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The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers

This article appeared in Harper's Magazine, October 1886





After twenty years of garnered harvests from intrenched battle-fields, and of steadily abating sectional feeling, there is little left to sharply remind one of the fratricidal conflict save the invalid and disabled soldiers gathered together under the auspices of the government, into a stupendous institution, designed by special enactment to be considered as a home, in contradistinction to the asylums founded by charitable or legislative policy.  The magnitude of this achievement justifies a brief review of what so entirely relates to the soldier and to the nation’s interest on his behalf.

The whole number of Federal soldiers engaged in the civil war was 2,778,304. Of these the colored troops numbered 178,975, while the Indian nations furnished 3530 men. The aggregate of all deaths, from all causes, up to the time that the different armies were disbanded, was 359,528. By culling the tables of statistical exhibit of deaths a brief schedule of striking interest is obtained.


Killed in Action




Died of Wounds received in Action






Died of Wounds received in Action




Died of Disease in Prison




                Inasmuch as it is not only the soldier living, but the soldier dead, that the nation aims to provide for, a few items relative to the eighty-two national cemeteries may be given here as a fitting sequel to the foregoing.  The alphabetical list from which these results are obtained was copied by special favor from records in the “Office of National Cemeteries” at Washington. Eleven of these are in Virginia (besides the one in West Virginia), seven in Tennessee, four each in North Carolina, and Kentucky and three each in Mississippi and Louisiana. The others are variously distributed in twenty-one States and Territories, including one at Washington, D.C., and another at Mexico city, Mexico.  Twenty-one of these cemeteries have over 2000 not exceeding 5000 interments; nine cemeteries have 5000, not exceeding 10,000; and eleven cemeteries have over 10,000, as designated in the following table. A marble head-stone marks each grave, bearing the name and rank of the occupant, when known, the same standing also on the register of the cemetery. Salaried men have care of the nation’s dead, and visitors are shown the grounds free of charge.







Marietta, Georgia

Jefferson Barracks, Missouri

Salisbury, North Carolina

Chalmetto, Louisiana

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Andersonville, Georgia

Memphis, Tennessee

Fredericksburg, Virginia

Arlington, Virginia

Nashville, Tennessee

Vicksburg, Mississippi





































The total number of internments in all the national cemeteries is 322,851. Of these, 9,438 were Confederates.

          At the cessation of hostilities in 1865, the government had in charge 204 hospitals with a capacity for 136, 894 beds. The returns of the sick and wounded show that the total of cases treated up to that time was 1,057,423. At the end of eight months, there were yet in existence thirty-four government hospitals, besides the Sate hospitals and soldiers’ retreats which had been temporarily established in most of the Northern States for immediate use upon the disbanding of the armies. These gradually disappeared upon the carrying into effect of an act of Congress, approved March 31, 1865 for the establishment of a National Home. The Board of Managers was to comprise one hundred men; but after twice failing to secure a quorum, its bulk was found to paralyze its efficiency. But government looked after the maimed soldiers, and during the year 6410 artificial limbs were supplied to them without charge.

         In the mean time a great Sanitary Commission, conducted by the people, was doing beneficent work. With head-quarters at Washington, its ramifications extending to every community on Union soil, it was the largest and most efficient organization of the kind ever known. Not only were the names of hospitals looked after, and supplies of every needed comfort systematically furnished them, but when the time came for still other help, bureaus of information and employment were established in all the principal cities for those needing such aid; as also were claim agencies, for collecting, free of charge, their back pay, pensions, and bounties. So fully had public confidence been secured that large donations of goods, clothing, and moneys were constantly received by the Commission for its work. An official exhibit in April, 1865, showed that the contributions from California alone to that date amounted to $1,199,675, and from the sparsely populated States of Nevada and Oregon the sums of $99,512 and $20,733 respectively had been received. Metropolitan fairs of almost fabulous magnitude were conducted for the same purpose, and became a feature of the times. A notable one in New York city yielded a profit of $1,184, 145, and the net proceeds of the Central Fair of Philadelphia amounted to $1,035, 398. These fairs, aside from their financial significance, proved a fitting outlet for the repressed impulsion of thousands of men and women compelled to remain at home and to hold themselves still—the hardest of all things to do, when the leading spirit of the hour almost impelled to action. The Sanitary Commission recognized and took advantage of this state of feeling by conducting still other fairs, under its own auspices, with the most satisfactory results, the one held at Cincinnati having been especially notable.

