“I Do Not Suppose That Uncle Sam Looks At The Skin”: African Americans And The Civil War Pension System, 1865-1934

“I Do Not Suppose That Uncle Sam Looks At The Skin”: African Americans And The Civil War Pension System, 1865-1934 – Statistical Data Included

Donald R. Shaffer

IN 1876, WILLIAM F. Mifflin, a Union veteran living near Liberty, Ohio, applied for a federal pension based on his Civil War service. There was nothing especially remarkable about Mifflin’s application except that he was black. Mifflin was a veteran of the 27th U.S. Colored Infantry, one of approximately 178,000 African Americans who served in the Union army in the Civil War. The primary basis for his claim was the loss of sight in his right eye caused by a musket ball while charging the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg, Virginia, in July 1864. In an affidavit supporting his claim, Mifflin stated, “I would have felt like never saying or asking for a pension. But there are those in my neighborhood that had almost nothing the matter [compared] to what my disabilities are. They have got pensions.” Mifflin added in the next sentence, “Of course they were white men, and I am pretty near white, but I do not suppose that Uncle Sam looks at the skin.”(1)

As his affidavit shows, William F. Mifflin approached the issue of race and the Civil War pension system optimistically. Mifflin not only exhibited a feeling of entitlement to a pension but also hoped that his application would receive the same consideration from the federal government as those of the former white soldiers in his neighborhood. His expectation was not unfounded. The pension laws passed by Congress, unlike many statutes in the late nineteenth century, did not discriminate on racial grounds. In fact, federal military pension laws were neutral on the issue of race. This meant that black and white Union veterans and their families theoretically enjoyed the same eligibility for Civil War pensions–an important fact itself.

Still, a significantly smaller percentage of African Americans than white veterans and their survivors, ranging from 17 to 34 percent (depending on the type of applicant), won Civil War pension claims. The disparity between the racially neutral nature of Civil War pension legislation and the unequal results for African Americans needs to be explained. Certainly racial discrimination against black people in the United States was common in the late nineteenth century. However, Civil War pensions were not an example of statutory racial discrimination, such as separate railroad cars or segregated schools. Instead, inequality in pensions stemmed from the special disadvantages African Americans experienced in the application process and the racism and misbehavior of important players in the adjudication of their claims. In other words, racial discrimination in the Civil War pension system was de facto rather than de jure in nature.

Understanding racial discrimination against African Americans in Civil War pensions is important because it was a program of enormous significance in the late nineteenth century. In fact, pensions for Union veterans and their survivors were the largest single federal expenditure of that period, consuming more than 40 percent of the budget in the 1890s.(2) Access to Civil War pensions–which were administered by the U.S. Pension Bureau, a part of the Department of the Interior–grew significantly during the late nineteenth century. Initially created in 1862 to compensate veterans disabled by their service and the survivors of Union soldiers killed during the war, the Dependent Pension Act of 1890 expanded the system greatly by opening pension eligibility to all disabled Union veterans, regardless of the cause of the disability, as well as the survivors of men with Union service. With the expanded disability provision generously interpreted by the Pension Bureau, the number of pensioners soared. By 1910, Theda Skocpol estimates, “about 28 percent of all American men aged 65 or more, more than half a million of them, received federal benefits averaging about $189 a year. Over three-hundred thousand widows, orphans, and other dependents were also receiving payments from the federal treasury.”(3)

While African Americans shared in the generosity of the federal government to Union veterans and families, they received an unequal portion of the pension money. More specifically, a smaller percentage of black pension applicants got themselves on the pension rolls by making at least one successful claim. A random sample of the index cards of 545 white and 545 black Civil War soldiers drawn from the “General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934” (Microfilm No. T288) at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., shows that white veterans and their survivors experienced more success in obtaining Civil War pensions.(4)

In other words, white applicants had a significantly higher success rate in their pension applications than African Americans (see Table 1). More than 92 percent of white Union veterans in the sample made at least one successful application, compared to only around 75 percent of former black soldiers. Likewise, nearly 84 percent of the white widows managed to receive pensions, while only around 61 percent of African American widows made at least one successful application, a 23-percent gap. However, the biggest differential–nearly 34 percent–existed between the success rates of white and black parents applying for a dependent parent’s pension. White parents had a success rate of almost 70 percent, but for African Americans it was only around 36 percent. The only category in which an equality of results existed was the applications of the minor children, where both half of white and black applicants had successful claims.

TABLE 1

Pension Application Success Comparison

White and Black Civil War Veterans and their Survivors

White(n=545) Black (n=545)

Veterans Veterans

Number of Applicants 419 Number of Applicants 350

Number Pensioned 388 Number Pensioned 264

Percent Pensioned 92.6 Percent Pensioned 75.4

Widows Widows

Number of Applicants 252 Number of Applicants 298

Number Pensioned 211 Number Pensioned 181

Percent Pensioned 83.7 Percent Pensioned 60.7

Children Children

Number of Applicants 52 Number of Applicants 40

Number Pensioned 26 Number Pensioned 20

Percent Pensioned 50.0 Percent Pensioned 50.0

Parents Parents

Number of Applicants 36 Number of Applicants 45

Number Pensioned 25 Number Pensioned 16

Percent Pensioned 69.4 Percent Pensioned 35.5

Source: “General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934” (Microfilm No. T288), National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Clearly, a smaller portion of black applicants compared to white applicants obtained Civil War pensions. Why did a disparity in success rates exist when there was no overt discrimination against African Americans in pension legislation? The only way to answer this question is to examine the application process. For while the law suggested that all pension claims received the same treatment, in reality African Americans had a more difficult time getting this benefit than white people.

