War Pensions as a Genealogical Resource
When researching ancestors who were enlisted in the armed services, certain documents can shed some light on their military and personal lives. Along with the National Archives and Records administration website, genealogy sites like Ancestry.com, Family Search, Fold3, and Cyndi’s List can be of great use when searching for military documents. The Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War are good examples of just how much a single pension file can expand your genealogical knowledge.
Some pension files may only give you basic information on your ancestor while other files may provide you with a wealth of knowledge. Things like family bible pages, war narratives, marriage certificates, and a list of assets can be found. These documents were kept in the pension application files as supporting records. In order to receive a pension, a veteran or his widow had to apply by giving information about the place of enlistment and terms of service.
Provisions for pensions for Revolutionary War veterans were established in 1778. Widows and dependents were able to draw pensions in 1780. Unfortunately two fires, one in 1800 and the other in 1814, destroyed many early pension applications. Of the files that still exist, we know that there were three kinds of pensions: for disabled veterans, for length of time served, and for widows. Along with a pension, some veterans were given bounty-land warrants as a reward for their service. They were awarded a certain acreage of public domain land based on rank.
It wasn’t until the year 1871 that pensions were granted to veterans of the War of 1812 and surviving dependents regardless of the veteran having died or been injured during battle. Because of the 1871 Act, pensions were granted to soldiers who had served for at least 60 days or to their widow, providing they had married before the war ended. These requirements changed again after the Act of 1878 which stated that pensions could be granted to veterans who had only served fourteen days and to widows who had married a veteran after 1815. It is possible that you might find a pension record where your ancestor has been denied at one time, but granted a pension at a later date.
The kind of pension a Civil War veteran received depended upon which side they fought for. Union pensions were paid by the US government while Confederate pensions were paid by individual southern states. In order for a Union soldier to get his pension, he had to provide a statement of service from the War or Navy Department, answer a personal history/health questionnaire, and submit affidavits from fellow soldiers, relatives, or neighbors who could attest to the veteran’s claim. As for Confederate soldiers, their pensions were provided by the southern state in which they lived regardless of the southern state they served from. While their application was just as thorough as the Union’s, each state had its own qualifications for eligibility.
What may look to you as merely a legal document, can really be an in-depth look at a patriotic section of your familial history.