         When finally the disbanded armies were homeward bound, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, left at stations and landings for change of transportation, were met by emissaries of the Commission, supplied with all necessities, and forwarded each one toward his point of destination. The Commission having decided the claim agencies and others of equal import must still be continued  for a time, a fair to meet this additional expenditure was opened up at Chicago, from which was realized the sum of $325,000. Thus did a grateful people extend to the defenders of the Union most generous and unstinted aid, to be more directly dispensed where most needed than could be the government supplies, always retarded as they were in their channels of transit by the complication of official red tape.

         Finally, on April 21, 1866, by a joint resolution of the two Houses of Congress, a Board of Managers for the Soldiers’ National Home was appointed, of nine citizens of the United States, not members of Congress, no two of whom could be residents of the same State nor residents of any State other than those which  to establish, besides a central Home for the Middle States, sectional branches thereto, in view of the wide extent of territory to be represented by the just claimants of such a benefice.

         The board, keenly appreciating the great responsibility of the work before it, looked abroad for successful precedent. The great naval hospital at Greenwich, England, which for one hundred and sixty years had been an asylum for disabled and superannuated seamen, had just dismissed its inmates, making them all “out-pensioners,” and was then being converted into a Royal Naval College, the reasons therefore being that “it came to be doubted whether the stupendous charity were not, after all, a mistake. As far as the pensioners were concerned, it was a monastery, without the soul-sustaining conviction of monasticism.

         Turning to France, there was the Hotel des Invalides at Paris—a vast military asylum designed to accommodate 5000 soldiers, and covering sixteen acres of ground, affording an existence to its inmates more restricted, with all its amplitude, than that of people living within the walls of a fortified city under military surveillance. Therefore, all things considered, the Board of Managers—a majority of whom were men of large military ability—fell back upon their won resources, and proceeded to give shape to their concerted plans, according to the exigencies and demands of the situation. By mid-November of the same year the Eastern Branch was opened for applicants, and the Central and Northwestern branches were soon after established.  The location of the Southern Branch three years later was fully justified, not only by the greatly increased number of beneficiaries, but by the necessity felt for a milder climate of certain classes of disease.

         An act of Congress approved July 5, 1884, authorizing still another branch Home, was in part the result of a sectional clause of that act, which directs the admission to the Home of “all United States soldiers of any war who are incapable of earning a living, whether the incapacity resulted from their service or not.” This law has opened the Home to a large class of men who were hitherto ineligible.

         The Western Branch was located under the provisions of a bill passed by Congress to establish a Branch of the Home west of the Mississippi River. The city of Leavenworth, Kansas, made a munificent donation to the government of 64 acres of land, and $50,000 for embellishment, which secured to them the location of the new Branch, which was opened for applicants during the spring of 1886, The grounds are located about two miles below Leavenworth, Kansas,, bordering the river, in the midst of beautiful scenery. Eight barrack buildings, to accommodate 120 men each, have recently been completed, and a large dining-hall with a seating capacity of 2000 men. Over 1000 members are cared for now.

          The Eastern Branch of the National Home is located about five miles from Augusta, Maine, on a tract of land originally comprising 1100 acres. This had been reclaimed from a wilderness of thickets, and bowlders by private enterprise, and converted into a simmer resort known as Torgus Springs, at an estimated outlay of $200,000, because of supposed medicinal virtue in the waters of the spring. The structural improvements consisted in part of a hotel of capacity to accommodate 300 guests, a farm-house, stables, and bowling-alleys. The grounds were ornamented by shade trees, and laid out with walks and drives; the spring was enclosed in a bowery arbor, a race-course told of past excitements of the turf, and a young orchard of five acres gave fair promise for the future. This property was thought none too choice, and was purchased entire for $50,000; and to this beautiful retreat was sent the first instalment of soldiers on November 10, 1866.