To begin with, it must be understood the federal government simply did not grant a Civil War pension automatically to all applicants. In the late nineteenth-century United States, a pension was still generally seen as a reward for the worthy rather than a general entitlement. In the case of Civil War veterans and their families, federal pensions provided a belated gratuity for the risks and sacrifices of soldiers and sailors during the war. Although a number of people could collect pensions from the federal government under the Civil War pension system, especially after the passage of the 1890 pension law, applicants still had to prove their worthiness to receive this money. They were required to go through a formal bureaucratic process to substantiate their eligibility according to laws passed by Congress.(5)

Fewer African Americans ended up receiving pensions than white applicants in part because the bureaucratic process for proving their worthiness left them at a disadvantage. Because of slavery and racial discrimination, a much higher percentage of black applicants for Civil War pensions were poor and illiterate–factors that made it more difficult for them to complete a successful application.(6) Poverty hampered the application process because pursuing a pension claim cost money. While pension attorneys took clients on a contingency basis (meaning they received their fee as a portion of a government-approved claim), applicants had to pay the expenses of the procedure.

Several expenses typically arose in Civil War pension applications. Travel costs easily could become the biggest. Witnesses had to be visited and interviewed. Expenses escalated significantly if any of those people lived at a great distance from the applicant. Former soldiers also had to bear the cost of a trip to the nearest surgical board set up by the Pension Bureau to rate their disabilities.(7) Inevitably, the applicant would have to pay for the services of a notary public or court officer to produce legally acceptable affidavits. Costs often escalated for illiterate applicants because they had to hire someone to fill out forms and draft correspondence. In an era where the average black family income was about $250 per year, the expenses associated with a pension claim more often were beyond the means of African American than of white applicants.(8) Consequently, more black pension claims than white ones languished because of lack of funds.

In addition to poverty and illiteracy, slavery left African Americans with other problems in proving their cases. For instance, a greater percentage of black than white veterans had difficulty proving that they were the same person who had served in the Union army. Likewise, a larger portion of the survivors of black than white Civil War soldiers and veterans had problems showing that the dead man who provided the basis for their claim was the same person who had served in the Civil War. These identity inconsistencies occurred more often in African American cases for three reasons, each related to slavery. First, many former slaves joined the army under their masters’ last names but after the war took new surnames to assert family connections and their identity as free men. Similarly, because members of the same family sometimes chose to take different surnames after the war, it made the connections of veterans and survivors less obvious. Parents and sons, or even husbands and wives, might have different surnames.(9) Second, since slavery meant that a greater proportion of African American than white recruits were illiterate, fewer could correct clerks who had misconstrued or misspelled their names–inadvertently creating a false identity they later had to explain when they applied for a pension.(10) Third, other black men had joined the army under a false name to escape recapture by a pro-Union owner who had objected to their enlistment.(11)

Whatever the cause of the surname inconsistency, it created a problem for veterans and their survivors when they finally applied for a pension. As a routine step in the application process, the Pension Bureau verified with the War Department that a record existed for the military service of the person providing the basis for the claim. A clerk checked the muster rolls of the unit with which the applicant claimed the soldier had served, and the War Department reported back to the Pension Bureau whether the soldier’s name could be found. If the last name of the applicant differed from that of the soldier’s wartime records, then authorities delayed approval. Rather than grant a pension to a potentially unworthy individual, the Pension Bureau probed further. In some cases, the applicant merely had to submit an affidavit explaining the nature of the name change and the affidavit of witnesses who could verify the relationship of the applicant to the soldier. In other cases, however, the bureau dispatched a “special examiner” or field investigator to investigate the discrepancy. The verification of names held up pension applications for months or years before the bureau satisfied itself. Black applicants in this case do not appear to have been treated unfairly by the Pension Bureau. Identity probes also occurred in cases involving white pensions; however, because of the changes of identity associated with the Civil War and emancipation, African Americans disproportionately served as the subjects of these investigations.

Furnishing vital dates also proved more of a problem to black pension applicants than it did to white applicants. Birth dates became particularly important after the passage of a 1907 law that qualified veterans for pensions based on age: the older a former soldier the larger his monthly pension rate.(12) Likewise, birth dates always had mattered in the claims of minor children because they lost their pensions when they turned sixteen. The government wanted to determine a child’s age to set a fair termination date. Consequently, the Pension Bureau was very interested in birth dates–information that African Americans could substantiate much less frequently than could white applicants. Former slaves almost always lacked documentary proof of birth, and in many cases they could not even provide the Pension Bureau with an exact date, let alone a record of it. Such pension applicants did not know their birth date either because owners had deliberately kept such knowledge from them or because of their pre-industrial view of time. Many former slaves, as with peasant societies around the world, eschewed calendar dates and related important events in their lives to the agricultural cycle or to a significant event that occurred about the same time, such as great storm or epidemic. Hence, some African Americans were at a disadvantage in a pension system that preferred precise calendar dates.(13)

While providing documentary information contained inherent obstacles, African Americans also collided against human barriers in the application process. Specifically, black applicants encountered claim agents, witnesses, and pension bureaucrats, each of whom influenced the outcome of a claim. Although such people often proved helpful in pushing forward a case, they also could hurt the efforts of African Americans to obtain Civil War pensions.

