You might have noticed me screaming posting about Civil War pension files recently. Blame my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney, who applied for a veteran’s pension shortly after the enactment of the Disability Pension Act of June 1890.
Martin was not a civilian who joined the great volunteer army of 1861-1865 and fought through its bloody battles — what I think of as a classic Civil War veteran. He had been regular Army since March 1854, when, probably soon after arriving in the United States, he enlisted as a soldier at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. And there he served as a soldier, from 1854 until 1867.
Watervliet Arsenal went on to play a vital role in arming Union troops, no doubt about it. However, although Martin was a soldier and was part of an immense war effort, he didn’t dodge snipers at Gettysburg or scramble out of the crater at Petersburg. This left me doubtful when I first started wondering whether he might have gotten a Civil War pension. Was he really pensioner material?
Well, I failed to consider the remarkable scope of the 1890 act. Fortunately, I caught up due to a fascinating and lengthy Ohio State Law Journal article (P. Blanck, Vol. 62, 2001, .pdf file) that examines the Civil War pension system, which began in 1862.
Early on, the U.S. government established pensions for disabled veterans and the widows and orphans of the slain. “Disability” had to be expressed in specific quantities. For example, in 1862 a totally disabled private was eligible for a stipend of $8 per month. From there, it was a matter of determining fractions. Lost a finger or toe? You rated a 2 out of 8, or $2 per month. An eye? 4/8.
As the war went on, the number and magnitude of injuries forced adaptations. Congress passed modifications providing increased benefits for severely disabled soldiers. A 100 percent disabled veteran was defined as one needing “regular aid and attendance” from another person. Measles, malaria and sunstroke were added to the list of war-related conditions. Then an 1873 act took a big leap forward by compensating claims for subsequent disabilities — conditions which, though related to wartime service, didn’t appear until years later. However logical this might seem by today’s standards, it was pretty radical thinking to some commentators of the day.
But the really radical leap came in 1890. The 1890 act tied the pension system more to the idea of service rather than circumstance. It included new requirements for the length of military service. And it did not require the veteran’s disability to be directly war-related, as long as it was not caused by “vicious habits.”
As in previous acts, however, disability level = a person’s capacity for manual labor. Someone who could not perform one-half of an ablebodied man’s work was a potential pensioner.
Well, I could go on and on, because frankly I’m fascinated by yet another example of how the Civil War sparked big social changes. But for now let’s go back to Martin’s 1890 pension application, and the affidavit sworn before a county clerk in Albany, NY on 4 Sept. 1890 by two of his neighbors, David Fitzgerald and Patrick Lyons.
That we have been well and personally acquainted with Martin Haigney [sic] for 25 years, and 25 years respectively, and that since his return from the Army we certify he has been a man of good temperate habits and that the disability is of a permanent character and same is not due to his vicious habits we are near neighbors of his living only about four or five hundred yards apart and have seen him daily three and four times a week the period since he came to live in our neighborhood, about 25 years ago we have conversed with him during the same time and know that he has suffered from the disability of rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders
He is married and has a family depending on him for their suport [sic] We know he has not been wholely [sic] confined to his house but has found laboring work wherever he could. At such light labor as he could do working in a carpenter shop sweaping [sic] floors and policing about the building at the rate of one Dollar and 12 cents per day for ten Hours work That we know he has paid what he could afford for medicine to cure his rheumatism and we know he is considerablly [sic] bent over from his disability That he is well advanced in years about sixty years of age He is not able to do a sound ablebodied mans [sic] work for he is not physically strong or sound man and we belive [sic] in propositions to his disability He is impaired fully more than one half
These guys had the right talking points:
1. Martin’s disability — severe rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders — was real and permanent. Plus, it was severe enough that he could no longer “do a sound ablebodied mans work.” Indeed, he was “impaired fully more than one half.”
2. Martin was a man of “good temperate habits” and his disability was “not due to vicious habits.”
3. He was not averse to work. He was trying to support his family with a combination janitor/security guy job at a carpenter’s shop.
Martin’s neighbors (well, most likely the attorney helping him with his application) knew it was important to stress two key factors: degree of disability and soundness of character. Commentators throughout the post-Civil War era fretted about veterans taking advantage. “There are very few men who could not have got a certificate of disability,” groused the New York Times in 1894. “The door of fraud was thrown wide open to let those in who were not incapacitated for self-support.”
Even in 1890, Martin knew the onus was on him to prove himself the real deal.
Bill McGrath of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society (TIGS) recently announced another exciting indexing project: a compilation of death and marriage notices in a variety of area newspapers. The project volunteers will transcribe an extensive listing covering 1812-1885. This is a significant time frame in that it predates civil vital records registration in New York State.
If you have relatives you’re researching in the Capital District, this database will be worth exploring. The names in the records are not exclusively Troy residents; the newspapers covered surrounding towns, and there are mentions of people from counties throughout New York State, as well as Vermont and Massachusetts.