         Unfortunately the early history of this Branch was marked by two destructive fires. The first occurred in midwinter of 1868, and caused the total loss of the main building (hotel). The nine o’clock tattoo has been sounded, and the half past nine ”taps for lights out and all in bed” had been responded to, when the alarm of fire was given. The sick were hastily carried out on their mattresses, and laid on the snow of that rigorous climate. Couriers were dispatched to Augusta for aid, and citizens and firemen promptly responded, the former with teams which conveyed the sick to private houses, while the others were quartered in public buildings. The second fire occurred three years later, and destroyed the Amusement Hall, involving a loss of $20,000. This building was replaced by a smaller one at less outlay; but in place of the main building there had been erected three large brick structures, so arranged that with the hospital, they formed a hollow square, comprising the present main building—the most economical arrangement.

         This Branch was originally intended only for applicants from the State of New York and the New England States. But notwithstanding the final “muster out” at all the Branches of large numbers of veterans full of years, and others who were victims of fatal wounds and disease, the passage of time brought old age and increasing infirmities upon still other hundreds who had hitherto supported themselves outside the Home. This great accession of numbers resulted in the general distribution of being governed mainly by the relative facilities of the different Branches, and by climatic considerations, so that of late years

this Branch has represented a score or more of different States.                                                                                              

         On June 1, 1886, the number of “members” present and living in this Home was 1224, while 464 were absent on furlough, most of whom would return with cold weather, making a total of 1698. The whole number “cared for” during the year ending June 30, 1885, was 2621. Quite a number of men live in cottages near the Home, receiving their rations in common with the others, and carrying them to their homes to be eaten. Still others hire themselves to farmers, and draw rations as the cheapest way of obtaining board. No new members are now admitted on these conditions, however.

         As at all the Branches, admissions, furloughs, discharges, and readmissions are continually going on, and the pensioners, all alike, “are jealous of what they call their ‘blood money,’ most of them preferring privation  outside the Home rather than consent to its confiscation.” Congress therefore secures the pensions to all having near dependent relatives.

         At the close of the war there was clothing in the Quartermaster’s Department sufficient for an army of 1,300,000 men. Of course distributions from this supply were made to the Home as needed. Not only are food and raiment this provided for these honored guests of the nation, but a spacious and beautifully finished auditorium affords facilities for lectures and theatrical entertainments, while billiards, bowling, and the smaller games are free to all. The library, always an important feature, contains nearly 6000 volumes, and is supplied with numerous papers and periodicals, the foreign inmates being furnished with reading in the German, French, and Italian languages.

         The Southern Branch of the National Home is located in Hampton, Virginia, about two miles fro Fortress Monroe, with a water-front on Hampton Roads, one of the finest harbors on the American coast. It commands an unobstructed view of the fashionable resort at Old Point Comfort, famous for its beautiful scenery, invigorating air, and historic interest. The climate is everything to be desired for those classes of disease in which extremes of temperature are considered to be inimical, while “malarial fevers are unknown. The records of the meteorological observatory for the last ten years give an average temperature of 74° in summer and 44° in winter.”  A magnificent array of 150 flower beds adorns the premises. The large greenhouses are stocked with “4400 new and rare plants”; while a rose-house stands unrivalled by them all.

         The main building of this Branch, whose broad avenue leads directly through the embellished grounds to the terraced water-front, was originally an educational institution, and used as such until the encroachment of  hostilities compelled its desertion. Remaining intact after fire and cannon had demolished its surroundings, it was appropriated as a Union hospital, while its bullet-scarred walls mutely offered shelter alike to the wearers of the blue and the gray, as they were deposited, wounded and dying, under its roof, soon to be borne thence, in common brotherhood at last to the national cemetery hard by. Cherished as a relic from the past, there now stands on a gallery of the building a marble slab with this inscription, “Chesapeake Female Seminary, 1854.” A constant reminder, this, of the blooming girlhood, happy voice, and merry laughter of the youthful maidens once trooping though those halls, with no thought of blood and carnage coming nearer to their lives that the bare recital of such horrors from their pages of history.

         In 1870 the building was purchased by the government for its present use. Only 50 veterans were accommodated at first. Captain P.T. Woodfin, the present Governor of the Branch, took charge in 1873. The institution at once became popular with old soldiers, and it has been crowded ever since. The number of members now amounts to1800. About one-fourth of the roll are mild-weather absentees, away on furlough during the summer to earn wages at light employment. During the Christmas holidays all who have homes or friends are likely to seek them if able; and about one-fifth of the whole number are absent, one may pleasantly imagine, enjoying the season with outside friends, though a sorry percentage at best s of so large a number of once stalwart men.