For most applicants, black and white, a local agent was the key person in the claims process. Although a few attorneys worked directly with people claiming pensions from the inception of the case to its conclusion, most did not. The typical pension applicant dealt directly with a claim agent who served as the intermediary with the attorney. These agents usually represented large firms (mostly based in Washington, D.C.) that specialized in Civil War pension applications. Claim agents often were notaries or local attorneys, but they also could be any enterprising person looking to earn extra money. While many agents in black pension claims were white, a large number of African American agents, often ministers or schoolteachers, also performed this service. Whatever their race, the agent sought veterans or survivors whom they believed might have a successful claim. They helped the applicant assemble the necessary evidence and sent the paper work to the Washington law firm, which moved the claim through the bureaucracy of the U.S. Pension Bureau. In successful cases, the claim agent and the law firm shared the fee, in addition to any expenses that they extracted from the client.(14)

Because the majority were illiterate, African Americans relied especially heavily on claim agents.(15) These intermediaries were indispensable not only for drafting affidavits and other legal papers, but also in helping the applicant respond to questions from the Pension Bureau and in serving as a source of information about the complex, ever changing application process. Without a claim agent, the application of many African Americans for Civil War pensions, especially illiterate applicants, would have been all but impossible.

For many African Americans, however, claim agents provided as much hindrance as help. Indeed, some black veterans and their survivors were poorly served by their agents. They complained to the U.S. Pension Bureau of neglected cases, of delays caused by mix-ups in paper work and incompetence, as well as being given bad advice. However, the greatest disservice that pension agents did to black clients was the pervasive practice of presenting fraudulent evidence.(16) Instead of properly determining the facts of the case, and obtaining eyewitness testimony or official documents that might exist, many agents in black pension claims instead contrived a false case built on what one special examiner aptly described as “`ready made’ affidavits.”(17) The agent either would bribe witnesses to provide false testimony or simply fabricate sworn statements, ostensibly from actual individuals who might plausibly know the facts of the case. These fraudulent claims usually were built around the service of a real black soldier, but the claim agent misrepresented, falsified, or concealed facts to get an otherwise ineligible applicant a pension or to secure a larger pension than they deserved.

A number of factors made black pension cases ideal for fraud. Certainly, the ambiguity in their life stories and the lack of documentation appealed to crooked claim agents. Because many African Americans often had neither a precise knowledge of vital dates in their lives nor the records to verify such information, it was difficult for the Pension Bureau to challenge biographical data supplied in black pension cases. In the racial climate of the postwar South, many black pension applicants likely believed they had little choice but to cooperate in the schemes of corrupt white claim agents. The communications gap between white pension agents and their black clients also encouraged fraud. It sometime was easier for an agent to formulate the testimony he thought might get the claim approved or increase the amount of the pension, than to be bothered to work with black witnesses to gather dates and other information that some former slaves found difficult to provide.

Still, the biggest motive behind fraudulent black pension claims–as any fraudulent pension claim–was greed. These manufactured cases aimed to obtain money from the government that the client did not deserve. A claim agent might exaggerate the disabilities of a veteran to win the ex-soldier a larger pension, or to conceal a romantic relationship on the part of a widow that disqualified her. In many cases, however, the aim of the fraud was to generate “arrears”: a lump sum payment of hundreds or even thousands of dollars to compensate an applicant for a pension they should have received from some date in the past.(18) The arrears claims of African Americans proved especially enticing to crooked agents. African Americans–especially elderly widows–were less likely to complain after the agent illegally took part of the lump sum. Hence, while most black pension cases were no doubt genuine, their reputation for fraud enhanced the difficulty for honest claims to win authorization from the U.S. Pension Bureau.(19)

Just as African Americans relied on claim agents, they also needed more eyewitnesses to compensate for a lack of written records–another factor that hurt their success rate on claims. The U.S. Pension Bureau gave documentary evidence, especially that of an official nature, greater weight in proving a claim than the testimony of eyewitnesses. Hence, most black applicants could only submit an inferior type of evidence. Not only was the lack of documents from the slave era a factor, but so was the poor and incomplete nature of public record keeping in the post-Civil War South.

Their greater reliance on eyewitnesses hurt African Americans in other ways. Sometimes witnesses could not be found to prove important points or they could not remember critical events. In addition, the greater reliance on eyewitness testimony made African Americans more vulnerable to grudges that witnesses might hold. For instance, while most former owners readily testified in favor of the pension applications of former slaves, a few ex-slaveholders perjured themselves in the hopes of derailing a claim.(20) In other cases, the black community tried to frustrate a pension application. This fate befell Isaac Hibbett, the father of George Hibbett, a veteran who died shortly after returning home from the war. Hibbett applied to the U.S. Pension Bureau in 1884 for a dependent parent’s pension. He could not assemble the necessary proof, however, because his black neighbors in Gallatin, Tennessee, refused to testify for him. They believed that Isaac Hibbett was unworthy of their help because he remained too close to his former owner and voted for the Democratic ticket (when most southern blacks were Republicans).(21)

However, the biggest obstacle faced by African Americans in obtaining pensions Civil War pensions was not claim agents or witnesses, but the personnel of the U.S. Pension Bureau. These bureaucrats ultimately decided whether an applicant received a pension and constituted the final barrier to the aspirations of many a hopeful black veteran or survivor. While they were guided by congressional legislation in determining the outcome of cases, the attitudes of bureau personnel shaped the application of that law. Because many pension bureaucrats disliked African Americans–and involvement with black applicants did little to improve their opinion–the Pension Bureau scrutinized African American cases more intensively than those of white applicants.

