Sunday, February 14, 2010

Civil War Pensions – Understanding Eligibility

Over the years, I have had the opportunity of studying over 500 Civil War pension records and have grown to appreciate their importance as historical and genealogical records. While the Civil War was not the only war where pensions were issued, it remains the war that produced the largest number of pensioners in American history.

In the 1930s, the Veterans Administration became the successor to the Interior Department’s Pension Office. The management of veteran and survivor benefits was transferred to the VA during this period.

Civil War pensions were first issued in 1862 and continued until the last pensioner died. When considering their value as a genealogical record, It is best to have a basic understanding of who qualified for a pension and what type of material you can expect to find. In this post we will briefly discuss how a person qualified for a pension.

To be totally honest, outside of my own observation and knowledge, a large portion of what follows was synthesized from Claudia Linares’ The Civil War Pension Law, a working paper for the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago. Ms. Linares’ document is ©2001 and is invaluable for understanding the pension system in great detail. If you are considering a comprehensive look at Civil War pensions, I would suggest reading her paper on the subject.

Not Every Civil War Veteran Received A Federal Pension

While a large number of pensions had been processed, it only represented a portion of the soldiers who served. Most of my pension research centers on one particular union regiment and 70% of its nearly 1200 men had a pension application associated with their service. Not all applications were successful in securing pensions; however, these applications continue to remain on file and can provide specific information about the soldier in question.

My specific unit, the Ninth Pennsylvania Reserves, had some unique characteristics that may have elevated the number of pension records associated with its soldiers. It was a three-year regiment that served in several major campaigns and was named by William F. Fox in his Regimental Losses of the Civil War as one of the top 300 Union fighting units of the Civil War. Other regiments with shorter terms of enlistment and a lower number of engagements would have a lower percentage of pensioned soldiers or survivors under the original pension rules.

Other variables also determined whether a soldier would have a pension associated with his service. If he was not a wartime casualty, then how long a soldier lived, whether he had any subsequent disabilities, or if he predeceased his widow and she did not remarry would all constitute variables that determined whether a pension record may be associated with the veteran's service.

In addition, federal pensions were only available for Union and not Confederate veterans. Southern soldiers and sailors were considered as being in rebellion against the United States and their service was not honored by the US government.

Not all northern soldiers were eligible for pensions – only those who served in units that were officially mustered into service of the United States were eligible. Members of state mustered militia units and locally raised home guard units were ineligible from applying for a pension. In some cases these units may have been temporarily mustered for federal service; however, if the length of this service was less than 90 days, veterans of these units could not apply for Civil War pensions.

Several Pension Systems Existed

General Law System

Up until 1890, only one system existed: the General Law system that provided pensioners with a monthly amount based on an inability to perform manual labor because of an injury or illness that was incurred in the line of duty during the war. Survivors were also able to apply and receive a pension based on whether a soldier died in the line of duty or as a result of disease or injury occurring during the war.

Survivors, primarily widows and dependent children under the age of 16, were able to apply and to be pensioned. If the deceased soldier did not leave a widow or children, other survivors could also apply, namely parents and orphaned siblings under 16. These applicants had to provide evidence that the son or brother had contributed to the survivor’s livelihood.

The monthly rates for which pensioners were paid varied due to the soldier’s or sailor’s rank and his type of disability. The formula for calculating pensions became quite complicated over time and disabilities that did not permit pensions in the past were added at a reduced rate. Furthermore, Congress also raised rates periodically for certain permanent disabilities.

Additionally, the passage of the Arrears Act in 1879 allowed veterans to additionally claim a lump sum benefit that was paid based on the time of his discharge of service. Survivors were paid a lump sum based on the date of the soldier’s or sailor’s date of death. Claims for pensions soared at this time.

Act of 1890 System

In 1890, the federal government permitted Union veterans the opportunity to apply for a pension based on an inability to perform manual labor due to a non-service related disability. Unlike the General Law system, rates were set to fall between $6.00 and $12.00 per month.

The more severe the disability, the greater the rate; however, the maximum was limited to $12.00 per month. To qualify, a veteran had to serve at least 90 days, be honorably discharged, and his disability could not be related to or caused by vicious habits (i.e., drinking, substance abuse, non-accidental self inflicted injury, etc.).

Additionally, the 1890 Act allowed widows to apply for a pension originally at a rate of $8.00 per month as long as her husband had served 90 days or more and was honorably discharged. In 1904, age related benefits were added to the 1890 system.

A veteran, who had no disabilities, could apply for a pension based on age and receive monthly benefits for life. These were prorated based on age at filing. These rates were as follows: $6.00 for 62 or older, $8.00 for 65 or older, and $12.00 for 70 or older.

Prior to passage the 1890 act, a special census of Union Veterans was conducted that year. This special census, which was taken simultaneously with the 11th census, enumerated the veteran's rank, unit, enlistment and discharge dates, length of service, disabilities incurred in service, and address. As the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1921, a similar fate occurred to the special census prior to 1943.

All of the records for the states and territories alphabetically from Alabama through Kansas were completely destroyed and half of Kentucky's records were affected. The complete surviving records are from states and territories alphabetically from Louisiana through Wyoming. In addition, the records for the District of Columbia were also spared.

Various Age/Service Acts

The Service and Age Pension Act of 1907 allowed individuals to apply for a pension based on age and length of service (90 days or more) and provided monthly benefits for men at various increments of age: 62 or older $12.00, 70 or older $15.00, and 75 older $20.00.

In 1912, the Service and Age Act passed and this act adjusted the 1907 rates based on the amount of time in service. For example, soldiers who served three years received a higher benefit rate than those who served for 90 or 100 days or another shorter period of time. Rate increases to this system occurred in 1918.

In the next installment, I’ll discuss what a researcher may find in within the various pension files and how this material can be of genealogical importance.

The above information was synthesized from:

Linares, C. (2001). The Civil War Pension Law. Center for Population Economics working paper series document 2001-6. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
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