Is It Worth It to Get the Civil War Pension?

In the theoretical genealogical world, one gets a copy of everything and cost is no object.

Unfortunately most of us do not live in the theoretical world.

I’ve started working on a family that I’ve not worked on in some time and discovered that one of the sons-in-law of the ancestor in question (Andrew Trask, born around 1813 probably in Massachusetts and died in the 1880s in Mercer County, Illinois) served in the Civil War.

The question: do I need the son-in-laws’s pension?

One school of thought is that I need it because I should track all the relatively closely related people down as much as possible. The problem is obtaining a copy of the pension will cost me money–which is how most offline records are acquired.

I need to think about what the pension likely contains and what my research goals are.

I want to document Andrew as much as possible and do the same for his children. I also want to determine the names of his parents.

The son-in-law in question outlived his wife–who was the daughter of Andrew Trask. As a result there will be no widow’s pension which typically provides some detail about the wife, her marriage to the soldier, and (in some cases, her life before and after marriage to the soldier).

There will just be the soldier’s application for a pension in which he will typically have to document:

  • his service
  • his eligibility for a pension
  • service-related injuries and subsequent medical challenges arising from those injuries

That’s probably not going to provide details about the wife or her family. The veteran is not going to have to prove his marriage, etc. If the veteran was a pensioner in 1890s there was a survey sent that asked about their marriage and children. Those questions were asked so that the information could be compared to what any subsequent widow may claim. I already have the date and place of marriage for the soldier and the same for his children.

At this point, the chance is small that there is something in the Civil War pension file on this son-in-law that helps me meet my research goals for the wife and her family.

If she had outlived her husband, then it would have been a different story.

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16 thoughts on “Is It Worth It to Get the Civil War Pension?

  1. I agree that it is not always necessary to obtain a copy of someone’s Civil War pension, but, I must say I was strongly castigated by one of the BCG judges when a case study I submitted for my CG renewal portfolio only mentioned that more specific information about when the veteran moved from NE to OH might be found in his pension file. As in your case the veteran outlived the wife (my relative) and there were no surviving children. The timing of his move was narrowed to a two year window by other records and I felt the exact timing was irrelevant to the case study and not worth the cost or time spent getting a copy of the pension file simply to see if indeed the exact move date was provided.

    • I agree with your approach. While I’m a big fan of “getting everything I can,” I do think it is important to be pragmatic and think about what materials are reasonably likely to address the “question at hand” and concentrate on those sources. There needs to be an acknowledgement that everyone cannot afford to get everything that is out there. And you addressed the pension and indicated why you did not search for it, which (given what you included in your post) made that failure to get the pension reasonable.

      While there’s a chance this man’s pension provides something about his wife’s family, the chance is small considering that he outlived her and she never applied for a widow’s pension.

      • The original paper copies of Civil War pensions (for Union service) are at the National Archives and can be requested via the Archives. There are private researchers in the greater Washington, DC area who can obtain copies of these as well.

  2. h j collins says:

    My ancestor was trying to get a disability pension. (I think he got the first check the month he died).

    Some years later when a window was eligible, even though the veteran didn’t die during the war, she applied.

    What I received was way over 100 pages. His application kept being denied.
    There were a lot of depositions and affidavits from people who served with him, a man who came over on the boat from Germany with him, priests who baptized their chlldren, midwives who delivered them, etc., etc., etc.
    It was expensive but was a real gold mine of information probably because of all the trouble they went through.

    • I have a widowed ancestor who kept getting denied after her husband died. Her application and the testimony she gave was wonderful. Had she died first there would not have been all the great information about her family in the file.

  3. Marcia Skiver says:

    Maybe I was lucky but my ancestors file included names and birthdates of all his children and those of his two wives that preceded him in death.

    • Sometimes that happens–you’ve been fortunate. In my case, I’ve got that information on the wife already (her vital dates and places) and my goal is to learn more about the parents of the wife and her life before marriage to the veteran. I’m not certain in my case that at this point it will be worth the expense of obtaining the pension file.

    • Jane Coryell says:

      My great-grandfather’s also included his children’s birthdates. I had previously only known the years. It also verified my great-grandmother’s parents, for which I had search for years. It was worth the cost.

  4. Pension records have been a great help to me! For most of my great grandfathers, I was able to travel to the National Archives to view the records and make copies. But for my great-grandfather Jonas, I had to contact a different location.My much younger gg grandmother lived until 1942 so those records are not archived. All I had to do was write a letter requesting the records through the Freedom of Information Act. It took over 6 months but they sent me the records at no cost to me. I was shocked to find his file was 322 pages long! He fought for years for the pension. The government disputed it constantly. Didn’t help that he lied about his age to join the Civil War. The file contained a copy of their marriage certificate which listed both their parents,detailed medical reports, handwritten letters, and sworn statements from his brother and half-sister. The statement from his sister was the last link I needed for my application for the DAR. You never know what you will find in these records.

  5. Since a pension application file is usually readily available, it is part of the scenario of reasonably exhaustive research.

    In at least one file I obtained, in addition to affidavits of neighbors or relatives as to whether the applicant was married and lived as husband and wife in the neighborhood (or did he marry again after death of first wife?), some Pension Office officials wrote the local postmaster asking for an opinion as to the character of the applicant.

    There may be affidavits from midwives or even physicians regarding births of children you don’t know about.

    In one instance a relative applying for an increase based on age was asked for details of his family in the 1850 US Census so the officials could look it up — but the Census Bureau could not find that enumeration, so the Pension Office settled for the 1860 enumeration as evidence of age. In another instance a similar routine resulted in a major correction as to a household surname’s being written on to the Pension Office’s copy of the 1850 US Census, along with a rather cryptic explanation, now microfilmed for us to wonder at.

    You just don’t know what all is going to be in such files, and while as “family historians” some may eschew great interest in an “unrelated” spouse, the genealogist should try to establish as much of the whole picture as is reasonably possible.

    • You are right that pension files are highly variable in what they contain and do have the potential to have a figurative gold mine of information. We’ll see if in this case there is anything as I’ve requested a copy of the file. Given my goal of locating information on the father’s origins, I’m still not certain I’d classify this son-in-law’s pension file as high on my priority list (which would change if his widow had survived him). But I’ll find out when I get copies of the file 😉

  6. Two of my 2nd great grandfathers served in Civil War.

    Both had different situations. Moses and Joshua.

    Moses had previous marriage with no details known to family.

    Joshua was a widower for long time.

    Both lived into 1920s (Moses in1929, Joshua in 1922)

    Both of full files contained a lot of details that were jarring surprises.

    Because they lived long time. Both had details of their children with birthdates and places listed. Several of them cleared up on my sources for dates and places as well as exact spellings.

    What were the surprises? Both files were over 100 pages long.

    Moses was a bigamist as told to me by my grand uncle since he knew his grandfather personally and knew about some stories. Confirmed in the file, Moses did sue for divorce and it was not resolved, and no children. Got exact name of his first wife, and name of his best friend who turned out to be his ex wife’s brother. And best of all his actual birth year which was 1841, not 1825.

    Joshua, discovered he was in Alabama for some reason for a short time in 1898. Haven’t found what that place was known for then but he lived there for a time before moving back to South Dakota and eventually ended up in California where he died and buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery, far from Minnesota where his wife was buried. Yielded whereabouts of his favorite sister (in California.)

    Plus many more details not known before as to their whereabouts from time of service until their deaths.

    So you never know what’s in the files that can close many holes.

    I even sent for the files for other relatives in my family, including one who served in Mexican War (another story.)

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