The greater attention that African Americans received in Civil War pension applications is no more apparent than in special examinations. This occurred when the U.S. Pension Bureau was dissatisfied with the evidence in a claim but believed the case had sufficient merit not to reject it out of hand. These investigations also resulted when information reached the bureau concerning a possible attempt to defraud the government. In either case, the Pension Bureau would dispatch an examiner stationed in the region from which the claim originated to locate and question witnesses. The examiner would take depositions and send a report summarizing the findings to the commissioner of pensions in Washington. A special examination significantly delayed the decision on a pension by many months because most examiners had a backlog of cases, and priority investigations, particularly those involving allegations of fraud, could sidetrack the examiner while more routine inquiries languished.

Pension claims by African Americans appear to have received special examination more often than white cases. An examination of the pension files of fifty white Southerners who joined Union regiments shows that only thirteen of the fifty files (26 percent) involved a special examination.(22) This contrasts to a study of black pension files that reveals about 40 percent of them contain a special examiner’s report.(23)

In part, black Civil War pension cases received more scrutiny simply because they were more complex and difficult to prove. The U.S. Pension assumed that an applicant had a stable identity, knowledge of vital dates, and the ability to document this information with records or unambiguous eyewitness testimony. The bureaucracy had difficulty dealing with people who had changed their names and could offer neither vital dates nor other specific information. The inability of many black applicants to follow the conventional paths of proving their worthiness led to frustration and suspicion on the part of pension bureaucrats. This attitude was compounded by the widespread distrust of the affidavits and other legal papers submitted by claim agents in black cases. The Pension Bureau made some attempts to deal affirmatively with the special problems in African American claims, but these efforts were not often effective.(24)

The interaction of African Americans, especially those in rural plantation districts, and white special examiners did little to improve the mistrust inside the Pension Bureau about black applicants. Each side had difficulty communicating with the other. In particular, the inability of some black applicants to provide dates enormously frustrated the special examiners. “It is singularly impossible to get a colored person to give the date of anything [emphasis in the original],” complained examiner Eugene B. Payne from Missouri in 1893. He had just spent a difficult session with the widow of a black veteran trying to determine the age of her children.(25) Other examiners shared Payne’s feelings, not only about getting dates out of some African Americans but also about securing any sort of precise information. Examiner Charles Whitehead was as displeased as Payne after attempting to obtain a personal description of a long-dead veteran from his widow. The best the woman could describe her husband was that, “he was a fat, chunky black niggah wid big lips, wooly head an big black eyes.” Whitehead found the description useless. “When one asks an ignorant black women–little above animal intelligence, to describe some other Negro she knew 40 or 50 years ago,” he commented in his report, “we drop special examination to the plane of absurdity.(26) Hence, when special examiners could not gather specific facts from a black witness, it hurt the credibility of the pension claim in their eyes.

However, the investigators also were swayed by how closely black applicants and their witnesses adhered to the examiner’s image of proper behavior by African Americans. Witnesses who behaved deferentially and showed evidence of white-middle-class standards of morality and industry received praise in reports and special examiners gave their testimony more weight. In fact, the investigators developed a code language of worthiness to indicate a black applicant who deserved a pension. Examiners used words like “industrious,” “respectable,” “reliable,” “steady:” and “well regarded” to indicate African Americans whom they believed worthy of pensions.(27) Investigators who found the applicant and witnesses behavior less appropriate questioned their credibility, such as one special examiner who after discovering the lax attitudes of a group of black witnesses toward divorce described them as “a disreputable lot of barbarians.”(28)

The perceived moral lapses and inability of some African Americans to provide specific information led many special examiners to doubt the testimony of black witnesses in general. “The reputation for truth of all the witnesses who are colored cannot be rated higher than `fair’,” wrote examiner John Lux in 1887, typifying such attitudes. “As those of that race who can be counted reliable and absolutely truthful, are a rarity indeed.”(29)

The distrust of African American witnesses not only existed among examiners but also became arguably part of official bureau policy. The Pension Bureau demonstrated a clear preference for white over black witnesses, believing the former group provided more accurate and truthful information. “In claims on account of colored soldiers,” instructed a manual on special examination, “wherever it is possible, the former owners or members of owner’s family, and the fellow-slaves of both the soldier and the claimant should be carefully examined.”(30) The order of the instruction suggests that the bureau wanted the examiners to see the former owners and their children before they interviewed ex-slaves, the presumption being that the former would give more reliable testimony than the latter.

While it is difficult to trace the effect of the racist attitudes of pension bureaucrats in the individual cases, the impact on African Americans as a whole in undeniable. Practically speaking, black veterans and their families had a greater burden of proof than white persons, despite the formal equality of black and white applicants under the law. In a pension system where eligibility was predicated on the worthiness of the applicant, black people had to work harder to prove they were truly deserving. It was as if black pension applicants ran a race in which they not only had to clear more hurdles than white veterans and their families, but they also had to begin the race well back from the normal starting line. While pension bureaucrats more often overlooked defects in white pension cases, they were less likely to do so for African Americans or to give them any benefit of the doubt. There was probably as much fraud in white cases, but the bureau was more likely to ignore it. How aware black pensioners were of the greater burden placed on them is hard to ascertain. If they perceived the greater level of scrutiny their claims engendered they probably guarded against admitting their true feelings to the Pension Bureau for fear of harming their applications.

