Things To Do When The Pension File Arrives

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.


9 Comments on “Things To Do When The Pension File Arrives”

  1. Craig Scott says:

    Don’t forget that it is possible to have more than one pension in a file. The survivor’s pension and the widow’s pension for example. So it is not only important to put them in chronological order, but to separate them by pensioner.

  2. Dae Powell says:

    Hey Liz!
    Super treatment here. Would you like to present these ideas in one of our GENTREK Genealogy Chats online? I’ll bet others would benefit from your experiences (and humour).

    Let me know, OK? (email on the website)

    Happy Dae·

  3. Hi Liz,

    I received several copies of the pension file of my ancestor from my Grandfather. He had each copy numbered a different way. I’m sure at least one way was chronological and one way was the order in which it was received.

    I too, made a table which outlined each page, what it entailed and it’s significance. Unfortunately, I’m not versed in these documents well enough to understand their significance, so I kind of set them aside. I guess I need to read up on the NARA site!


  4. Amy Coffin says:

    I second Randy’s suggestion that you consider blogging about portions of the file. My “Anatomy of a Pension File” series is was more popular than I expected it to be.

  5. I’m so glad I read your post! It never occurred to me that the papers in the file might not be in order. I’ve always been very careful to keep the pages in the same order they came to me in.

    I do a table similar to yours when analyzing pension and land file and find it very helpful.

  6. @Kerry: Yes, and it was lucky we’d just gone grocery shopping 🙂
    @ Ginger: Although I’m pretty sure this file hadn’t been looked at in decades, it seemed clear some stuff had been moved around at the time of my gg-grandfather’s death, if only to stamp it “deceased.”
    @ Randy: Thanks — Sometimes I think I go overboard with my charts, but they help me stay focused. And I’ll definitely be sharing my greatest hits from this file 🙂

  7. Randy Seaver says:

    Hi Liz,

    Good idea about the table!

    I hope you share the goodies you find in this pension file. We can all learn from each other’s successes and failures.

    Cheers — Randy

  8. Ginger says:

    This is great! Thank you. When at NARA in April, I copied several pension files and was very careful to keep the order in which I found them. It never occurred to me some clerk–or curious family member at NARA–could have left them out of order!

  9. Kerry says:

    You are SO right…right down to the box of macaroni and cheese!

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