Mary and Ronald Zboray speak on Civil War veterans, disability, and mendicancy at Ohio State University

Ronald J. Zboray, Professor of Communication and Director of the Program in Cultural Studies, and Mary Saracino Zboray, Visiting Scholar in Communication, were both invited to speak on 16 November 2018 about their ongoing collaborative research into the cultural history of the American Civil War at the Ohio Seminar in Early American History and Culture.  The Ohio seminar, sponsored by the Department of History, Ohio State University, annually invites scholars to submit their emerging research in written form, for discussion by faculty and graduate students in and around Columbus, Ohio.  The seminar is instrumental in shaping works-in-progress for future publication.  


The Zborays submitted their essay “Performing Disabled Veterancy: ‘The Armless Sailor,’ Street-Vending, and Politics, 1866-1869.”  It concerned the roles that an itinerant mendicant organ-grinder, Bernardus Tobei played in street politics during the early Reconstruction era when Democrats and Republicans contested each others’ agendas for reconciliation with and reformation of the former Confederacy.  Tobei, who had had a bilateral amputation of his arms after being wounded by a cannon explosion in 1856, only pretended to be a sailor who fought at the Battle of Fort Fisher (1865), but he nonetheless practiced the political project of Radical Reconstruction in his street theater as he traveled from 1866 to 1869 throughout Upper State New York, the Midwest, and New England.  The ‘Armless Sailor’ was a favorite of the press, which advertised his street-vending in the papers and appropriated him as a symbol of the necessity for more decisive measures against the South and for guaranteeing civil rights for newly freed slaves.  As a person with an acquired disability Bernard Tobey (as the Dutch immigrant came to be known) can be positioned at the nexus of studies of disabled veterans in history and the new Disability Studies in its turn from medicalization toward social and cultural contructivism.  Although he feigned veterancy, he performed it in such a way that actual veterans and veterans-rights supporters looked to him as an inspiration for forming postwar veterans’ organizations, for furthering Radical political agendas, and for campaigning during the midterm elections of 1866 and the presidential election of 1868.  Thus from Tobei, who was never detected in his ruse, we can learn more about the lives of actual veterans and the problems many of them faced as they navigated the postwar milieu.  As a person with a visible disability, Tobei shared with veterans who had similar physical disabilities a common concern for making a living and for the welfare of family members at a time when government pensions and other forms of support were meager, and when people with disabilities were given little economic security outside of family and charity and were granted but few civil rights.