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.
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.