History of VA in 100 Objects - VA History Office
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History of VA in 100 Objects

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Telling VA's story - two objects at a time

If you wanted to create an album of your family’s history but were limited to 100 items, what would you put in and what would you leave out? These were the questions that the VA History staff asked in compiling the History of VA in 100 Objects virtual exhibit. The exhibit tells the history of the nation’s efforts to honor and reward Veterans for their services by spotlighting individual objects that illuminate key parts of that story. The objects span the centuries, from the earliest laws governing disability claims for Revolutionary War soldiers to the latest medical gear to protect VA workers and Veterans from the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit is being published serially throughout 2022, with new entries appearing every Thursday at the rate of two per week. Entries from previous weeks are available for viewing on the GALLERY PAGE. We hope you will join us as we embark on this year-long journey through VA’s past, object by object.

Object 7: Portrait of Revolutionary War Veteran Joseph Winter

By Olivia Holly-Johnson, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern, Veterans Benefits Administration

portraitJohn Neagle's portrait of Joseph Winter, a homeless Veteran of the Revolutionary War. (VA) 

Flush with national pride after the War of 1812, U.S. lawmakers decided to show their gratitude to the redoubtable men who had won the first war against Great Britain. In 1818, Congress passed a law granting a lifetime pension to anyone who served for at least nine months in the Continental Army, Navy, or Marines during the American Revolution, provided the individual was “in need of assistance from his country for support.” Overwhelmed by the number of applications for pensions, Congress in 1820 revised the law to require claimants to supply proof of their financial distress.

Even under these more stringent terms, more than 15,000 Revolutionary War Veterans qualified for a pension. Joseph Winter was one of the unlucky few who did not. The German-born Winter lived in a settlement among his fellow immigrants near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania before the war, where he supported himself and his family as a weaver. His wife and children died sometime after the Revolution. As he grew older, his vision deteriorated and he could no longer perform the work required by his chosen trade. With no family to turn to, no means of earning a livelihood, and no pension, Winter became homeless.

On a snowy night in December,1829, portrait painter John Neagle encountered Winter on the streets of Philadelphia. The sight of the destitute Revolutionary War Veteran saddened and dismayed Neagle. Despite communication difficulties, as Winter’s first language was German, Neagle invited him home to hear his story.  

Neagle used his local grocer as a translator. After learning the details of  Winter’s life and his services in the Revolution, Neagle decided to paint his portrait. While many artists had produced  portraits of Revolutionary War veterans, the subjects were all shown in the prime of their lives. Neagle chose to represent Winter as he was in 1829, old, downtrodden, wearing threadbare clothes, his face lined with the hardships he had experienced. At the same time, Neagle was careful to portray Winter with dignity, in a manner calculated to invite sympathy for his situation and his suffering.

The completed portrait attracted a great deal of attention. Another artist, John Sartain, created an engraving of the picture that was sold under the title Patriotism and Age. Through the portrait and the engraving, Winter became the symbol for thousands of elderly veterans. The popularity of the engraving drew the government’s attention to the plight of these men who earlier in their lives had fought for the nation’s independence. In 1832, Congress passed a comprehensive pension act, which offered a monthly payment to almost all surviving Veterans of the conflict, the members of the state militias included and without regard to finances or disabilities. Four years later, Congress extended the same benefits to widows of Revolutionary War Veterans.

What became of Winter after his meeting with Neagle is unknown. However, his image, captured in the portrait and engraving, serves as a powerful reminder that the problem of Veteran homelessness is as old as the nation itself.

Object 8: Public Law 79-293, The Department of Medicine and Surgery Act, 1946

By Katie Delacenserie, Historian, Veterans Health Administration

Public Law 79-293, The Department of Medicine and Surgery Act, 1946
The first page of Public Law 79-293, The Department of Medicine and Surgery Act, 1946. (Library of Congress)

On January 3, 1946, President Harry Truman established the forerunner of today’s Veterans Health Administration when he signed Public Law 79-293, creating the Department of Medicine and Surgery within the Veterans Administration. The bill was the handiwork of three men: General Omar Bradley, the VA Administrator; Dr. Paul Hawley, his chief medical advisor; and Dr. Paul Magnuson, the chair of Northwestern’s Department of Orthopedics. This landmark legislation cemented sweeping changes to Veterans’ health care. The bill exempted medical personnel from the Civil Service hiring regulations, which allowed for doctors and nurses to be selected and appointed more quickly. Additionally, it linked the nation’s medical schools to the VA and initiated a program to construct new VA hospitals.

Dr. Paul Magnuson, General Omar Bradley, and Dr. Paul Hawley. (Medical Care of Veterans)
Dr. Paul Magnuson, General Omar Bradley, and Dr. Paul Hawley. (Medical Care of Veterans)

While the bill was popular with Congress and the public, a last-minute veto push from the U.S. Civil Service Commission threatened to derail its passage. Bradley and Hawley countered the Commission’s objections with their own high-pressure tactics to sway the president. Both threatened to resign on New Year’s Eve if Truman did not sign the legislation. The president chose to side with them and ignore the commission’s entreaties. When the bill became law, Dr. Hawley enthused: “With the signature of the Medical Department Act, our objective is clear, a medical service for the Veteran that is second to none in the world.” He added a promise: “[W]e shall build an outstanding service.”

Equipped with a $500 million budget, Bradley and Hawley set out to make good on that promise and reshape VA health care services.  They launched many key initiatives, including the recruitment of 4,000 full-time VA physicians, nurses, technicians, and other medical personnel. They also established the VA Voluntary Service and the Veterans Canteen Service and hired the first 10 female physicians to care for women Veterans.  These actions not only improved VA care and increased training opportunities for U.S. physicians but also set the stage for significant growth in VA’s medical research program.

Read the entire law here: Public Law 79-293.

Have an idea for an object? Let us know!

We have worked hard to capture VA’s complex and varied history in the exhibit, but our list of 100 objects is not set in stone. We invite readers to submit their own suggestions of objects to include in the exhibit. Send your ideas to VAHistoryOffice@va.gov. If we like your suggestion, we will write it up and give you full credit when the entry on your object appears on the website. 

CLICK HERE for the 100 Objects gallery page to see all previous entries in the exhibit.

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