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?:
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?:
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?:
Where Can I Access Civil War (Union) Pension Files?:
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:
- 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.
Anatomy of a Civil War (Union) Pension File:
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.