of work. Agitating for safer working conditions or safety equipment suggested fear and a lack of self-confidence. Beliefs about disability were an essential part of the history of technological change in 19th century America.

Who took the blame for injuries shifted over time. Looking back, we find it easy to lay the blame for unsafe working conditions on the railroad. But in the nineteenth century, courts made it very difficult to sue a corporation. Companies found many ways to shift blame to employees for their injuries, for example by having official rules that mandated safe procedures — that protected the companies in court — but having supervisors mandate unsafe practices. They accused an injured worker’s fellow employees of negligence, and thus, under the “fellow servant” interpretation of liability law then prevalent, ducked responsibility. Employees were, in general, blamed for their own disabilities, and not only by the corporations and the law, but also by their fellow workers.

J. Elfreth Watkins. SI Archives Photo 57818

Who was responsible for the disabled railroader, unable to earn a living or support his family? The railroads fought and almost always defeated court claims of liability. Before about 1890, it was not uncommon for railroads to give a man injured in a dangerous job a less demanding job elsewhere. He might become a flagmen or a watchman, jobs scorned by able-bodied railroaders. Indeed, these jobs were often reserved for men injured in more dangerous and demanding jobs. (The first Smithsonian curator of transportation, J. Elfrith Watkins, a Pennsylvania Railroad employee no longer able to work as an assistant engineer of construction after he lost a leg in an accident, became first a clerk, and then, in 1886, was paid by the Pennsy to come work at the Smithsonian Institution to collect transportation relics.)

But by 1890, most railroads refused to hire trainmen with even slight disabilities. Managers believed that men with disabilities made passengers nervous; after all, the man was thought responsible for his own injury, and might be assumed to lack skill or prudence.

The unions, which after 1880 or so provided insurance for the families of railroad men killed in the line of duty, were less eager to help disabled members. While homes for disabled veterans had gained wide acceptance, homes for disabled railroaders were much more skeptically received. The 1890s saw a widespread debate over whether the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers should establish a home for disabled members. Those who argued for a home for disabled trainmen argued that it would not only keep them out of the county poor house, but would allow them to be restored to masculinity and economic self-sufficiency.

But louder voices opposed the homes. Some argued that the man with disabilities, less morally upright than the able-bodied, would feign a disability to get free care and food. One member of the BLE wrote that establishing the home “would compel members who are industrious and provident to provide a luxurious home for the shiftless and improvident.” Another wrote that it would simply provide a refuge for “engineers who have spent their earnings at gaming tables, saloons, and worse places.” Disability was associated with incompetence, bad character, and low moral worth.[12]

The anger that many railroaders expressed toward their colleagues reflected ideas about manliness as well as the presence of the many workers in their midst who needed care. Railroaders, still facing danger every day in their work, did not want to be reminded that a momentary lapse could injure them. They would rather declare disability a moral failing, and ignore the needs of those with disabilities. While they might go to visit the disabled veterans, reminders of heroic warfare, they did not want to be reminded of the disabled railroaders, reminders of the dangers of their work. There would be no monuments to disabled railroaders.

Memorials, monuments and museums

How might we best remember disabled workers and veterans? In 1917, Robert Jones, a doctor and champion of the disabled in England, “challenged the authenticity of war memorials”:

“When the end comes and Peace is declared the cry will be for War Memorials. Is not now the time to decide on these? You do not want to wait until the dead are forgotten. Are our memorials to be spiritual or material, living and permanent, or dead and cold?[13]

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial opened near the Capitol in 2014. It uses extensive quotes from disabled veterans to tell their stories. From

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened near the United States Capitol in 2014, provides some useful approaches. Quotes from political and military leaders express their gratitude for the sacrifices of disabled veterans. Bronze panels portray a soldier rescuing a wounded comrade shoulders) and a soldier with an amputated leg using crutches to hold himself upright. An eternal flame erupts through a pool of water, a symbolic remaking of a symbol traditionally used to memorialize soldiers killed in war. It is intended to embody “the elemental forces of injury, loss and renewal”; it “emerges from the water as a reminder of the hope that springs from perseverance in the face of adversity.” Images of disabled veterans and quotes from disabled veterans to tell their stories.are engraved on glass, the glass and granite “representing the strength and fragility of the human spirit.” [Quotes from the memorial’s website.]

Museums have a role to play in telling this story, too. Museums that tell the stories of military and labor history can take some inspiration from this memorial. What might we do to more accurately tell the story of injured workers, wounded soldiers, and other people with disabilities?

