Records of Veterans' Benefits
| Researching Military Records
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Military Records|
|Records of Veterans' Benefits|
|Miscellaneous Military Records|
|List of Useful Military Resources|
Although bounties, paid in money and land, were sometimes provided as an enlistment incentive, the provision of benefits, especially the granting of pensions, was not widespread until after the Revolutionary War. Early fighters in Indian skirmishes and local riots submitted claims for supplies, equipment, and time spent to both legislative assemblies and county courts.
Pension Records (1774–1811)
The first congressional legislation authorizing the payment of pensions for Revolutionary War service was dated 26 August 1776, but the government did not begin paying pension allowances until 28 July 1789; applications for pensions were made to the federal government from that date. Many of the early applications were destroyed by fire in 1800 and 1814. A partial record of the earlier pensioners is included among reports to Congress in 1792, 1794, and 1795. Although applications for pensions were made to the U.S. government, they were initiated in the courts of the counties and towns in which the veterans lived. Note that a Pension Board refusal often led the claimant to seek relief from Congress directly.
The pension records for the Revolutionary War and later wars can contain much of genealogical value: affidavits made by the veteran and his neighbors or associates to support his claim, summaries of his service, the military organization in which he served, the dates of his service, his date and place of birth, names of heirs, relationship to others who served with him, his movements after the war, and information from family Bible records. Sometimes the Bible pages, torn out of the book, are enclosed as evidence.
For example, the Revolutionary War pension file of Reuben Johnson was filed in Anderson District, South Carolina, on 19 November 1832. The file is too long to reproduce in its entirety but is illustrative even in summary. Reuben Johnson filed a sworn statement with the justice of the peace of Anderson District to apply for a pension for his Revolutionary War services as a member of the Fourth Regiment of the North Carolina Line. He enlisted with Richard Phillips in 1776 at Surry County, North Carolina, and served for two and one-half years in the command of Captain Joseph Philips. On his statement he also named the marches in which he took part. After reenlisting, he was present at the siege of Charleston, where he was taken prisoner by the British.
While his affidavit does not indicate his birth date or place of birth, many applications do contain that information, as well as the veteran’s residences after the war.
Reuben’s wife applied for a widow’s pension after her husband’s death. This document contains information of greater importance. Nancy Johnson’s affidavit of 29 March 1843 states that she was the widow of Reuben Johnson, that they were married 20 November 1788, and that her husband died 26 January 1833. Her sister Margaret Burroughs made a sworn statement that her sister was Nancy Johnson, nee Greenlee, who had married Reuben Johnson in North Carolina many years before. Margaret was six years old when Nancy and Reuben were married and did not know the exact date of their marriage, but she knew Reuben and Nancy had moved to South Carolina with her father, Peter Greenlee, and that the two families lived on the same plantation. Peter died about forty years before her testimony. Her mother died 1 December 1842.
Reuben Johnson’s file also contained a copy of his marriage record from Wilkes County, North Carolina. The documents in Reuben Johnson’s file permit the researcher to outline his movements from the time of his enlistment to his death and document two generations of ancestry.
All of the contents of all of the application files are reproduced on microfilm in Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Files. Each roll begins with an introduction that gives the eligibility requirements of the various resolutions and acts of Congress from 1776 to 1878 that established pensions for Revolutionary War service.
A second microfilm publication, Selected Records from Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Files, has far fewer rolls because it reproduces all records from files containing up to ten pages but only significant genealogical documents from larger files. Copies of both microfilm reproductions are on file at libraries throughout the country, including the Family History Library and its Family History Centers.
A digitized version of the Selected Records microfilm publication (M805) may be searched by the name of the applicant at the website of Heritage Quest. However, as explained, a file of ten reproduced pages could actually contain more, making it prudent to subsequently search in the more complete M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Files. The application number gleaned from either microfilm collection may be used to order the full file from the National Archives using NATF Form 85, or online ordering at http://www.archives.gov.
A four-volume set by Virgil D. White will prove useful in locating information from these files: Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files. Also helpful are the compilations by Murtie J. Clark, including The Pension Lists of 1792–95; with Other Revolutionary War Pension Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1991. Reissued 1996) and the National Genealogical Society’s Special Publication No. 40, Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: NGS, 1976). This last publication will identify certain applications that were rejected.
Rejection of Revolutionary War pension applications did not necessarily mean that the applicant made a dishonest claim. Hundreds of applicants simply could not provide the necessary proof of service to be awarded a pension. The majority of applications were filed when Congress granted permission to all veterans in 1832. Discharges had often been lost or, in many cases, never issued. Comrades-in-arms who could have attested to service were often deceased or had moved away.