The original information was compiled in the 1930s by the Philip Schuyler Chapter of the DAR, with funding from the federal Works Progress Administration — a New Deal agency that enabled important public works projects nationwide.
The first records are already up at the TIGS site and consist of 608 death records and 1,152 marriage records published in The Troy Post from Sept. 1, 1812 through July 1, 1823.
Read on for the complete news release from TIGS:
In planning for a genealogy trip to New York State’s Capital District, I’m determined not to burn precious road-trip time on tasks I could accomplish closer to home.
Consider the New York vital records microfiche indexes, which list events, names, places, dates and certificate numbers (not the certificates themselves). They’re at the New York State Archives in Albany, but copies are also at several other locations across the state. For me the closest is the National Archives Northeast Region facility in New York City, a commuter’s ride away. Excellent!
The New York vitals parameters read like a particularly nasty pop quiz. Indexes begin in 1880 (for deaths) and 1881 (for births and marriages). They cover everyplace except for (a) Albany, Yonkers and Buffalo births and deaths before 1914, and marriages before 1908, and (b) the city of New York, but do include Staten Island, bits of western Queens and assorted townlands of Brooklyn and Westchester prior to annexation. Births are available after 75 years, deaths and marriages after 50 years.
Got that? Me neither. One can re-read the rules at the New York State Archives site. Do so, and carefully. Dick Hillenbrand’s Upstate New York Genealogy website has a guide to obtaining New York State vital records that is as user-friendly as things get in this cruel world.
The microfiches themselves are straightforward. The older ones run by year, alphabetized by last name. Some years (like the 1956 deaths I searched) are indexed by Soundex, however. (Never leave your Soundex cheat sheet at home, class.)
It was a good day overall. I found all the births where I had specific time frames, plus one birth listing that was a total shot in the dark (a “child died young” who was documented only on my Aunt Catherine’s handwritten Genealogy List). I also easily found death listings for both my Haigney great-great-grandparents, plus a great-great aunt. Marriages were a bust, despite diligent searching. Maybe my relatives didn’t register, or maybe my information isn’t 100 percent accurate. (I know; unthinkable.)
Confirming the existence, dates and numbers of vital records can speed retrieval (and save money) at the state Department of Health, which holds the certificates. Now I need to decide which certificates are most urgently worth ponying up for. At $22 per genealogy copy, this is a serious matter.
If you’re using the New York State vitals microfiches, I suggest these steps:
1. Make sure you really need them. For pre-1880 vitals, you need to dig elsewhere. For New York City, you need the New York City Municipal Archives. And don’t forget that Albany/Yonkers/Buffalo thing.
2. Save your sanity; narrow your date range. Use censuses, military records, family traditions, Bible notations, whatever you’ve got. Newspapers, too– stories like this one can be gold mines.
3. At the repository, tackle your “sure-thing,” specific searches first. Then do the fuzzier searches.
4. Carefully write everything down, especially if you’re sure it’s not important.
Fresh from the Department of Neat Ideas comes something called Historypin, best described as Google street view with vintage photos thrown in. The Flowing Data blog explains that it is the brainchild of the organization We Are What We Do, built in conjunction with Google and intended as an Internet experience through which older and younger generations can connect.
The idea is you can look up an address and see both the current street view plus a vintage street view of the same area, assuming somebody has uploaded one. The site seems to be in the beta stage, and there aren’t terribly many photos yet. But the potential fun and potential educational value are obvious, especially as more people upload photos. (Thanks to Actuarial Opinions for forwarding the item!)
My Google alert for genealogy turned up some alarm this past week about the dangers of relying too heavily on the Internet for genealogy research.
I’d just add that the belief in a Big Rock Candy Mountain of genealogy wonders predates the arrival of Ancestry.com. A lot of people love the idea that somewhere, somehow, all the genealogy records they need will be in a single place. If they evolve beyond a casual interest in genealogy, they soon find out that:
1. People generate all sorts of records in all sorts of places, some of which don’t share their records with big repositories, whether out of inertia or sheer desire to be annoying.
2. If you go back far enough, people didn’t generate much in the way of records, period. In which case no “central repository” is going to give you everything you need, anyway.
3. The way home to Kansas, Dorothy, is with your own two feet. You just gotta belieeeeveee.
When I first started my genealogy quest, Internet databases were practically nonexistent. But the Big Rock Candy Mountain idea was still out there.
I’d often talk to a relative about setting up an interview, only to be told that I simply HAD to journey to Salt Lake City (or order up a couple of FHL microfilms) and I’d find everything I needed to know. It was funny how people never saw themselves as my most important genealogy source. No, there had to be a Big Universal Official Source somewhere.
So I wouldn’t say the Internet caused this situation, although it certainly has intensified things. The problem is the myth of a one-stop solution, and it’s worth a good rant.
Because getting past this idea of the Universal Genealogy Bat Cave is so important. It’s such a barrier to creative thinking and problem solving. And once it drops by the wayside, a lot of supposedly impregnable brick walls can come tumbling down.