The first answer is that we must their stories into exhibits. When one walks through a museum, one sees things, not people. We show machines, not the people who used them, and were sometimes injured by them. We show weapons, not the wounds they caused. We show artifacts frozen, not in motion. Thinking about disabilities immediately suggests the limits of material culture in examining war, and work, and in other fields where the activity, not the artifacts, are key. We must be careful, in telling the story of disabled soldiers and workers, not to hide the stories of the people in artifacts that can only partially tell their story. And as Katherine Ott argues in her “Disability and the Practice of Public History: An Introduction,” we must include them, represent them, and give them a voice.

This is not to say that the right artifacts can’t suggest the disabilities that are part of work and war. Indeed, telling the whole story of safety on railroads — not just the technology, but the attitudes toward masculinity and disability that helped to shape that technology — puts disability history back into the picture. The story of the airbrake, for example, told in this museum as a technological story, can be reinterpreted to tell a much more interesting, complete, story, a story of workers, disabilities, ideas about masculinity and risk, and the ways we have remembered people with disabilities.

And museums have begun to put people back into the story. At the Altoona Railroaders Museum, a key exhibit is a recreation of the company hospital where injured workers were taken. At Lowell National Historic Park, the noise and danger that were part of the work environment are a key part of the story. At the National Museum of American History’s “Communities in a Changing Nation,” the biography chosen as a case study of industrialization is the story of a many injured at his job. Even small details, like the arthritic hands on a mannequin, suggest that disabilities were part of the story of work.

Not until we tell a story that is inclusive of people with disabilities will we be able to understand and present to our visitors a true picture of American society. As we do exhibits on war and on work, we should consider how the artifacts we exhibit were shaped by ideas about disability.

Consider the history of disabled railroad workers. Changing notions about disability, and its connections with ideas of masculinity and risk, helped to determine, say, the work of brakemen and conductors on trains, the technological change that brought and helped to shape the technology of air brakes. To tell this technological story correctly requires that workers with disabilites be included, as well as the way that these indiviudals were defined, and regarded at the time. To show a scene of an industrial accident as a typical scene of industry would be misleading; but to show how the everyday work and machinery of industry was shaped by accidents lets us tell a truer story.

To tell the complete story of military history, where injuries and disabilities are so central to the experience of battle, we have to reconsider our presentations. Museums fetishize objects, especially weapons, and show them as technology, not as machines whose job it is to kill and maim. They shy away from showing battle scenes: dirty uniforms, broken guns, injured and dying soldiers. Let’s show that truth, and put the technology and the uniforms and the heraldry of war as a secondary story. The wounded and disabled veteran is an essential piece of that history.

But when we show the truth of war or work, let us not forget that first story I told, of the old Revolutionary War veteran who showed off his wounds, and the boys who gathered around him not in pity, nor in dismay, but in respectful appreciation of his history and suffering. Let us hope that our public history too can portray that respectful appreciation.


[1]Seth Koven, “Remembering and Dismemberment: Crippled Children, Wounded Soldiers, and the Great War in Great Britain,” AHR 99 no. 4, (1994), p. 1169. See also Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World esp. chap 2, pp. 64–69

[2]Koven, “Remembering and Dismemberment,” 1188

[3]Overland Monthly, Vol. XII (Second Series, Number 69). September, 1888.

[4]Niles Register 29 (1 October 1825: 70–71. Quoted in W. Andrew Achenbaum, Old Age in the New Land: The American Experience since 1790 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 23–24.

[5]The Ladies’ repository: a monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts, and religion.Vol. 2, iss. 5 Nov 1875.

[6]Rev. Thomas C. McGoldrick. “Student Life at the Catholic University,” pp 358–364; quote on p. 363 Catholic World. vol. 51, iss. 303, June 1890

[7]Henry Cabot Lodge, “A Perilous Business and the Remedy,” North American Reviewer 154 (1892) , p 191; quoted in John Williams-Searle, “Courting Risk: Disability, Masculinity and Liability on Iowa Railroads, 1868–1900,” Annals of Iowa 58 (Winter 1999), p. 28.

[8]Williams-Searle, p. 42; Eastman, Work Accidents and the Law, (1910) pp. 93–4, quoted in Williams-Searle, p. 43

[9] J. Harvey Reed, Forty Years a Locomotive Engineer: Thrilling Tales of the Rail, p. 15.

[10] Williams-Searle, “Courting Risk,” pp. 40–41.

[11] Ibid., p. 44.





Steven Lubar

Professor of American Studies at Brown University. Author of Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.