Still, many African Americans, rather than being powerless pawns, took an active role in their pension claims. Displaying ingenuity and creativity, they sought to overcome their special problems and prove their worthiness of the government’s largess. For instance, a veteran living on Virginia’s northern neck, Revel Garrison, went about financing his pension application much as he might have financed a crop. He borrowed the money from a local merchant, James Shields. Over a period of several months Shields loaned Garrison a total of $11.85 for the expenses associated with the veteran’s pension claim.(31) Family members also were a source of money for making pension claims.(32) Illiterate applicants tried to find others to write for then without charge; usually family, but in the case of one Mississippi town, a prominent white man did so out of a lingering sense of paternalism.(33)

Black pension applicants and their agents also cleverly played on white racism to assist applications. Where an African American had an especially good reputation among local whites, because of a pleasing and deferential manner, the claim often emphasized this fact. For instance, A. H. Sweetser, a special examiner of the Pension Bureau, after investigating the pension claim of Richard Breck, a black veteran living on Richmond, Kentucky, was visited by several prominent white politicians who offered their support for Breck’s pension application, affirming his good character and calling him “Uncle Dick.”(34)

Likewise, African Americans were not above bending the truth or telling outright lies if it might push through a questionable pension claim. In fact, some African Americans impressed special examiners with their skill at lying. Such was the case with Nellie Wold, the widow of Thurston Lloyd. “The claimant is rather an intelligent woman and at first impresses me as being truthful, reported examiner M. Whitehead to his superiors in 1893. “But after I got further into her case I find she is unreliable and yet she can tell untruths in such a way that one thinks she is telling the truth.” Evidently Wold had remarried since the death of Lloyd in 1867, an act that disqualified her from receiving a pension as a veteran’s widow. She sought to conceal this fact from the Pension Bureau. A skillful liar, she would have succeeded had not subsequent witnesses informed Whitehead of the facts of the case.(35)

Still, these and other investigations show conclusively that some black pension applicants were active and willing participants in the frauds perpetrated on the U.S. Pension Bureau by claim agents. In other words, black applicants were not always innocent parties in attempts to deceive the government. Another such collaborator was Clementine Chatham, who claimed to be the widow of Henry Eber, a black soldier from Louisiana who had died in the army. Because Chatham did not file her claim until 1893, twenty-seven years after Eber’s death in January 1866, the federal government was understandably suspicious. However, whether Chatham really had been Eber’s wife was ignored for more than a decade because of confusion about Eber’s identity. When that was finally settled, and the bureau got around to investigating the merits of Chatham’s eligibility as a widow in 1906, her lack of credibility made a strong impression on the special examiner, M. Whitehead (the same man who investigated Nellie Wold). Whitehead reported that Chatham and her claim agent, John H. Van Horssen, “have gathered together a regular crowd of professional witnesses as are often gotten together, who will swear to any thing to help a case, particularly if there is even a shadowy suggestion of a nice money bonus if the claim is allowed.” Whitehead managed to get Chatham herself to admit in her deposition that she had agreed to pay the witnesses small amounts of money, ranging from one to three dollars, when the pension claim was finally approved.(36) Hence, as Chatham and Wold’s cases show, African Americans were not always passive participants in their claims and sometimes helped perpetrate pension frauds against the federal government.

Certainly, most black pension applicants pushing through their claims did so honestly. However, the wide disparity in the success rates of white and black applicants suggests that even the determination or scheming of some black applicants was not enough to earn African Americans their fair share of the pension money flowing out to Union veterans and their survivors from Washington. Despite the formal equality with white applicants under federal law, in practice African Americans experienced discrimination when applying for pensions. Two factors explain the poorer success of African Americans with Civil War pensions. First, black applicants had greater problems than white people in the application process. Higher rates of poverty and illiteracy, and other legacies of slavery, put African Americans at a disadvantage in substantiating their applications. The slave background of many African Americans made it more difficult for them to gather this information and assemble it in a form acceptable to the U.S. Pension Bureau. Second, the nature of social welfare provision in the United States in the late nineteenth century worked against black Americans trying to get a Civil War pension. The federal government justified pensions for Union veterans and their survivors as an act of gratitude for faithful service during the war, not because of age, financial need, or disability. In the intensely racist atmosphere of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, African Americans found their worthiness was suspect in the minds of many white bureaucrats from the beginning. Claim agents fueled this climate of suspicion by committing frauds in too many black pension claims. Mistrust of African American pension claims left black veterans and their families with a greater burden of proof than white applicants faced–a burden that black people found all the harder to meet because of their greater inability to provide written evidence. Even if they managed to put together the necessary proof, it generally would be met with more skepticism by the U.S. Pension Bureau than a comparable white claim would. Consequently, despite the formal equality accorded black veterans and their families by Congress. In Civil War pension matters, they suffered under the double disadvantage of being less able to prove their eligibility, while at the same time they had to work harder to overcome the prejudices of federal officials. Still, while they faced special difficulties in getting pensioned, many African Americans energetically, even unethically, pursued their applications. For even if they did experience de jure discrimination, the law promised them equality, and they grasped at this pledge in an era that held little other hope of fair treatment for African Americans.

(1) Affidavit of William F. Mifflin, Dec. 13, 1887, Civil War Pension File of William F. Mifflin, 27th U.S. Colored Infantry (hereafter USCI), Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (hereafter RG 15).

(2) Maris Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War? Some Preliminary Demographic Speculations,” Journal of American History 76 (June 1989): 54.

(3) Theda Skocpol, “America’s First Social Security System: The Expansion of Benefits for Civil War Veterans,” Political Science Quarterly 108 (Spring 1993): 85-86.

(4) The T288 microfilm set contains copies of index cards for all Civil War pension applications made between 1861 and 1934 (as well as index cards of pension cases for the Mexican War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, and peacetime military made during this period). The cards are organized alphabetically by the name of the soldier, and then by unit (for men with the same name). The selection strategy was to choose the first white and black Civil War subject on each of the 545 reels of the T288 index. The index cards contain the name of the soldier, the unit he served in, the application numbers for the veteran, his widow, children, and parent, and if any of these claims were successful, a certificate number. By comparing the number of index cards for white and black applicants in each class with those containing certificate numbers it is possible to compile relative statistics on the success rates of getting on the pension rolls. Black applications are identifiable in the index because of the practice of segregating African Americans into distinct units during the Civil War.