          The amount of pension money received here for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1884, was $121,344; remitted to families, $20,786; held at interest for pensioners, $13,806; value of farm products, $10,031; number of books in the library, 4384; number published in German, 380; number published in French 91; number of issues of books, 22,305; number of papers and magazines, 160. The total number of members “cared for” during the war was 2182. Of those, 1193 were of foreign birth.

          Several religious sects are alternately represented her; and added to the usual range of amusements are such as the proximity to water naturally affords; while the manifold interests of the institution and surroundings attract frequent visitors from all States of the Union, with quite a percentage of foreigners.

         The national cemetery adjoins the Home, and forms the northern boundary.  Many Union and Confederate soldiers were buried here in war time, and this is the last resting-place of inmates.

          The Northwestern Branch, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, justly claiming one of the most beautiful sits in the state is located about three miles west of Lake Michigan, and one from the city limits. The original purchase of 440 acres of land for $100,000—the proceeds of a sanitary fair—was made by the ladies of Milwaukee, and donated to the government as an inducement for the location thereon of the projected Soldiers’ Home for the Northwest. By this stroke of enterprise the competitive claims of some other sites were thrown in the shade.

         The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway runs through the grounds, bringing excursionists from every part of the country—the station being a unique department in the “Ward” Memorial Hall. This building, it may explained, is the result—in common with those so called at other Branches—of a bequest to the National Home by Horatio Ward. One floor in each of the buildings is occupied by a beautiful theatre for dramatic and other entertainments.

         The forest trees in this vicinity are among the most majestic to be found in this country, attesting to their size the strength of the soil. This is also evident in the “returns” of agricultural products of the Home farm as given in the last report, the “cash value of crop sold” showing a total of $15,544—a pertinent item with the social economist.  All the floral decorations of the grounds are supplied by the greenhouses.

          The main building is a noble structure of 300 feet in length, with a central tower of 180 feet. Its spacious compartments comprised of the Home proper upon the first establishment of this Branch, affording space for hospital, dining hall, and barracks. But, all is now changed, and various buildings are required, as at the other Branches to furnish accommodations and supply the necessary workshops for so large a community of soldiers. But other than actual wants and needs are met; and the most critical visitor may search in vain for anything here that will conflict with the statement made by the Board of Managers in their last annual report to Congress to wit:

         “The Board calls attention to the fact that its endeavor has constantly been to make the institution as nearly as possible a home for the members, and not a mere asylum. To attain this end, chapels, libraries, reading-rooms, objects of amusement of various kinds, theatres, greenhouses, etc., have been furnished.”

         On June 30, 1884, the number of members, as per last published report was:


          Present and absent…………………………………………  1370

          Total cared for during the year…………………………….  2088

          Of native birth……………………………………………...   622

          Foreign birth……………………………………………….. 1466



         Loss of limbs……………………………………………….    171                   

         Wounds ……………………………………………………    739

         Disease……………………………………………..……….  1099

         Blindness…………………………………………………..        52

         Other causes………………………………………………. .      27

Of the former occupations represented by the members, those in excess of forty of one class rate as follows:


         Blacksmiths…… 41   Shoemakers……. 64

        Clerks………….. 46   Carpenters……...  83

        Tailors…………. 46    Farmers ……… 436

        Painters ……….. 49     Laborers …….. 702


Of the whole number 268 could neither read not write. Of these, 16 were natives, and 252 of foreign birth. The amount of fines imposed was $738.20 during the fiscal year, while 75 per cent, of the whole number committed no offence. The average number employed per month for pay was 246, and the pay-rolls amounted to $28,593. Besides this sum earned at the Home by the members, their families were paid $2289 for work on the under-garments and bed-furnishings made here for the different Branches.

         “No permanent diet list is prepared at this Branch, but a bill of fare adapted to the season is prepared daily for the general kitchen by the governor, and the commissary employés and cooks are required to conform to it.  In the hospital, the bill of fare is prescribed by the surgeon.”  Including the regimens of both, the average cost of the daily ration per hundred men was $16.28. The cost for the same in 1870 was $23.62; in 1875, $21.61; and for the year ending June 30, 1880, the cost was only $14.31, showing a variation corresponding with the varying cost of provisions.  It is interesting to know that these estimates not only cover the first coast of food supplies, but include the all contingent expenses, as cost of transportation, fuel consumed, pay-roll of employés, etc.

