United States Civil War Pension Records (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
U.S. Pension Records
On 14 July 1862, the United States Congress passed “An Act to grant Pensions” (12 Stat. 566). This Act awarded pensions to soldiers injured during the Civil War and the surviving widows and minor children of soldiers killed during the war, generally called the “General Law.”
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization for Union veterans, served as early lobbyists, and began petitioning the U.S. Congress on pension matters shortly after the war itself. Some historians attribute the great expansion of the pension system to the efforts of the GAR.
The Disability Act of 1890 removed the restriction of war-related injuries, allowing pensions based solely on time of service, and increased the eligibility of pensions of widows and surviving dependents. This act also increased the amount of monthly pension payments.
President Theodore Roosevelt issued the “Executive Order for Old Age Pensions” in 1904, which increased pension payments based solely on age, with increases for veterans of 62 years, 65 years, and 70 years of age, regardless of injuries. This order set the precedent for several subsequent acts.
The Service and Age Pension Act of February 6, 1907 further increased pension payments based on age, for veterans of 62 years, 70 years, and 75 years of age.
Monthly pension payments were again increased by an Act of May 11, 1912, and an Act of June 10, 1918.
Identifying Your Pensioner Ancestor
Two indexes provide access to the pension records of the Civil War. Both indexes have been microfilmed by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and are available online.
The General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, NARA microfilm publication T288, FHL Film is available on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. These index cards are organized alphabetically by the surname of the applicant. An example of these cards is shown below.
General Index to Pension Files - Oliver Hawkins
In this example, you can see that the index card includes the name of the soldier, the regiment they served in, the date of filing, the application number, and (for successful applications) the certificate number. The card also includes places to put the names of any dependents who applied under this soldier’s service, including the widow and minor children.
The application and certificate numbers are necessary to obtain the records from NARA. Each pension application was given its own identifying number. A certificate number was only provided to pensions after they were granted; disapproved pensions do not have certificate numbers.
The Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900, NARA microfilm publication T289, FHL Film is available and searchable by name on Fold3.
Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans - Oliver Hawkins
In addition to these indexes, the National Archives and Records Administration has also published Index to Pension Application Files of Remarried Widows Based on Service in the Civil War and Later Wars and in the Regular Army after the Civil War, Microfilm publication M1785; FHL Film and several other related publications on microfilm and microfiche. The NARA website has a complete catalog to their microfilm publications, as well as a goldmine of additional information concerning their records.
The original pension application files are held at the National Archives and Records Administration building in Washington, D.C. Through a partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration, the subscription genealogy website Fold3 has begun scanning these files and offering them online as part of their paid service. You can also order the undigitized files directly from NARA on their website.
Pensions for naval service were published on the following NARA microfiche publications:
- M1469, FHL Film Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Civil War and Later Navy Veterans (“Navy Survivor’s Certificates”), 1861-1910;
- M1408, FHL Film Case Files of Disapproved Pension Applications of Civil War and Later Navy Veterans (“Navy Survivors’ Originals”), 1861-1910;
- M1279, FHL Film Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War and later Navy Veterans (“Navy Widows’ Certificates”), 1861-1910;
- M1274, FHL Film Case Files of Disapproved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War and Later Navy Veterans (“Navy Widows’ Originals”), 1861¬-1910.
Some of these microfiche publications have also been digitized on Fold3.
Clues in a Pension Application File
Pension files in general, but especially those for Civil War veterans, are often a virtual vault of information concerning your ancestor.
Contained within these files, you will find such items as proof of military service, proof of disability, proof of age and marriage, as well as gems like affidavits from friends, family, and neighbors, physical examination reports from doctors, and others. Once you have obtained a copy of this file, you will almost certainly discover some new and undiscovered information.
As proof of disability, the pensioner will usually offer an affidavit in which he recounts how he was injured. This affidavit will tell where and under what conditions the incident occurred. If the injury was sustained during a battle, you may find a description of the battle itself, and what part your ancestor played.
For proof of age, you might find copies of family Bibles or church registers, or you may find affidavits from parents or siblings. Proof of marriage may consist of copies of marriage certificates, church registers, or affidavits from witnesses to the wedding.
Many pension applications contain numerous affidavits, from all sorts of associates, including family, friends, neighbors, current and former co-workers, current and former comrades-at-arms, former commanding officers, local government officials, physicians, and others. The topics of these affidavits can range from the pensioner’s birth, marriage, or death, to witnesses of various events in his life, to general character witnesses.
Affidavits normally consist of the name, age, and place of residence of the person, how long and under what context they know the applicant, and their statement concerning the applicant.
In addition to the specific information provided in the affidavit, they also provide information for your cluster genealogy studies, by identifying an associate and their specific association.
But the above information is only a small part of what you might find in a pension application file. Any evidence deemed relevant to the claim will be found here. And the clues contained herein will lead you to many additional records.
If you are lucky enough to have descended from one of the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers who applied for a pension, the file will be one of your most valuable sources of information.
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