(5) The exact eligibility standards changed, generally becoming increasingly relaxed over time. Veterans’ pensions were sometimes called “invalid” pensions, the theory being the former soldier was receiving money for some disability that hindered his ability to earn a living. The general requirements to receive an invalid pension included some disability verified by a surgical board appointed by the federal government, at least ninety days of wartime service, and an honorable discharge. Until 1890, proof had to be presented that the veteran’s disability was in some way related to his military service. After 1890, the disability no longer had to be service related. In 1907, federal law made age a basis for granting a pension, and the invalid pension system formally became an old-age pension system. See United States Statutes at Large (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1863), 12:566-69, 26:182, 34:879.

For survivors to collect a pension, the man on whom they based their claim had to have had ninety days service and an honorable discharge. In addition, different types of survivors had to prove other facts. Widows had to show they were legally married to the veteran and had not remarried. After 1882, new legislation disqualified them for a pension if they cohabited with or had illicit sexual relations with another man. See Statutes at Large, 22:345. Children had to demonstrate they were the offspring of a legally married couple and less than sixteen years of age at the time of their father’s death. (They also lost their pension on their sixteenth birth day.) Parents applying for a pension based on the death of their son had to prove that he had helped to support them at the time of his death. This requirement was eased in 1873 by legislation authorizing a pension if it could be proved the son wished to help out his parents at the time of his death. The 1890 pension law dropped even this requirement if the son had died while in service during the war. See Megan J. McClintock, “Civil War Pensions and the Reconstruction of Union Families,” Journal of American History 83 (Sept. 1996): 466-71.

(6) About 70 percent of black Civil War veterans applying for pensions could not sign their applications. This rate of illiteracy mirrors the overall rate for African American men of the Civil War generation: 70.7 percent of black men age sixty-five and older in 1910. The commensurate figure for native-born whites was 15.5 percent and for foreign-born whites 14.7 percent. See U.S. Census Bureau, Negro Population: 1790-1915 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1918), 406, 414. In terms of poverty, even the most optimistic estimates of African American income in the postwar era acknowledge the wide disparity between per capita white and black incomes. Robert Higgs estimated that per capita income of African Americans was only 24 percent of white per capita income in the late 1860s and 35 percent in 1900. See Robert Higgs, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914 (Cambridge.: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 146.

(7) The government would not accept affidavits of doctors as sufficient proof of disabilities. On occasion, a veteran would complain that the bureau had assigned him to a board so far from his home that it made it impossible for him to have his disabilities evaluated. See deposition of Smith Jackson, 26 March 1895, Pension File of Smith Buchanan (alias Jackson), 136th USCI; William L. Dickinson, Hardy Station, Miss., to L. C. Woodson, U.S. Pension Bureau, Washington, D.C., Jan. 17, 1903, Pension File of William L. Dixon, 14th USCI; James H. Southard, U.S. Representative to H. Clay Evans, Commissioner of Pensions, May 1, 1901, Pension File of Reuben Harris, 88th USCI (New) and 9th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery (hereafter USCHA); Edward Luntworth, Hampton, Va., to Joshua R. Potts, U.S. Pension Bureau, Washington, D.C., Pension File of Edward Luntworth, 36th USCI; Gray Smith, Knoxville, Ark., to Joseph H. Hunter, Washington, D.C., Sep. 28, 1890, Pension File of Gray Smith, 48th USCI; Affidavit of Toliver Thompson, 21 July 1891, Pension File of Toliver Thompson, 83rd USCI (New), RG 15.

(8) Kenneth Ng and Nancy Virts, “The Value of Freedom,” Journal of Economic History 49 (Dec. 1989): 960-61.

(9) Pension File of Smith Buchanan (alias Jackson), 136th USCI; Alfred Carruthers (alias Butler), 14th USCI; Pickney Ellsworth (alias Leonard), 51st USCI; Alexander Everly (alias Evans), 12th USCI; Frank Finley (alias Brown), 119th USCI; Mathew McCann (alias Mathias Garner), 116th USCI; George Nicholson (alias Nickerson, alias Brown), 15th and 101st USCI; Luke Riddick (alias White), 38th USCI; Phillip Russell (alias Fry), 114th USCI; Lewis Smith (alias Dick L. Barnett), 77th USCI and 10th USCHA; Toney Smith (alias James T. Keele), 118th USCI; James Watkins (alias Davis), 54th USCI; Edmund Wescott (alias Bayly), 10th USCI; Alfred Williams (alias Allen), 107th USCI; Allen James Walker (alias Allen James), 11th USCI and 7th USCHA, RG 15. Also see Elizabeth Ann Regosin, “Slave Customs and White Law: Ex-Slave Families and the Civil War Pension System, 1865-1900,” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Irvine, 1995), 72-81.

(10) Pension File of Samuel Anden (alias Anderson), 5th and 6th USCHA; Joseph E. Armant, 74th and 91st USCI; Alfred Benson, 46th USCI; John Black, 75th USCI; Solomon Bulah, 39th USCI; William L. Dickinson, 14th USCI; Henry Eber, 79th and 81st USCI; Romeo Fee, 10th USCHA; James Flenoy (alias Robinson), 88th USCI (New) and 3rd USCHA; Louis Jourdan, 77th USCI and 10th USCHA; Charles Carroll Joyner, 37th USCI; Edward Lunford, 36th USCI; Abraham Northington (alias Norrington), 13th USCI; Charles Crosby (alias Frank Nunn), 86th USCI; Cyrus Ouley (alias Mathias Stephens), 9th USCI; Simon Rappleyea, 26th USCI; Jesse Smith, 52nd USCI; Peter Stephens, 74th and 91st USCI, RG 15.

