Today, we are going to look at how pension records created after the Civil War can help identify and reconnect slave-era families and relationships in the South. This article will assume that you have already identified someone in your family who may have served in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), and that you already have basic information, such as age or approximate birth year, state of residence or enlistment, and perhaps, regiment of service.
If you have already obtained the soldier’s military service record, you have a good foundation. But don’t stop there. Riches abound in pension files for former slaves, and can increase exponentially if your soldier died during the war and the pension was filed for by his wife or minor heirs.
Before requesting a pension file from the National Archives, be aware that there are two types of requests. Form 85-D is a request for the entire pension file (up to 100 pages) and presently costs $80. Form 85-B is a request for a “Pension Documents Packet,” which contains eight specific documents from the pension file; this costs $30. Whenever possible, especially in the case of former slaves, I encourage people to request the full file (Form 85-D). That being said, obtaining a complete pension file is rather expensive, and many of the documents will seem to be redundant or hold little information of value. You may choose to obtain the smaller and more economical Pension Documents Packet. Although the smaller packet undoubtedly holds significant information, you may be missing some real treasures by not requesting the full file.
Keep in mind that the government, true to form, loved paperwork, and indeed, looked at applicants with a critical eye before issuing any checks from the treasury. This desire for documentation resulted in voluminous paperwork, particularly for former slaves – and it can be to your advantage.
Why is this especially the case with former slaves? The nature of slavery meant these men and their families had precious little documentation to give to the pension examiners. They lacked formal records of their marriages or dissolution of their previous relationships. Many did not know their age or birthdates. Family had been scattered by war, slavery, or the desire to move away from the South. People often changed their names – or had their names changed involuntarily, and one person might have gone by three or four different names from the time he enlisted to the time he applied for a pension. For all these reasons, pension examiners often interviewed many witnesses in an attempt to be certain about the identity of the soldier in question. The affidavits from these individuals can provide outstanding information about dates, places, people, and relationships, but they are generally only included in the full pension file.
The types of information you can find in a full pension file, when it concerns a former slave-soldier or his family can include:
Previous names and name changes
Names of slaveholders
Names of other family members
Names of previous spouses, both in slavery and in freedom
Names of offspring (including step-children) and their parents
Formal and informal marriages in slavery and in freedom
Divorces or separations (voluntary or forced)
Previous residences, including names of plantations
Place of birth, often including city or county, and first slaveowner
Parents’ names, even if they died before the Civil War and/or were slaves
Family separations through migrations or slave sales
Dates of death of soldier/pensioner and his spouse
Even if you choose to obtain the smaller, less expensive Pension Document Packet, consisting of only eight documents, you can still obtain useful information.
Let’s look at the case of John Gordon, who served in Company B of the 49th U.S. Colored Infantry. We learn from his Pension Documents Packet that he was born in Burr County, North Carolina on October 8, 1847. He enlisted at “Melgin” [Milliken’s] Bend, Louisiana in 1863; and had been living in Washington County, Mississippi as a blacksmith prior to his enlistment. A formal government questionnaire specifically asks if he was a slave, and requests that he name all of the former slaveholders. Obtaining the names of the former slave owners can lead to many other resources. The questionnaire also asks for dates and places of residence since the war, opening up other avenues for research. A second questionnaire asks for his wife’s maiden name, the date and place of their marriage, and the names of all children, even those that were deceased. All of this is useful information that can be used as a springboard for additional research.
Sadly, when I obtained Gordon’s basic Pension Documents Packet, there was no indication whatsoever that this treasure also existed in his file:
Photographs are extremely rare to find in pension files, though in the case of former slaves, it might take a photograph to sufficiently prove a man’s identity. A witness might view an image of the veteran and confirm to the authorities that the man was indeed the same person who served in their company during the war, though he was going by a different name today than he had used at the time of his service.
Pension files for Civil War soldiers are always worth pursuing, but this is particularly the case for African-Americans who had been slaves. Even if you do not have a direct ancestor who was the proper age to have been a soldier, try to find someone else in the family who was. Siblings, in-laws, neighbors, and others may have testified on his behalf, and this in turn may be able to assist you in your own family’s search.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
Two books rely heavily on pension files for USCT veterans and their families, and serve as excellent case studies:
Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi by Noralee Frankl (Indiana University Press, 1999)
Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau by Elizabeth A. Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer (NYU Press, 2008).
“Family Tree Friday: How to Make Sense of a Civil War Pension File” by John, March 11, 2011, “NARAtions: The Blog of the United States National Archives,”
Request a pension record from the National Archives (scroll to middle of page)
Civil War “Widows’ Pensions” on Fold3