In March of 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill establishing the National Asylum (later renamed National Home) of Disabled Volunteer Soldiers into legislation, just three months before his assassination. Due to the severe impact of the Civil War, the idea of homes for disabled veterans had begun gaining favor in Congress. The war had a severe impact on the population of young men in the United States, with approximately two percent of the US population losing their lives and thousands of soldiers returning home injured.
After the bill establishing the National Home was signed into law, the federal government began selecting locations for branches. The main considerations for hospital locations were that they were accessible by rail and in quiet cities with clean air for patients. A Republican congressman representing Illinois, Joseph Gurney Cannon (1836-1926), advocated for a Danville Branch of the National Home. Cannon knew that a branch of the National Home would not only provide housing and care for local veterans, but also bring federal money and jobs into the city of Danville, where he had lived since 1876.
The Danville Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was established in 1898, the eighth of thirteen branches. Cannon was known as the “Father of the Home,” due to his role in founding the Danville Branch. In the broader US and media, he was referred to as “Uncle Joe.” Cannon later served as Speaker of the House from 1903-1911 and was a leading figure in United States politics.
The National Homes were more than just medical treatment facilities for veterans; they were planned communities for veterans with opportunities for employment, entertainment, and socialization. The Danville Branch had several wards for various medical services and treatments, as well as a chapel, library, theater, and several other recreational buildings. In its first decade, the branch housed as many as 4,000 veterans.
Following World War I, the United States Veterans Bureau was established to address the needs of the increasing number of veterans. The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, which had become known as the “Old Soldiers’ Home,” was integrated in the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital System. By the 1980s, the Danville Veterans Administration Medical Center treated mainly outpatients. In 1992, the campus of the National Home, which continues to host a VA hospital and serves as a community college, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The submission registering the Danville Soldier’s Home as the historic site stated that the site, “symbolized the nation’s continued care and concern for veterans.”
Cannon kept a photo album from the Danville Soldier’s Home that depicts workers, patients, and events at the hospital from 1898-1909. The Joseph Gurney Cannon Photo Album and Book was purchased by the predecessor of the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, the Illinois Historical Survey, in 1970. The photo album was partially digitized in 2000 (individual photographs) and fully digitized in 2022 (full album), and images are available on the Library’s Digital Collections site: Digitized Content from the Joseph Gurney Cannon Photo Album.
The memoirs of Joseph Gurney “Uncle Joe” Cannon (B.C226 C2)
Greetings from Danville, Ill.: a history in postcards (Q. 977.365 G859)
Edwards, Alice and Joseph Gallagher, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form:
Danville Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Historic District,” National Park Service, 1990, https://web.archive.org/web/20140325070246/http://gis.hpa.state.il.us/pdfs/200893.pdf.
“History of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers,” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/articles/history-of-disabled-volunteer soldiers.htm.
Plante, Trevor K. “The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers,” Genealogy Notes, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2004, https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/spring/soldiers-home.html.