As a genealogist, I enjoy working with military records and documents and really like it when a client is interested in their ancestor’s military history, too. Tracing an individual from his enlistment, through his actual service and on to his discharge can provide a thrilling – and occasionally sobering – glimpse into the life of an ancestor.
Sometimes, these records can be useful beyond their ability to tell us about a person’s wartime service. Sometimes, a military record can provide clues to help us trace an ancestor back in time. One such example that has the potential to offer a lot of information is a pension file, created as an application by the elderly or injured veteran, his widow, or child to the government for financial support. The process could be long and very involved, since the government required lots of specific documented proof that the applicant was who he or she said they were, and that injuries incurred actually resulted from active, qualifying service.
As a result, pension files can include the actual application, medical records, vital records (like marriage, death, or divorce certificates), and depositions from the applicant and his friends and neighbors. One of the biggest, and most helpful, records I recently used was a military pension file for a man who had served in the Mexican American War of 1846-1848. The file contained over 150 pages of forms, letters, depositions, and more.
For this particular man, we knew that he was born in Maine, but we didn’t know in which city or town. Nor did we know exactly when he was born, having only an estimated year. His pension file included a copy of his application for a pension in which Henry* stated that he had been born in Portland, Maine on 1 October 1813. Having been born so early, this is a date of such specificity that we would be hard-pressed to find in many other places.
Another question we had was regarding exactly when Henry died. We knew that he was alive in 1880 and that his wife was a widow according to the 1900 U.S. Census. But we could not narrow the probable date any further than that 20-year interim.
Henry’s pension application was made on 11 April 1887, narrowing down his date of death to 13 years. He also applied for an increase in his pension amount, based on his illness and inability to work. This was dated 11 June 1894, even further decreasing the original 20 years to less than five years. Finally, Henry’s wife applied for a widow’s pension. Part of her application included the date of Henry’s death: 16 January 1895.
Pension files can provide information not only about the soldier, but also about his wife, particularly if she filed an application for a widow’s pension. In the case of Henry’s wife, there were questions about her original surname as well as her date of birth. Some family records indicated one maiden name, while others reported an entirely different one. Census records suggested that she was born between 1826 and 1830.
It appears that the same questions which perplexed us about Henry’s wife also concerned the Pension Office. They sent a special investigator to talk to Henry’s neighbors as well as his wife and other family members, to determine if Henry had been married once or twice, and if the woman who was claiming his pension was actually his widow, or if she and Henry had been divorced. The investigator also asked her to provide proof of her age and date of birth, but she replied:
I have no record of the time of my birth but I have been told by my mother that I was born on April 5th and was 73 years old this past April instead of 72 years old.
The investigator proceeded to question several siblings regarding the date of Henry’s widow’s birth, and those depositions were included in the pension file, too.
However, the bigger question was the identity of Henry’s widow and her maiden name. At least three different times she was questioned about her name. In the initial interview she stated that her maiden name was McClendon. In a follow-up interview, the investigator asked her why she stated that Sims was her maiden name in her original application but claimed it was McClendon in her deposition.
She explained that it was a mistake to state that her name prior to marriage was Sims, “Sims being nothing but my middle name.”
Two months later Henry’s widow requested an additional deposition in order to provide more clarification regarding her maiden name. She stated:
I want to explain about something in my prior statement as to the name Sims. I understood that my mother had remarried to a McClendon when I was a year and a half old. Elias McClendon by name and that her husband before that was James Sims who was my father. I never knew anything about my father.
This statement helped to clarify her maiden name (and also contradicted her earlier statement). Her father was James Sims, but he was no longer around by the time she was about 18 months old. Her mother married Elias McClendon and she adopted that name, most likely for simple convenience and expediency. Technically, her maiden name was indeed Sims, but in actual practice, it was McClendon.
Her explanation must have rung true to the examiner as well. In a letter to his supervisor he explained that he believed Henry’s widow was suffering from senility and that she made an “honest conscientious effort” to tell the truth and explain her situation to the best of her ability. Ultimately, the Pension Office awarded Henry’s widow her pension.
While it is easy to assume that a military record will only apply to the time of the soldier or sailor’s military service, it is clear that military records can provide important information about his life both before and after his service. Pension records can provide even more facts and richer detail about the lives of our ancestors.
So, where do you find these goldmines of information? It depends on the conflict!
- Revolutionary War: FamilySearch.org has a free index, but the images of the entire files are available completely digitized on subscription sites Ancestry.com and Fold3.com.
- War of 1812: Some of the most widely requested documents at the National Archives, these are in the process of being digitized by a massive fundraising campaign. With over 7 million file pages total, not even a quarter have been put online yet. Those that have are free at Fold3.com. Otherwise, they can be ordered from the National Archives for $55.00.
- Civil War (Union):Ancestry.com contains an index to the pension files, but the actual packets themselves must still be ordered from the National Archives at this time. The current rate is $80.00 for the first one hundred pages, and a fee per-page beyond that. This only applies to Union veterans, as former members of the Confederacy understandably did not qualify for money from the federal government.
- Civil War (Confederate): Most Southern states later implemented their own pension programs at the state level, independent of the federal government. Many of these states’ application files can found online at Ancestry.com.
At Legacy Tree, we also make a point to check for these records ourselves, and are more than happy to locate and order them as part of a research package.
*Name has been changed.