Looking Back: Peeking at Civil War pensions

December 22, 2003|BRENDA S. EDWARDS

Researchers can find all sorts of information about their Civil War ancestors in pension application papers.

Mike Watson, a genealogist, teacher, librarian and historian, recently talked about information in pension applications housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. He was speaker at the Boyle County Genealogical Association meeting in Danville.

Most people usually receive information on the pension application, but Watson said the large envelopes he found in the National Archives contain much more. His mission was daunting.

"When I went into the archives, I felt like I was trying to get into prison," Watson said of the tight security.


"They have the pencil and paper and all you can take in is money to purchase copies."

He said you have to leave your other things in a locker outside the library.

"It's kind of intimidating. Everyone goes into the reading room to make requests," he said.

Watson said it's worth the extra trouble.

"I love the Civil War pension records. You can see the entire records. They bring big envelopes with all the information," he said. Researchers also can order a copy of the entire file but it will cost extra, as much as $37 per file, he said.

When Watson found the file he was seeking, he saw information he had not received when he ordered copies of the record.

"There were hundreds of pages in the file. The average Civil War pension file has 126 pages. Some files have 20 pages while others have four envelopes on one man."

A typical file has the mother and father of the person making the application, and why a person filed a pension application. Some documents name children. Some of the names are misspelled, and that caused a problem.

"I searched for 20 years for Harrison VanBuren Polley (Polly) and later found the file under H.B. Volly," said Watson. "I went through the card files for veterans, and there he was. He had to prove his service record."

The proof of service information lists where a soldier was in the hospital or prison camp. Some men served as a substitutes for another person, but had no records to prove it. That had to be proved before a pension was approved.

Even if a soldier was considered a deserter he could draw a pension, said Watson. Sometimes a soldier was sent home sick or for other reasons, then he would return later.

"My ancestor went home, got married and did not return for two weeks. His regiment left and he caught up with the unit just as the war ended," Watson said.

Records can tell a researcher where the ancestor served during the war, what unit he was with and all sorts of interesting information on the person. One man had to prove he was injured during the war.

"One ancestor was a cook during the war," said Watson. "When he applied for a pension, he indicated he suffered a head injury when a man hit him in the head because he did not like something that the cook had prepared. He told how big the scar was," the speaker said.

Sometimes a family doctor would help fill out a pension application and if that information was questionable, the government would send out another doctor to check out the veteran.

As the men got older, they could apply for a raise, but had to go through the same process again. Watson said some pensions list the wife and children, while others did not. If the child was under 16 years old, he would be listed with the birth date.

The information on the second application usually did not match the first one. Some of the names were changed if a child had a nickname, and birth dates were different, depending on the memory of the person who filled out the application.

Some of the most valuable information can be found in an affidavit or deposition, Watson said. This likely will not be in papers a researcher gets in the mail.

This information supports the soldier's claim. It has facts about his life and family. Sometimes it would list more than one wife and family. Relatives, neighbors or former comrades wrote letters to help the veteran.

Confederate pension papers for Kentucky veterans can be found on microfilm at the Kentucky Department of Archives and Libraries in Frankfort. The state took over the pension records after 1912. The Confederate papers are vague from state to state, Watson said. However, Texas has the best pension files and also paid the most pension to veterans.

Watson said a lot of Confederate veterans passed through Texas and might show up in the records. When veterans filed for pensions, information included where they lived.

Watson told about one man who had lived in 30 locations in 20 years. He, his wife and children covered 10 states during that time.

Another place information was recorded was at post offices. When a veteran died, the postmaster would report to the federal government so the pension would stop. The postmaster would send the check back and this meant a lot of paper work.

Sometimes the correspondence would go on for 10 years while doctors and hospitals filed for refunds. Sometimes the information shows where the person died and was buried. Most of the time, his birth date was not known, so the government usually gave the veteran a birth date.

Cemetery headstones of veterans also are on record. The funeral home or postmaster would write in and give the information to the government.

To get a military headstone, the family had to prove where the veteran died and was buried. Watson said many Confederate veterans' graves have been marked in recent years.

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