Disabled Union Veterans and the Performance of Martial Begging
This essay discusses the phenomenon of disabled Union veterans who turned to the profession of organ grinding during and after the American Civil War: they became mendicant musicians who played music in the streets to beg for money. Within a cultural logic that emphasized the sorting of worthy from unworthy poor—and “true” veterans from “imposters”—the related practices of street music and mendicancy were harshly stigmatized. Although artistic and literary representations of disabled organ grinders often used the performers as rhetorical devices to elicit fear, loathing, or pity, closer scrutiny of surviving documentary evidence reveals that the men indeed possessed agency, along with a capacity and desire for self-representation.
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