The Act of 1832, mentioned earlier, required pension applications to include the birthplace, age, and residence of the applicant, and more. Applications may also include mention of a soldier substituting for another relative who was drafted into service. Once all of the applications pertaining to a veteran were received, including those of the widows and other claimants, they were combined into one file.
Bounty-land warrants were authorized by Congress in 1776 as a substitute for the wages it was unable to pay its soldiers. If the soldier was deceased, his heirs took claim to the land after the war. The number of acres granted was based upon the soldier’s rank and ranged from 100 to 1,100 acres. More information on laws and acreage can be found in chapter 10, “Land Records.” This method of decreasing military costs worked so well that bounty-land warrants continued to be issued for post–Revolutionary War service. Congress eventually authorized bounty-land warrants to be issued for military service performed prior to 1855.
The number of applicants for bounty lands far exceeded the number of persons applying for pensions, but the bounty-land warrant application file is basically the same as that of the pension application file. The application provides the veteran’s name, age, residence, the military organization in which he served, and the term of his service. If his widow or other heirs made claim, their names, ages, and places of residence are given. Not all veterans actually farmed the land granted to them. Many assigned their warrants to others for a fee. The attached image shows bounty-land warrant 8057, which designates Philip van Cortlandt, the assignee of Eleazar Yeomans, a soldier in the New York line. Yeoman’s claim for one hundred acres was authorized by an act of Congress on 9 July 1788 and assigned to van Cortlandt on 16 July 1790.
Not all bounty-land applications were approved. The claimant had to prove his service in the war in exactly the same manner that a pensioner had to prove his service. Again, a rejected claim did not necessarily indicate that the claimant’s service was never rendered, only that the claimant was not able to provide sufficient proof.
An estimated 450,000 bounty-land claims are on file in the National Archives. Some early claims were destroyed by the fires previously mentioned, but those remaining are available from the National Archives upon request using NATF Form 85. In addition to land grants made by the federal government for Revolutionary War service, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia chose to reward their soldiers with bounty land. Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck has indexed the bounty-land records from these nine states in Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments.
Pension Records (1789–1861)
Pension records exist for the period between the end of the Revolutionary War and the beginning of the Civil War, primarily dealing with the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, and the Mexican War. All of the indexes to these pension records have been published. These records are classified in three groups as the Old War Series Pension Records. These records pertain to pension applicants who were disabled or killed while serving in any war after the close of the Revolutionary War and before the start of the Civil War (except for the War of 1812 pensions included in the regular War of 1812 pension application files). A few files relating to naval service of men who were killed or disabled during the Civil War are included. The original applications are located at the National Archives and can be requested in the same manner as all of the records discussed earlier using NATF Form 85. These pension applications have been indexed; the microfilmed indexes are available at NARA regions, the Family History Library, and some other libraries. Indexes for Revolutionary War pension applications and the index for Civil War Union pension applications are increasingly available online.
Find Revolutionary War Pensions online at:
The USGenWeb Archives has embarked on a project to provide transcriptions of pension-related materials for all wars prior to 1900. The project, named the USGenWeb Pension Project, will accept transcripts, extracts, and abstracts of pensions and pension-related material. Submissions are placed in the USGenWeb Archives directory of the state and county of principal residence of the pensioner. An early submission to the project is the application for Mexican War veteran James M. Phelan, filed in Clay County, Arkansas, under the act if January 29, 1887. The Survivors Brief states that Phelan served in Hacker’s Company, the 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, as a private. He enlisted 25 June 1846 and was discharged 18 June 1847. Phelan was born 8 October 1824. The General Affidavit shows he is a resident of Piggott in Clay County, Arkansas, and owns 103 ½ acres of land in Union County, Illinois, three miles north of Dongola, with a value of about $25. His income is derived from renting the farm for “about $67 per year after taxes and other expenses” and the $8 per month pension he already receives. Details about the USGenWeb Pension Project are provided at http://www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/pensions.
War of 1812 Pensions
Pension application files for veterans of the War of 1812 include applications of veterans still living after 1871, when Congress authorized pensions to veterans who did not later support the Confederate States of America. Applications for death, disability, and regular service from widows and other claimants are included in the same collection. A second act of Congress in 1878 authorized pensions for veterans who saw as few as fourteen days of active duty. Virgil D. White’s two-volume Index to War of 1812 Pension Files indexes applicants eligible for pensions or bounty lands under these two acts.
Find War of 1812 Pensions online for free at:
These pension files give the veteran’s name, age, and place of residence. If he was married, the marriage date and the maiden name of his wife are stated. The unit in which he served, the date and place of enlistment, and the date and place of discharge are also given. The widow’s pension file will provide her name, age, place of residence, their pertinent marriage information, the date and place of the veteran’s death, his enlistment date and place, and the date and place of his final discharge. The pension files are available from the National Archives, but the microfilmed indexes are available in various libraries throughout the United States.
