The Invalid Corps with Day Al-Mohamed

I had the pleasure of meeting Day for the first time at Cripping the Comic-Con a few years back. We had much in common, from our mutual appreciation of history, to our nerdiness, and to the fact that we both write fiction.  When I saw that Day has a kickstarter to create a documentary about the Invalid Corps involved in the American Civil War, I knew that I wanted to cover it for Feminist Sonar.

Equality for people with disabilities isn’t just about accessibility in the form of whether or not there are stairs going up to a building. Equality is about getting to hear about the history of people with disabilities and having an equality of historical space.

Day is doing work that is important to me personally as a historian, and I hope that she reaches her goal so that more people can learn about the vibrant history of people with disabilities in America.

1. Tell us what the Invalid Corps was, and why it is so important to talk about! 
You can’t grow up in America and not hear about the Civil War, one of the most contentious times in our history where the shape and culture of the nation changed through bloody battle. North versus South, Union versus Confederate, Abolitionists versus Slaveholders….the words to describe the sides and the reasons for war change depending on who you talk to, but one thing that everyone agrees on, is the horrific cost of that war. One out of every four soldiers who went to war, died; more than 620,000 men did not make it home.To put that in context, that would be about 9 million people today. In addition to deaths, the civil war had thousands of men who came home injured. Many of us are familiar with Civil War stories of the injuries and amputations that many of the soldiers suffered…60,000 of them in fact, but what happened after? The Invalid Corps was a corps of men with disabilities. These were men who were injured in battle or who acquired chronic illnesses – men missing limbs, and eyes, with rheumatism, epilepsy, bullet injuries, those with what we would now call PTSD, and many others. Rather than be discharged, they continued to serve the Union cause. Life doesn’t end with a disability. And it certainly didn’t for these soldiers. 
 2. Do you remember the first time that you heard or read about the Invalid Corps? I remember seeing a footnote about them in a book years ago, but this is the first dedicated research I can recall seeing about it. How did you feel when you found this history?
The story of the Invalid Corps and their creation during the Civil War (though I am aware of the Invalid Corps of the Revolutionary War as well), came up as part of a discussion with my wife. As an archivist and librarian for a local disability non-profit, she provided content for their “Throw-back Thursday” blog posts, usually  focused around some interesting and disability-related fact or image.  A few months earlier she had written a few paragraphs about these soldiers and I couldn’t let it go. So I kept digging. There is information about injuries in civil war medical museums, information about the Battle of Fort Stevens with several local historical groups, and personal stories from soldiers in papers, correspondence and diaries. Building the full story from a disability and veterans’ perspective is pulling all of these pieces together. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.

3. Do you have a favorite story that you’ve uncovered doing research?

My favorite story comes from the Civil War Letters for Colonel Johnson, I think the footnote you saw is a reference to this event. Colonel Johnson commanded the 18th Regiment of the Invalid Corps (called the Veteran Reserve Corps). They usually guarded prisoners, hospitals, and supply depots. On June 20, 1864,  they were called up to defend White House Landing, Virginia, against an attack by Confederate cavalry. Johnson’s commanding officer sent a courier to ask if his “invalids” would stand. Johnson  sent assurances that his men would stand. Then the offer send a second courier asking the same question again, would his invalids stand. Johnson, presumably angry at the insinuation that his men would not have the courage to face the enemy, responded, “Tell the general, sir, that my men are cripples, and they can’t run.”

4. Why a documentary? You could have written a book, but you’ve chosen this format.

Until you asked, I have to admit, I had not even thought of writing a book, 🙂 which is interesting considering my background involves writing novels, short stories, and essays. I think part of the decision came from the medium itself. I had recently begun working in film and I discovered that it brings a dynamism and “realness” that we don’t usually get from just the page. Film brings with it more complexity and nuance where we can tell individuals stories of these “invalids” in their own voices – we will get to hear and experience it. Film also brings the story to a wider audience. Books are found and read by those with a specific interest, but documentaries sometimes are able to attract interest and visibility beyond a small targeted audience.

5. Tell us a little about what this project means to you personally.

As a woman with a disability, and as a volunteer with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, I feel a kinship with the need some of these men felt; a need to serve and their desire to do what they could. After more than 15 years working on disability policy issues and working with youth with disabilities, I have seen how important it is to see people like yourself – models and mentors. We all want to see reflections of ourselves and our values in the world. Disability doesn’t just exist today, but existed in the past.
This is a lost history of men who sacrificed for their country and then chose to remain on duty; of men who chose to continue to serve with a disability. It is a story that should be told, not just from a historical standpoint but to understand and recognize the efforts of men and women in uniform today. Textbooks tell the stories of famous generals and of costly battles. We need these other stories that tell us about the individuals; the people like us. And yes, that includes people with disabilities too. History belongs to all of us.

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