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Civil War Union Pension Records

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James Garfield Civil War index card on Fold3. Shared with permission.

Civil War pension index card of Pres. James A. Garfield from the Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index on Fold3. Shared with permission.

Civil War pension applications and pension files at the National Archives are available for Union soldiers, widows and children who applied for a federal pension based on their Civil War service. The resulting Civil War pension records often contain family information useful for genealogy research.

Record Type: Civil War Union pension files

Location: United States

Time Period: 1861–1934

Best For: Identifying battles in which the soldier served and individuals he served with. Obtaining proof of marriage in a Widow's Pension file. Obtaining proof of birth in the case of minor children. Possible identification of the slave owner in the pension file of a former slave. Sometimes tracing a veteran back to prior residences.

What are Civil War Union Pension Files?:

Most (but not all) Union army soldiers or their widows or minor children later applied for a pension from the U.S. government. In some cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension based on the service of a deceased son.

Following the Civil War, pensions were initially granted under the "General Law" enacted on 22 July 1861 in an effort to recruit volunteers, and later expanded on 14 July 1862 as "An Act to Grant Pensions," which provided pensions for soldiers with war-related disabilities, and for widows, children under sixteen years of age, and dependent relatives of soldiers who died in military service. On 27 June 1890, Congress passed the Disability Act of 1890 which extended pension benefits to veterans who could prove at least 90 days of service in the Civil War (with honorable discharge) and a disability not caused by "vicious habits," even if unrelated to the war. This 1890 Act also provided pensions to widows and dependents of deceased veterans, even if the cause of death was unrelated to the war. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order granting pensions to any veteran over the age of sixty-two years. In 1907 and 1912 Congress passed Acts granting pensions to veterans over the age of sixty-two years, based on the time of service.

What Can You Learn From a Civil War Pension Record?:

A pension file will typically contain more information about what the soldier did during the war than the Compiled Military Service Record, and may contain medical information if he lived for a number of years following the war.

The pension files of widows and children can be especially rich in genealogical content because the widow had to provide proof of marriage in order to receive a pension on behalf of her deceased husband's service. Applications on behalf of the soldier's minor children had to supply both proof of the soldier's marriage and proof of the children's birth. Thus, these files often include supporting documents such as marriage records, birth records, death records, affidavits, depositions of witnesses, and pages from family bibles.

How Do I Know if My Ancestor Applied for a Pension?:

Civil War federal (Union) pension files are indexed by NARA microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 which can also be searched online for free at FamilySearch (United States, General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934). A second index created from NARA microfilm publication T289, Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861–1917, is available online as the Civil War and Later Veterans Pension Index, 1861-1917 on Fold3.com (subscription). If Fold3 is not available to you, then the index is also available on FamilySearch for free, but only as an index—you will not be able to view the digitized copies of the original index cards. The two indexes sometimes contain slightly different information, so it is good practice to check both.

Where Can I Access Civil War (Union) Pension Files?:

Military pension application files based on Federal (not State or Confederate) service between 1775 and 1903 (before World War I) are held by the National Archives. A complete copy (up to 100 pages) of a Union pension file can be ordered from the National Archives using NATF Form 85 or online (select NATF 85D). The fee, including shipping and handling, is $80.00, and you can expect to wait anywhere from 6 weeks to four months to receive the file. If you want a copy more quickly and can't visit the Archives yourself, the the National Capital Area Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists can help you locate someone you can hire to retrieve the record for you. Depending on the size of the file and the genealogist this may be not only faster, but also no more expensive than ordering from NARA.

Fold3.com, in conjunction with FamilySearch, is in the process of digitizing and indexing all 1,280,000 Civil War and Later Widows' Pension Files in the series. This collection as of June 2013 is only about 4% complete, but will eventually encompass approved pension case files of widows and other dependents of soldiers submitted between 1861 and 1934 and sailors between 1910 and 1934. The files are arranged numerically by certificate number and are being digitized in order from lowest to highest.

A subscription is required to view the digitized Widows' Pensions on Fold3.com. A free index to the collection can also be searched on FamilySearch, but the digitized copies are only available on Fold3.com. Original files are located at the National Archives in Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration.

Arrangement of Civil War (Union) Pension Files:

A soldier’s complete pension file may consist of one or more of these separate pension types. Each type will have its own number and prefix identifying the type. The complete file is arranged under the last number assigned by the pension office.
  • SO (Soldier's Original) - When a solider applied for a pension, his application was assigned a number and designated as SO, for Soldier's Original or Survivor's Original. If a soldier's pension application was rejected, the file will still appear under the SO number.

  • SC (Soldier's Certificate) - Once a pension was granted, the application was moved into a new file and was assigned a certificate number identified with the prefix SC, for Soldier’s Certificate. The original application number became void.

  • WO (Widow's Original) - Similar to a soldier's pension application, but designated WO, for Widow's Original. If the widow was applying to continue her deceased husband's previously approved pension benefits, her application then became a part of the soldier's file. If a widow's pension application was rejected, the file will still appear under the WO number.

  • WC (Widow's Certificate) - Once a widow's pension was granted, a certificate number was issued and designated as WC, for Widow’s Certificate. The entire file, including the original soldier's application and certificate (if applicable) was then moved into the Widow's file under the new certificate number. Widow's files also include the applications of minor child and dependent parents.

  • C & XC (Certificate Files) - Beginning in the 20th century the system was consolidated. New pension applications were given a permanent certificate "C" number. Old files created prior to the change were transferred ("X") to the C pension series and were designated with an "XC" number to denote the transfer to the new system.
The last number used by the pension office is generally the number under which the entire pension file is located today. If you can't locate a file under the expected number, there are a few cases where it may be found under a previous number. Be sure to record all numbers found on the index card!

Anatomy of a Civil War (Union) Pension File:

A handy booklet titled Orders, Instructions, and Regulations Governing the Pension Bureau (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915), available in digitized format for free at Internet Archive, provides an overview of the Pension Bureau's operations as well as an explanation of the the pension application process, describing what types of evidence were required and why for each application. The booklet also explains what documents were to be included in each application and how they should be arranged, based on the different classes of claims and the acts under which they were filed. Additional instructional resources can also be found on Internet Archive, such as Instructions and Forms to be Observed in Applying for Navy Pensions under the Act of July 14, 1862 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1862).

Further details on the various pension acts can be found in an report by Claudia Linares titled "The Civil War Pension Law," published by the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago. The website Understanding Civil War Pensions also provides an excellent background on the various pension laws affecting Civil War veterans and their widows and dependents.

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