(11) Pension File of William Cullens, 53rd USCI; Joseph Ellis, 52nd USCI; Charles Morgan, 74th USCI, RG 15.

(12) Statutes at Large, 34:879.

(13) Pension File of Glen Booker, 2nd U.S. Colored Light Artillery (hereafter USCLA); Jackson Bowers, 84th and 87th USCI; Green Colyar, 15th USCI; Nelson Ellis (alias Joseph Ellis), 52nd USCI; Renty Gibson, 21st USCI; Washington Granville, 128th USCI; Nelson Jeffries, 125th USCI; Cruel McCray, 33rd USCI; John Ransom, 4th U.S. Colored Cavalry (hereafter USCC); Luke Riddick, 38th USCI; Robert L. Schofield, 26th USCI; Lee Scott, 23rd USCI; Isaac Shorter, 14th USCI; Joe Smith, 78th and 83rd USCI; Goram Williams, 108th USCI and 5th USCC, RG 15.

(14) For a more detailed explanation of the role of pension claim agents see John William Oliver, History of the Civil War Military Pensions, 1861-1885, Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, No. 844, History Series (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin, 1917), 53-54.

(15) See note 6.

(16) Pension File of Joseph Armant, 74th and 91st USCI; Joseph Arnold, 12th USCI, William Ballinger, 58th USCI; Jeremiah Bradley, 54th Mass. Inf.; John H. Clay, 47th USCI; Benjamin Courtney, 51st USCI; John P. Crabb, 24th USCI; George Crawford, 28th USCI; Henry Eber, 79th and 81st USCI; Clement Frederick, 70th and 71st USCI; Phillip Fry (alias Russell), 114th USCI; Washington Granville, 128th USCI; Smith Gray, 48th USCI; Frank Handy, 37th USCI; Thomas Hampton, 115th USCI; William Harmon, 54th Mass. Inf.; Samuel Hawkins, 11th USCI (New), 6th and 7th USCHA; George Hinton (alias Beverly Stewart), 102nd USCI; Joseph Johnson, 56th USCI; Oscar Johnson, 1st USCHA; William Lucas, 109th USCI; Jacob Luckett, 50th USCI; Amos Matthews, 32nd USCI; Jack Matthews, 68th USCI; Charles Morgan, 74th USCI; Abraham Northington (alias Norrington), 13th USCI; Jordan Norton, 70th and 71st USCI; Cornelius Perry (alias Timber), 11th and 113th USCI (New); Isaac Petteway, 37th USCI; Ned Richardson (alias West), 104th USCI; Samuel Sloss, 111th USCI; James A. Smith, 27th USCI; Lloyd Thurston, 9th USCI; General Walker, 88th and 97th USCI; Josiah White, 78th and 83rd USCI; Alfred Williams (alias Allen), 107th USCI; Willis Wood, 83rd USCI (New), RG 15.

(17) Jesse Jeffrey, Special Examiner, Stubenville, Ohio, to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Dec. 17, 1889, Pension File of James R. Smith, 27th USCI, RG 15.

(18) Arrears applications were made possible by legislation passed in Congress in 1879. Prior to this date an applicant could receive pension payments only from the date of their initial claim. The 1879 law enabled applicants to receive payments retroactive to the date of their initial eligibility. For instance, a former soldier disabled during the war who had never applied for a pension could collect arrears going back to the date he received his wound. The widow of a soldier killed during the war could collect arrears from the date of her husband’s death. The 1879 pension law resulted in an unprecedented number of new claims because applicants could not only collect regular pension payments, but also an initial lump sum amounting to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. See Statutes at Large, 20:265.

(19) By law, the maximum legal fee in pension cases was $10 in claims made under the 1890 law and $25 in war-related disability claims made under the earlier 1862 or “general law.” This money was payable directly to the attorney of record by the Pension Bureau. The law firm then shared a portion of the fee with the claim agent. However, it was apparently common for some agents to appear at the time the applicant got their initial payment and illegally demand a portion of it, especially if the case involved arrears. For examples of this phenomenon see Pension File of George Burton, 41st USCI; Benjamin Courtney, 51st USCI; Nat Jackson, 51st USCI; Jacob Luckett, 50th USCI; Ned Richardson (alias West), 104th USCI; George Scott, 54th Mass. Inf.; Cuffie Simmons, 128th USCI; John Smith, 49th USCI; General Walker, 88th and 97th USCI, RG 15.

(20) Regosin, “Slave Customs and White Law,” 23-42.

(21) John J. Hibbett, Gallatin, Tenn., to Benton McMillan, U.S. Representative, Washington, D.C., June 15, 1886, Pension File of George Hibbett, 14th USCI, RG 15.

(22) The author chose white Southerners for comparison because most black soldiers came from the South, eliminating regional bias that might have resulted had the white soldiers chosen come from northern Union regiments. It was also the goal to select white veterans from a Southern states roughly reflective of their contribution of white soldiers to the Union army. The number of subjects chosen from particular southern states were as follows: Delaware (2); Kentucky (13); Louisiana (1), Maryland (4); Mississippi (1); Missouri (19); North Carolina (1); Tennessee (9). Hence, although the sample of white Southerners is not as deep as the group of black veterans to which it is compared, it is fairly geographically representative of the white Southerners in the Union army.

