When did you start working with the pension files? How many are there?
We started in November 2005. There are 1.28 million widows’ pension files. We are very close to finishing number 22,000, and we are just finishing the pensions filed in 1861-63.
It’s an important project, because by getting them digitized and online, we are saving wear and tear on the original documents. The pensions are the most looked at of all the files at the District of Columbia building of the National Archives.
What is a pension file?
After First Bull Run, the government realized there were going to be a lot of casualties, and officials referred to the 1838 Congressional Act that dealt with pensions from the War of 1812. They decided that if your husband was killed during the Civil War, you would be awarded a pension. If you had a son on whom you were dependent, you would be awarded a pension if he was killed or died from disease.
Rank determined the amount of a pension. As an enlisted soldier, it was a universal $8 a month. A captain’s widow or the mother of a captain might receive $15 a month. Relatives of a general would receive $50.
As time went on, Congress passed laws increasing the amount of money a widow or a mother or an orphan could get. By 1926, any pensioner alive got $50 a month.
How did one go about getting a pension, say if you lost your husband?
You went to an officer of the court in your county with an application form and had to prove your husband was in the Army, had died and that you had been married to him. If you had any children, you had to prove they were his. Widows also took witnesses to validate such statements.
That application was then sent to the federal pension office; a brief was composed from the provided information. Then the adjutant general’s office prepared a form that confirmed the husband was in the Army, his regiment, enlistment date, etc.
Then all those papers were collected in one place. It could take a year and a half or more before the widow heard from the government, but they were paid retroactively from the day of the husband’s death.
What have you found in the pension files?
Everything! Original marriage certificates…pages out of family Bibles. We’ve found wartime letters from soldiers and photographs. One of my favorite letters was written to the mother of Private Addison W. Barnes, who died of typhoid fever in 1861. This is what his captain wrote: “My heart was shocked with the intelligence that Addison was no more….I believed him to be an adopted child of grace, and a brother in Christ. I loved him, too, because he had been committed to me by the hands of a loving mother whose heartstrings were intertwined with every fiber of his own, and he had in every respect proved himself worthy of my esteem and confidences….He was dressed in a becoming manner, and buried with military honors yesterday.”
Why do you volunteer to do all this work?
I love making the records available. We are looking at files that no one has ever seen before. And, I get two rewards. First, I get to work with my husband, Russ, and I get to work with our volunteers who all work very, very hard.
Originally published in the January 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.