Author’s Note: A Civil War pension file, if your ancestor has one, is a marvelous thing for a nosy descendant. If you’re not sure what one is and how to get one, study up at the National Archives site.
First, the preliminaries: Ask spouse where the mail is. Discover package from National Archives in Washington, D.C., containing your great-great-grandfather’s complete Civil War pension file. Wander abstractedly away from spouse and bewildered children. Tell them there’s mac and cheese in the cupboard, you think.
On to business:
1. Open the envelope. (It will look like something from Land’s End, but heavier.)
2. Don’t hyperventilate at the “Dear Patron” notice, which does look ominous.
This is a standard “We Regret” letter, apologizing in advance for copies that are blurry or faded due to the original document’s age and wear. My file didn’t contain any illegible Xeroxes, although I’ve heard accounts of disappointing copies.
3. Don’t just rummage.
HAHAHAHAHAHA! You are not going to follow this direction at all, I bet. I tried to, for about thirty seconds. I was going to be all cool and calm and organized and WAIT A MINUTE! THAT’S MY GG-GRANDMA’S BIRTH NAME!! WHEEEE! WHAT ELSE IS IN THERE?????
[****Cue feral genealogy sounds.****]
So. Ahem. After you finish rummaging and have slept off your genealogy buzz (this will perhaps be two days later):
4. Go through the file carefully and put the paperwork in order.
This will take time, because in all likelihood your file will be a mess, whether you rummaged in it or not. The archive folks photocopy what they find and send it along. They cannot be blamed if, over the last 120 years, a succession of clerks was sloppy about filing and re-filing. Do your best to put the file into chronological order, examining the paperwork carefully to make sure that multi-page documents haven’t been mixed up. Be careful with date stamps — they note the date a document was received at its destination, not when it was created. These two dates are usually close together, but not always. Update: Craig Scott, in the comments, makes the good point that it’s not uncommon to find more than one pensioner in a file — a soldier and his widow would be the obvious example. Just another thing to keep in mind when sorting.
5. Make copies of the file.
What sort of copies depends on your style. Some like writing notes directly on paper copies. I prefer making my notes in a separate notebook or Word file, and scan the file pages to my hard drive(s). But whichever way you go, copying is a good idea.
6. Make an inventory of the file.
Just a suggestion, but it can be very helpful. Here’s what the start of my file summary looks like.
|1. File Label||None||No. 592-963Veteran: Martin Haigney
Rank: 1st class Pvt.
Service: Ordnance Dept. US Army
CAN no. 12841 Bundle No. 16
|2. Declaration for Invalid Pension
Notes: Regular Army enlistment records show Martin’s first enlistment was in 1854, not ’57.
Age given here indicates a birth year of 1833, not 1831, the year he specifies in Doc. #27.
|17 July 1890||Initial application for pension under the Act of June 27, 1890. Martin gave his age as 57, his initial enlistment as March 1857. He re-enlisted in March 1864.Reason for applying was inability to earn support by manual labor due to age and rheumatism in shoulders and right leg.
Martin signs with an X, being unable to write his name.
Tabulated information soothes me. It also helps me prioritize. For instance, the first document I worked with was No. 16, the marriage and family questionnaire my ancestor filled out in 1898. It had a couple of birth dates for his children I’d never known, plus information on his spouse and date of marriage. My chart helps me pinpoint discrepancies quickly, and when I’m done with the scanning, it will help me navigate my online files quickly, too.
Finally, the best part:
7. Make a list of all the interesting new ideas you can investigate because of the information in this file.
So that’s what I’m doing with my great-great grandfather’s pension file, and it’s just scratching the surface. What are your tips?
Further reading: I enjoyed this informative group of articles about assessing pension files. One caution, however: the fees quoted for obtaining a complete file from NARA are out of date. But there are very good case studies and tips.
… The Draft Riots were consuming New York City (from July 13 – 16, 1863).
It was an ugly chapter in New York City history. The spark was a strict new draft law empowering the President to draft all males between ages 18 and 35 for a three-year term of military service. It also established a loophole whereby a man who paid $300 (or paid a substitute to fight for him) could exempt himself from the service — a natural sore point for those lacking money to buy their way out.
It was a short step from resenting the draft to resenting the city’s African American population. Modern scholars see the riots as a boiling point for a big, noxious stew of tensions — white laborers resentful of black laborers’ competition in the marketplace; decades’ worth of sensational journalism decrying the supposed evils of interracial socializing and marriages. The mob also targeted so-called “amalgamationists,” which mostly meant white women married or cohabiting with black men.
When it was all over, at least 120 citizens were dead (some estimates put the toll much higher), and 50 buildings were destroyed, including, infamously, the Colored Orphan Asylum, whose children were moved to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island for safety. African Americans bore the brunt of the mob’s fury: citizens were seized by the crowd to be stabbed, lynched, and beaten to death, and the homes of several prominent black citizens were burned.
The Draft Riots have retained a vivid life in the imaginations of novelists and filmmakers. A notable recent example is Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, which draws heavily on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 account. (More recent scholarship has disagreed with aspects of Asbury’s study, including casualty figures.)
With the Civil War raging, the Draft Riots were a destructive and disturbing convulsion — “equivalent to a Confederate victory,” wrote scholar Samuel Eliot Morrison. Order was restored after three days of violence, but the scars remained in permanent rifts between the black and white working class, and a widespread exodus of black families from once-thriving African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan.
I had a high school teacher whose behavior could be erratic, to put it mildly. He could be a genial, funny, wisecracking sort of guy. But he could lose his temper with a swift intensity that looked damned scary to a clueless freshman.
Any little thing could do it. I do not remember exactly how I set it off the time I was the target. It might have been something like not responding quickly enough when he called on me. Maybe I was grinning at one of his remarks. In five seconds, he went from calm instructor to red-faced and furious, nose-to-nose with me, screaming at the top of his lungs that I’d better not disrespect him again. When he was done, he continued the lesson as if nothing had happened.
Another time he went around the class asking us about our fathers’ military service. He himself had seen combat in the Marines. Where had our fathers served?
“Army,” said one kid.
“You dad was smarter than me,” said my teacher. “Next?”
“Navy,” said the kid next to me.
“Smarter still.” My teacher was on a roll now. He pointed at me. “What about your father?”
“Coast Guard,” I said.
“Smartest guy of all.” Even the most clueless of freshmen knew that this wasn’t a compliment. And indeed, it was a launching point for a five-minute, acerbically humorous riff on easy tours of duty, as compared to other (unspecified) nastier assignments.
I never mentioned any of this to my parents at the time. I wasn’t programmed to bring problems like that home — it was our business to take what the teachers dished out. But also, it was easy to see that the guy had issues with a capital I. The encounter angered but also disturbed me; I wondered what he was really expressing with it.
And years later, after I’d graduated and heard that he’d committed suicide, I was not terribly surprised. We didn’t have a name for it, but even back in the 1970s we were starting to figure out that you could come home from a war only to find the war came home with you.
Memorial Day is when we remember those killed in combat, but I’d also like to remember the ones who came home and never talked about it, who cracked jokes and blew their stacks for no good reason, the ones whom the wars claim again and again, years after the fact. I wish them peace and honor their service.