         In order to convey a comprehensive idea of the actual workings of so vast an institution, a few of the more pertinent details of each Branch thus far noticed have been interspersed with the general description, as calculated to five a clearer idea of the daily life of the disabled soldier than if only ponderous generalizations had been given. The general estimates already presented apply with more or less accuracy to all the Branches, any prominence given by either to certain conditions or interest being chiefly due to local differences, and obviously in a slight degree to the particular cast of personnel comprising the administrative force of he respective Branches.

          In relation to the foreign element in the Home, it seems proper to state that this class predominates in nearly the same proportion at all the Branches, and an impression has prevailed that by reason of temperament and native precedent they are more ready to accept a condition of dependence than are our own countrymen. This is unjust. Let it be remembered that a large proportion of the foreign-born were yet without homes of their own in their newly adopted country, and many without family ties, and therefore, when disabled in service, were without resource, and doubly entitled as loyal foster-sons of the mother republic to a full share of her bounties. Be it also borne in mind that nine-tenths of this class represent England, Ireland, and Germany, and that these are not the countries that supply the world with paupers.

        The Central Branch, for the Middle States, is located in the Miami Valley, near Dayton, Ohio, about midway between Columbus and Cincinnati. Besides the large area of choice farming land on these 627 aces, there were originally natural advantages of upland and glen, mineral and other springs, rendering it susceptible of charming possibilities—a result long since realized—making it today one of the most inviting places of resort. 

         Its central location renders it the largest Branch of the National Home—the total of present members being almost equal to the number designed to be accommodated by the great French military asylum. The buildings required for this soldier community—including hotel, restaurant, and the dwellings of officers in charge—form by their numbers ad structure an imposing array.  These include and are surrounded by an extent of ground—known in military parlance as “the camp”—under the special supervision of a landscape gardener, the same being intersected by thirty-two miles of broad avenues, each one named for a State of the Union—a statement conveying some conception of the inadequate idea of details that the average visitor of a day is likely to bear away with him.

         Not the first in importance by any means, but in this connection, comes the unique glen garden, or garden in the glen. It is reached from different points by descending stone stairways, flanked on either side by gay platoons of witching growths. Is shaded banks, cropping out with continual surprises of fresh exuberance, enclose various attractions of cascade, springs, and floral splendors, as well as scores of tropical marvels, including stately palms and a purple-green grove of bananas. The loiterer and lounger may find embowered seats and shady nooks, while the curious plant-lover, ever on the alert, may quietly pursue his rounds, and finally, if he choose, ascend by steps directly into a conservatory, whose strange company of extraordinary growths may somehow remind him of jungles, and if he stumble against a spotted coil of boas-cactus, he may think he is one; but happily, being on the second floor, he will find ready escape to the common level of ground again. Near at hand rises a palm-house thirty-five feet in height and ninety feet long. The total area of conservatory space outside of this is covered by 25,000 feet of glass.

         We turn next to the hospital building. The helpless invalids are secured against the perils of conflagration by a fireproof arrangement, consisting of a tunnel 200 feet in length, and over even feet square, which connects the hospital building with the building containing the steam-boilers and fuel deposit. Through this tunnel run the steam and water pipes and the railway for conveying coal.

         Soon after the occupancy of the building by patients, he Northern Ohio Soldiers’ Aid Society presented an elegant carriage and horses for heir exclusive use. There are usually from 300-400 patients here, assigned according to disability, to the upper and lower wards. Passing through the latter, one may see the invalids variously occupied, some deftly making work-baskets of self-binding bits of wood, and other ornamental articles.

         The crowded condition of this large hospital has been recently relieved by the erection of four additional wards, and by the removal to the government hospitals at Washington of the insane patients.

         The barracks, comprising thirty-five or more three-story buildings, no longer furnish ample accommodations, while the numbers to be fed were long ago quite beyond the comfortable seating capacity of the grand dining-hall building, as shown by the report of the governor for the year 1882-3.