(23) Donald R. Shaffer, “Marching On: African-American Civil War Veterans in Postbellum America, 1865-1951,” (Ph.D. diss., College Park: University of Maryland, 1996). 225.

(24) The problem of getting specific dates from some black applicants was sufficiently common that the Pension Bureau created a special procedure. “In claims by colored persons,” read a bureau manual on special examination, “it will generally be necessary to call attention to the witnesses to some important event, holiday, &c., to enable them to testify with any approach to accuracy in regard to dates.” See U.S. Pension Bureau, General Instructions to Special Examiners of the U.S. Pension Bureau (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1882), 24.

In addition, the Pension Bureau seems to have developed an informal policy in regard to former black soldiers who had changed their name, and for whom the bureau could not find a former comrade to confirm their identity. A special examiner would quiz the alleged veteran on the personnel and activities of the regiment with whom he had claimed to serve. See Pension File of Frank Handy, 37th USCI, RG 15.

Occasionally, the Pension Bureau would make a special effort for particular black applicants. In the case of Frank Handy, the Pension Bureau paid for transportation so that Handy could travel from his home in Accomac County on Virginia’s Northern Neck to Norfolk, where former comrades lived who could identify him. Individual special examiners also on occasion tried to be extraordinarily helpful to African Americans. Examiner V. T. Vogtman, investigating the death of a black veteran, took a deposition from his widow, reporting, “as she will undoubtedly have difficulty in establishing her marriage to [the] soldier, I deemed it proper to take her deposition, showing the facts in connection with marriage.” See V. T. Vogtman, Special Examiner, New Orleans, La., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Apr. 12, 1928, Pension File of John Reynolds, 96th USCI, RG 15. Examiners also interceded in cases where they thought an applicant especially worthy of a pension. John L. Paine, an examiner in St. Louis, Missouri, made a special plea for an old veteran, Henry Taylor, he felt had been unjustly rejected for a disability rating by his local surgeons’ board. He wrote to the Commissioner of Pensions, “This old soldier has very marked enfeeblement of senility…. He has become a familiar figure to me for siz [sic] months: have seen him time and again hobbling with cane and rag hook, and bag doing the alleys and gutters for rags. He does not earn two dollars a week.” See John L. Paine, Special Examiner, St. Louis, Mo., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 1897, Pension File of Henry Taylor, 102nd USCI, RG 15.

(25) Eugene B. Payne, Special Examiner, to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Dec. 23, 1893, Pension File Evans Osborne, 18th and 72nd USCI, RG 15.

(26) Charles Whitehead, Special Examiner, Memphis, Tenn., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., July 14, 1905, Pension File of Joseph Smith, 78th and 83rd USCI, RG 15.

(27) J. B. Steed, Special Examiner, Vicksburg, Miss., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., May 24, 1918, Pension File of Samuel Anden (alias Anderson), 5th and 6th USCI; A. H. Sweetser, Special Examiner, Richmond, Ky., to the Commissioner, Washington, D.C., Mar. 31, 1890, Pension File of Richard Breck, 121st USCI and 13th USCHA; F. G. Sims, Special Examiner, to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Sept. 20, 1895, Pension File of John Burgess, 11th USCI and 113th USCI (New); L. C. Walsh, Special Examiner, Philadelphia, Pa., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Dec. 29, 1906, Pension File of John Demby, 24th USCI; J. S. Collins, Special Examiner, New Albany, Ind., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Apr. 14, 1911, Pension File of Phillip Russell (alias Fry), RG 15.

(28) John Hall Comick, Special Examiner, Springfield, Mass., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 1894, Pension File of Jeremiah L. Bradley, 54th Mass. Inf., RG 15. What Comick had discovered was that Bradley had been married several times and did not ever get a divorce before remarrying. He also discovered that this was also the case with several of Bradley’s wives. Indeed, he reported to the commissioner, “The witness [Arabella] Burrell [the half-sister of Bradley’s half-brother] remarked to me as I was leaving her that none of them [the people in Bradley’s circle] wasted any time getting divorces.”

(29) John Lux, Special Examiner, to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 1887, Pension File of Lewis Booth, 50th USCI, RG 15.

(30) U.S. Pension Bureau, General Instructions to Special Examiners, 23.

(31) Of this, one dollar went to the clerk who wrote out Garrison’s declaration, plus eighty-five cents for the veteran to get from his home in Pungateague to the Accomac County Court House so he could legally swear to the statements it contained. Shields also lent Garrison four dollars to travel to Hampton, Va., where the surgeon’s board could judge his disabilities, three dollars for two trips to Northampton County to obtain an affidavit from a former officer of his regiment who resided there, and $3 for the cost of executing various affidavits.

(32) Pension File of Bowley Travis, 65th USCI, RG 15

(33) Pension File of Washington Hams, 5th and 6th USCHA, RG 15. 34 A. H. Sweetser, Special Examiner, Richmond, Ky., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Mar. 31, 1890, Pension File of Richard Breck, 121st USCI and 13th USCHA, RG 15.

(35) M. Whitehead, Special Examiner, Norfolk, Va., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Aug. 17, 1893, Pension File of Lloyd Thurston, 9th USCI, RG 15.

(36) M. Whitehead, Special Examiner, New Orleans, La., to the Commissioner of Pensions, Washington, D.C., Oct. 21, 1907 and Deposition of Clementine Chatham, Oct. 4, 1907, Pension File of Henry Eber (alias Herbert), 79th and 81st USCI, RG 15.

Donald R. Shaffer, visiting faculty member at the University of Wyoming, will be joining the history faculty at the University of Northern Colorado this fall. He is currently revising for publication his dissertation on black Union veterans.

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