Civil War Pension Files: Understanding Pension Laws

From the beginning of the Civil War through the twentieth century, Congress passed many laws that impacted pensions for Civil War Union veterans and their dependents. (For more information about pension files and how to access them, see last month’s NGS Monthly article, “Civil War Union Pension Files: Contents and Access“). Pension laws concerned everything from eligibility to payment amounts to agency administrative procedures.

Some of the major laws and changes include the following:

  • In 1861, Congress passed An Act to Authorize the Employment of Volunteers to Aid in Enforcing the Laws and Protecting Public Property, specifying that Civil War volunteers who were disabled due to wounds received or diseases contracted during service could receive a pension. Dependents of volunteers who died as a result of injuries or disease during service would receive pay arrears and a lump sum payment. (During this time, pension claims for men who had been called into service were still based on older laws, such as the Old Wars Pension Act.)

    Statutes at Large

    Statutes at Large

  • By 1862, An Act to Grant Pensions allowed not only volunteers, but anyone serving for the Union, including “Regular Army” soldiers and militia, as well as Navy sailors and Marines, to collect pensions if they were disabled due to wounds received or diseases contracted during service. This law also allowed dependents of veterans killed during service to apply for pensions. Also starting in 1862, if a veteran had no widow or child, a dependent mother could collect the pension; if there was no dependent mother, orphaned sisters under the age of sixteen could collect it.
  • Beginning in 1866, An Act Supplementary to the Several Acts Relating to Pensions allowed dependent fathers and orphaned brothers under the age of sixteen to collect a pension if the veteran had no widow or child. By 1868, An Act Relating to Pensions set an order of precedence for instances such as these. If a veteran had no widow or child, the pension went first to mothers, then to fathers, then to orphaned siblings jointly. The same act also specified that if a veteran left behind a widow in addition to children from a previous marriage, those children would receive a pension of $2 per month.
  • A change to the laws based on the Act of June 7, 1888, specified that widows’ pensions were to be paid from the date of their husbands’ deaths. This change was retroactive, and resulted in arrears payments for pensions already on the rolls. The law also enabled widows who had never applied for a pension to receive lump-sum payments covering the period of their widowhood.
  • Starting in 1890 with the Disability Act, men who served for at least ninety days and were honorably discharged could receive pensions based on disabilities unrelated to their military service. Likewise, widows and dependents of deceased Civil War veterans could receive benefits, even if the death was not related to military service. This law was the first that allowed veterans without service-related injuries to collect pensions.
  • The Army Nurses Pension Act, passed in 1892, allowed women who were employed as army nurses during the Civil War and honorably relieved after service of six months or more to collect pensions if they were without support.
  • In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt’s Executive Order for Old Age Pensions made any veteran over the age of sixty-two eligible to receive a pension, regardless of income and ability to work, making “old age” a disability. Starting in 1907, the Service and Age Pension Act allowed increases in pensioners’ payments as they aged.

Even if it appears as though a veteran or his dependents did not qualify, it may be worthwhile to search for a pension file anyway. Many soldiers and their dependents did not understand the laws, and may have applied and had their claims rejected. All applicants had to provide details to support their claims, so valuable information can be found in pension files for rejected claims.

Determining whether a Civil War pension file exists is fairly easy due to the availability of pension indexes and records online. However, understanding when and how pensioners were eligible can be difficult without an understanding of pension laws and how they evolved over time. Many of the changes in the laws are summarized in Orders, Instructions and Regulations Governing the Pension Bureau (1915), and the laws can be examined in full in the Statutes at Large on the Library of Congress website.

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