……Our facilities for handling over 3000 men at the great dining hall are very imperfect. We are obliged                 to seat, say 1100 men three times at each meal. To do this, the employés at the kitchen and dining-room must be up a large portion of the night, and the men must turn out very early in the morning in order that the third table may get through breakfast in any reasonable time for work.”


         Since then, the men occupying the large hall above the dining-room have been removed to a new barrack building and that room converted into a dining hall, so that now, by having two sittings at each meal in both halls the men are amply accommodated. But still a further improvement on all this is hoped for with the opening of the new Western Branch.  To convey an idea of the amount of food consumed at this one boarding-house of Uncle Sam’s, the quantity furnished for a recent dinner for 4300 men may be given as a fair sample. Of beef there were over 2000 pounds; of bread, 2700 pounds; of sugar, 240 pounds; of potatoes, 50 bushels; of coffee, 1200 gallons, and 900 pies.  

         The library, comprising 14,800 volumes, in is two divisions, known as the Putnam and Thomas libraries. Contributions to both are constantly made—in the former case by the Lady Bountiful herself, and in the latter “by its many friends.” This library has also become the repository f many interesting relics and trophies of the war, as well as numerous others of various significance.  The magazine and papers handled here by hungry readers are of 258 varieties, and he issues of books now amount to nearly 53,000.

         A peculiar interest attaches to the chaste monument near the cemetery, from its having been erected by the officers and men of the National Home as a tribute to their honored dead. “To Our Fallen Comrades” is one the four inscriptions on the pedestal. The marble shaft is surmounted by a soldier “on guard.” He figures below, typical of the army and navy, were sculpted in Rome, and in every detail are most exquisitely wrought. The device of giving the effect of color to wide-open eyes by simply hollowing the pupils is wonderfully effective in those faces.

         The post office, where the United States mail is delivered direct, is always a gathering place before mail-time for the soldier anxious to be first-served. Under the shady trees, or in a sunny corner, as the weather may incline, they engage in social exchange or sit in silent expectancy while thus waiting for the mail.

         The number of letters and cards mailed here during the year, as per last report, was 134,590, the number received being 131,400.

         The various appliances of steam and machinery render it possible to accomplish marvels here in the line of domestic labor, as shown by one item of laundry-work, there being an average of 36,000pieces in the weekly wash.

         Of the different trades carried on at the several Branches, there are from ten to thirteen, including printing and book-binding. Such men as are able to work are always glad to avail themselves of employment with the Home.

         The number of soldiers “cared for” at this Branch for the year ending June 30, 1884, was 7146. Of these, 4357 were of foreign birth; 2238 were fro Germany and Prussia, 1403 from Ireland, 259 from England.

        The Mortuary returns since 1867 show the total deaths in the Central Branch of National Home to have been 4517. The annual percentage of death rate during that period is remarkably low, considering the age and debility of the subjects, having reached 6 per cent in one year study.

         For each of the three fiscal years, ending June 1884, the amount appropriated by Congress for the support of this Branch averages $1,138,046 65, while the estimate for the last fiscal year was $1,237,134—an increase proportionate to the increase of members.

         The number of “present and absent” in June 1886, was 5244, and the actual number present 4157, a pitiful showing, in view of a delightful season, when furloughs are in request by all whoa re able to use them. Private official returns from the other Branches give us a total of over 10,000 member of the National Military Home; and it is estimated there will be no decrease in number for some time to come, in view of the large class hitherto able to take care of themselves, but who are now becoming dependent by reason of age and infirmity.


Note.—Limited space has excluded the worthy mention of many names most honorably connected with the projection and development of the institution thus briefly reviewed. But they are well known, and need no trumpeting here. The soldier himself, his daily life in the Home, and what the government is doing for him, have been the leading interest of this writing. 

         For efficient aid rendered in the preparation of the same, thanks are due to Brigadier-General Richard C. Drum, Adjutant-General United States Army, and to Lieutenant-colonel R.N. Batchelder, Deputy Quartermaster-General, both of the War Department. Also, for favors conferred, thanks are tendered to General Luther Stephenson, Captain P.T. Woodfin, General Jacob Sharpe, Colonel Andrew J. Smith, and to General M.R. Patrick, governors respectively of the Eastern, Southern, Northwestern, Western and Central Branches of the national Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers.