Down, But Not Out

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Eleanor Rose

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-Hobo_sitting_on_a_fence%2C_ca.1920_%28CHS-1428%29.jpg

Photograph of a hobo taken by Charles C. Pierce, 1861-1946. (Public Domain)

Homelessness emerged as a national issue in the 1870s, when in the years following the Civil War a veritable army of homeless men swept across America. These men came to be known as hobos and slowly took command of downtown districts. Numerous sources including diaries, letters and police reports chronicle the life and experiences of hobos.

Hobos in the late 1800s have in many ways morphed into the modern men and women of various backgrounds who have become homeless. Kenneth L. Kusmer in his book entitled, Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (Oxford University Press, 2003) references how hobos were known as "wandering poor, sturdy beggars, or just as vagrants.“ He notes they have been a part of the American landscape since those displaced by war began to congregate. Our nation’s growing industrial cities of the 19th century were segregated by class, race, and ethnicity, with skid rows hiding the impoverished from society and allowing them to be considered the "other," undeserving of respect, regard, and social supports.

The hobo army, infamous for hanging around railroad yards, and illegally riding freight trains, haunted America throughout the mid to late 19th​ century and influenced the creation of welfare state measures. These men called into question the definition of "home" and charted the road to how we view "homelessness" today.

At Christmastime, many folks focus more on our homeless population than any other time of year. It’s worth taking a look at the history of homelessness. You may be surprised by what you learn. Being without a home in the 19th​ century wasn’t any easier than it is today. And a significant number of today’s homeless population remains veterans who have fought valiantly in our wars.
 

Norm53

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View attachment 337406
Photograph of a hobo taken by Charles C. Pierce, 1861-1946. (Public Domain)

Homelessness emerged as a national issue in the 1870s, when in the years following the Civil War a veritable army of homeless men swept across America. These men came to be known as hobos and slowly took command of downtown districts. Numerous sources including diaries, letters and police reports chronicle the life and experiences of hobos.

Hobos in the late 1800s have in many ways morphed into the modern men and women of various backgrounds who have become homeless. Kenneth L. Kusmer in his book entitled, Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (Oxford University Press, 2003) references how hobos were known as "wandering poor, sturdy beggars, or just as vagrants.“ He notes they have been a part of the American landscape since those displaced by war began to congregate. Our nation’s growing industrial cities of the 19th century were segregated by class, race, and ethnicity, with skid rows hiding the impoverished from society and allowing them to be considered the "other," undeserving of respect, regard, and social supports.

The hobo army, infamous for hanging around railroad yards, and illegally riding freight trains, haunted America throughout the mid to late 19th​ century and influenced the creation of welfare state measures. These men called into question the definition of "home" and charted the road to how we view "homelessness" today.

At Christmastime, many folks focus more on our homeless population than any other time of year. It’s worth taking a look at the history of homelessness. You may be surprised by what you learn. Being without a home in the 19th​ century wasn’t any easier than it is today. And a significant number of today’s homeless population remains veterans who have fought valiantly in our wars.
As a child, I remember a few who appeared at our back door asking for food. My mother always gave them sth. I always assumed that they came from the nearby RR.
 
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111thNYSV

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My great grandfather had to deal with the freeloading train hopping hobos working as a brakeman on the NY Central railroad. Shortly after WW2 he bought a GI bring back Walther P38 and carried it with him at work. He said he used it for dispatching rattlesnakes and ushering off the hobos.
 
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Fairfield

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As some know, I've been working on a biographical/genealogical project on the Civil War soldiers from my town. If I transform this work into a single history, I shall probably call it "Broken" because that is what happened to far too many of the vets. They landed up on town poor farms, prisons and in asylums; many had shattered relationships (that seem to have been solid before 1861); many could not hold jobs; and too many simply disappeared. I think the latter must have joined the ranks of the unfortunate fellow in the photograph.

There were some positive results from this dire situation: in Maine (and likely elsewhere), eventually it was illegal to "pauperize" a Civil War vet and the US govt. set up a series of institutions to provide residency for homeless vets as well as medical care (the first of these was Togus in Maine which is still in operation today as part of the VA health care system).
 
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NH Civil War Gal

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This is so sad. We have within a mile of us, the county pauper's cemetery and there are several hundred (estimated) Civil War veterans buried in there, among many others. They have no names because it was cheaper to number the stones and in the passage of time, the log book for everyone has been lost.
 
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Lubliner

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Saturday the thread was posted on Major Lewis Ginter, https://civilwartalk.com/threads/major-lewis-ginter-the-fighting-commissary.166372/#post-2168979 with an obituary from 1914 stating how he was once a prisoner at Old Capital Prison after his capture at Petersburg, Va. It then states the last five years of his life was spent as an inmate of Lee Camp Soldiers' Home [The Times Dispatch, Feb. 08, 1914, page 6]. He died at 77 years of age.

It struck me as odd how it portrayed a confederate major being an 'inmate' of Lee Camp Soldiers' Home for 5 years. Certainly accommodations were much more lenient than the perception given. Hard times for many and the cure is too bitter a pill to swallow.
Lubliner.
EDIT: 'I am sure... to "Certainly..."'
 

lupaglupa

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This is so sad. We have within a mile of us, the county pauper's cemetery and there are several hundred (estimated) Civil War veterans buried in there, among many others. They have no names because it was cheaper to number the stones and in the passage of time, the log book for everyone has been lost.
That is so sad - poor, forgotten men.
 

Wallyfish

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As a child, I remember a few who appeared at our back door asking for food. My mother always gave them sth. I always assumed that they came from the nearby RR.
Me too!

I grew up next to railroad tracks. At the end of my parents yard was a wood mail chute. The post office for my small town was just off my house. They would throw the mail bag off the train into the mail chute. The train would blow its whistle and then the postmaster would come out and grab the mail. BTW, they would put the outgoing mail bag on a hook and the train would try to grab the ongoing bag with a metal pole as the train passed by.

I was told never to go near the mail chute as hobos would sometimes sleep in them. I too remember them knocking at our door asking for food and water when I was a young kid.
 
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Fairfield

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This is so sad. We have within a mile of us, the county pauper's cemetery and there are several hundred (estimated) Civil War veterans buried in there, among many others. They have no names because it was cheaper to number the stones and in the passage of time, the log book for everyone has been lost.
One of the positive things I've encountered is the number of ACW vets who were homeless but who are buried in the family plots of strangers. In one place (I think it was NY), a man bought a cemetery plot specifically for homeless vets.
 

Claude Bauer

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Interesting photo! Is there a date to it?

Roy B.
I'm curious about that too--the file name for the picture is: "Hobo sitting on a fence ca. 1920 CHS-1428." So, it must be from the 1920s, although he could be a Confederate soldier in 1865 from the looks of him! Don't know what CHS-1428 stands for--maybe the initials and number from a collection?

It wouldn't surprise me if it's from the 1920's though. As late as the mid-1950s when I was a little kid, I saw a hobo on the tracks near the small train station next to my neighborhood in Virginia. It was summer and he was wearing tattered pants with a rope for a belt, a plain shirt and a floppy hat. He was pretty thin, too by today's standards.

I recently read a fictional book titled "Jaybird" about a Civil War veteran who was a fifer in the war, and as an old man in the early 1900s, he hit the road with his 12-year old grandson, hopping trains and playing for meal money on the streets of towns in the Mid-West. Although fictional, one gets the impression that it wasn't all that uncommon at the time. There's more on the book at https://civilwartalk.com/threads/reading-next-the-jaybird-by-mackinlay-kantor.161621/#post-2118142.
 
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Fairfield

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Saturday the thread was posted on Major Lewis Ginter, https://civilwartalk.com/threads/major-lewis-ginter-the-fighting-commissary.166372/#post-2168979 with an obituary from 1914 stating how he was once a prisoner at Old Capital Prison after his capture at Petersburg, Va. It then states the last five years of his life was spent as an inmate of Lee Camp Soldiers' Home [The Times Dispatch, Feb. 08, 1914, page 6]. He died at 77 years of age.

It struck me as odd how it portrayed a confederate major being an 'inmate' of Lee Camp Soldiers' Home for 5 years. Certainly accommodations were much more lenient than the perception given. Hard times for many and the cure is too bitter a pill to swallow.
Lubliner.
EDIT: 'I am sure... to "Certainly..."'
I believe that the Lee Soldiers' Home in Richmond, while not providing luxury accommodations, wasn't half bad. It was probably the equivalent of Maine's Togus--certainly not where one would wish to live but administered by vets themselves. The term "inmate" on a census meant only something like "long-term resident"--it could apply to prisoners but, equally, to those in hospitals and a whole range of instituions. Hopefully, Major Ginter's last 5 years were tolerable.
 

John Winn

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One of the positive things I've encountered is the number of ACW vets who were homeless but who are buried in the family plots of strangers. In one place (I think it was NY), a man bought a cemetery plot specifically for homeless vets.
In the cemetery where I volunteer there's a small section with CW vets that was set aside by the sexton - himself a Mexican war vet - for vets who died without any assets or local relatives. In the early 1900s the G.A.R. got stones for all the graves (which, we guess, might have had simple wooden markers originally).
 
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Eleanor Rose

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What exactly is the origin of the word "hobo"? Is it an acrynom or short for something?
Per Wikipedia...
The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a travelling worker.
 
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