Many veterans who served for the Union during the Civil War received federal pensions. These pensions provided support to those who qualified based on disability, service, and old age. In many cases, upon the death of a soldier, his widow or other dependents were able to collect a pension. The process of applying for a federal pension was often long and difficult, and in many cases generated a tremendous amount of paperwork. As a result, pension files are extremely valuable records for genealogical researchers.
Records in Pension Files
Pension files are filled with information that can add color to a soldier’s biography, establish family relationships, and lead to other types of records—both military and otherwise. Some of the documents found in pension files include the following:
- Pension Applications. Veterans’ pension applications can include past residences, enlistment and discharge dates and locations, age or birth information, wife’s maiden name, children’s names and dates of birth, and names of witnesses. Widows’ applications include much of the same information, in addition to marriage dates. The questions asked on pension applications vary based on time period and the law under which the applicant was applying. Veterans and their dependents’ claims are usually located together in one pension file. In many cases, pensioners reapplied for pensions several times as new laws allowed them to receive more money, so multiple applications may be found in one pension file.
- Depositions. Many pension files are filled with depositions that were created for various reasons. If no record of the soldier’s birth existed, sworn testimony from siblings may have been used to help establish his age. To prove that a veteran was unable to work, a neighbor or former employer may have provided details about his sickness. Additionally, men the soldier served with may have referenced battles and locations when recounting details about a soldier’s injury.
1855 German marriage record of Civil War veteran Adam Holzhauer and Elizabeth Schuchard, discovered in Elizabeth’s widows’ pension file
- Statements of Service. Pension files will contain statements of service prepared by the Adjutant General’s Office. These were generated to confirm the soldiers’ claims of service and enlistment and discharge dates, and also to ensure that they were honorably discharged.
- Correspondence. Often, applicants and their family members wrote letters to the pension office to clarify details or provide supplemental information. Correspondence to and from the pension office can include personal accounts, mention of relatives, and details about why claims were denied.
- Family and Vital Records. Pensioners and their widows were asked to provide proof of events such as births, marriages, and children’s births. Sometimes this was as simple as providing a birth or marriage certificate, but when vital records weren’t available, other documentation, such as a copy of a family Bible or a church record, was often provided.
- Medical Forms. Many pension files include medical information about veterans, both from when they served in the war and at the time of application. Physician’s certificates, surgeon’s certificates, and other types of medical records can provide details about diseases contracted and wounds received during battle, dates and locations of hospitalizations, and illnesses suffered by the soldier later in life.
When reviewing the documents found in a pension file, it is important to remember why these records were created—to support the applicant’s claim for a pension. The information contained throughout the pension file should be evaluated carefully, keeping in mind that the overall goal of the process was to obtain financial support. Records may identify children as being younger than they actually were, or may push back a couple’s marriage date by several years to conceal illegitimate children. Additional sources should always be sought to back up the information found in pension files. Despite this warning, pension files can be extremely valuable for discovering information about events that took place in burned counties, in areas outside of where the veteran lived, and before vital registration existed.
Pension File Indexes
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has two indexes that serve as useful guides to finding Civil War pension files. The indexes cover both approved pension applications as well as rejected claims. The General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934, is an index to pension applications arranged by the soldiers’ names. The collection is composed of index cards that include the soldier’s name (and sometimes aliases), unit(s), widow and other dependents’ names, date and state of filing, and pension application and certificate numbers. The index is available on microfilm (NARA microfilm publication T288) and is searchable online via Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, where the index cards can also be viewed. Pension files that were active after 1928 were designated with new C and XC file numbers (which are used to retrieve the records today.) This index is the only one that contains those C and XC file numbers.
The Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1917 is arranged first by state, then by regiment, and then by company. The collection’s index cards include the soldier’s name (and sometimes aliases), unit(s) and rank, date of application(s), and pension application and certificate numbers. Usually enlistment and discharge dates, and a death date are included. Sometimes the cards also include other notes and remarks. This index is available on microfilm (NARA microfilm publication T289) and is also searchable online via Fold3.com (searchable index and images of index cards) and FamilySearch.org (searchable index only). The death dates included in this index can be useful for distinguishing the soldier from other men with the same name when unit information is not known.
Accessing Pension Files
The National Archives is in the process of digitizing the Civil War pension files they hold through a partnership with Fold3.com. Pension files can be examined either online, in person, or by requesting a copy, depending on the file’s place in the digitization process.
Navy and Marine Corps veterans and dependents’ pension files have been digitized and can be viewed on Fold3.com by searching for the veteran or dependent’s name, and narrowing down the search to Civil War, and then to the Navy Widows and Navy Survivors options. Union Army widows’ pensions are in the process of being digitized, and some are already available on Fold3.com. They can be accessed by searching for the veteran or dependent’s name, and narrowing down the search to Civil War, and then to Civil War Widows’ Pensions. Alternatively, widows’ pension files can be browsed by selecting Civil War Widows’ Pensions, and then the veteran’s state of service, arm of service, regiment, and company. The computers at the National Archives have access to Fold3; however, it is most efficient to use the site from home to download copies of digitized pension files.
Most pension files that haven’t yet been digitized are at the National Archives in Washington D.C. A small number of pension files that were active after 1928 are at the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri, or with the Veterans Administration. Files at the National Archives in Washington D.C. can be viewed in person and either photographed or photocopied in the reading room. Since digitization efforts are underway, it is advisable to find out whether the files of interest are out for digitization before visiting. Alternatively, those who cannot visit the National Archives in person can order copies online or use NATF Form 85 to request photocopies or digital copies for a fee. Those seeking pension files that were active after 1928 should contact the National Archives in St. Louis for help determining whether their file is there or with the Veterans Administration.
Have you made an interesting discovery through a Civil War pension file? Share your findings with other readers of NGS Monthly using the comment box below.
 Confederate Civil War veterans also received pensions, but these are state records and are generally available at state archives.)