Indian Wars Pensions
There were several Indian Wars between 1817 and 1858. The files of claims submitted for pensions are alphabetically indexed by name in T318, Index to Indian Wars Pension Files, 1892–1926. A printed index is Index to Indian Wars Pension Files, 1892–1926 transcribed by Virgil D. White. In addition to the usual types of records found in pension applications, the Indian wars records contain a family questionnaire and, for the veteran, a personal history questionnaire. The family questionnaire shows the maiden name of the wife; date and place of the marriage of the couple and the name of the person who performed the ceremony; name of a former wife, if any, and date and place of her death or divorce; and names and dates of birth of living children.
The pension files are located at the National Archives. For pension application files concerning men who were disabled or killed in Indian wars and in whose behalf no service claims were made, see the records in the Old Wars series (discussed earlier). For pension applications relating to persons who served in an Indian campaign during the War of 1812, Mexican War, or Civil War, see the pension indexes relating to claims based on service in that war (following).
Mexican War Pensions
Pension application files from the Mexican War were authorized by Congress in 1887, permitting veterans and their widows to file claims with the government. New restrictions specified a minimum of sixty days of service, a minimum age at application of sixty-two, or the requirement of being disabled or dependent.
These files contain basically the same information required in other pension applications, but also required the maiden name of the wife, the names of former wives, death or divorce information about previous wives, and the names and birth dates of living children. Pension applications were accepted between 1887 and 1926. They are indexed by name, and the index has been microfilmed as Index to Mexican War Pension Applications, 1887–1926. Copies of the files can be obtained from the National Archives. Published versions of the index to Mexican War pensions include An Index to Mexican War Pension Applications transcribed by Barbara Schull Wolfe; Index to Mexican War Pension Files by Virgil D. White; and Navena Hembree Troxel’s thirteen volume Mexican War Index to Pension Files, 1886–1926. Each of these indexes has its own unique attributes.
Civil War and Later Pension Records (1861–1934)
The Civil War and later series of pension applications files relate chiefly to army, navy, and marine service performed between 1861 and 1916. The records of service in Confederate forces are not included in this file.
Federal pensions were granted to veterans of the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Philippine Insurrection of 1899 to 1902, and other conflicts of the era. Pensions based upon such service are included in the same index for Union Civil War veterans: General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934. This index is also available as an online database at Ancestry.com, titled “Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861–1934.”
If a Civil War veteran’s widow, minor children, or parents applied for pension after the veteran’s death, their applications will be indexed by the name of the veteran. Microfilm copies of the General Index to Pension Files 1861–1934 are available at the National Archives, their regions, the Family History Library, and many libraries with large genealogy collections.
Civil War pension application files are the best of the early military documents compiled and contain valuable genealogical information. These files do not all contain the same amount of information, but one can expect to find at least some of the following information: the name of the veteran, the military or naval unit in which he served, the date and place of his enlistment, his birth date and place, the date and place of his marriage, the names and birth dates of his children, the maiden name of his wife, information about subsequent marriages, the date and place of his discharge, physical disabilities connected with service-related injuries, and his residences since his discharge. There will also be general affidavits of individuals who could attest to his disabilities and copies of the findings of examining physicians at the time of his injury and during subsequent periodic physicals.
Each pension applicant was required to complete a Declaration for an Original Invalid Pension. The full pension file may also contain applications by widows or other dependents after the death of the veteran. James W. Reddish, a resident of Hancock County, Kentucky, sought his pension on 2 February 1891. His application is based on service in the Kentucky Infantry Volunteers. It gives his physical description and describes injuries to his right foot and the dislocation of an elbow, and the contracting of measles in the hospital which resulted in the loss of sight of his left eye.
After James’s death, his widow, Matilda Raddish [sic] filed a Declaration for a Widow’s Pension. She gives James’s death date as 19 February 1894. She noted that she was married on 5 January 1885 at Owensboro, Kentucky, and that both she and James were widowed at the time of their marriage. The dates of death for each of the former spouses is provided. She gives her maiden name as Matilda Sweat. She had one minor child, Alonzo Reddish, born in March 1884.
The brother of James W. Reddish was Markus L. Reddish, who also served in the Civil War. A Declaration for Dependent Pension of a Mother or Father was submitted by Polly Ann Right, their mother. She stated that Markus had died of measles while in the service at Corinth, Mississippi, on 6 July 1862. She had married his father 2 October 1836 at Daviess County, Kentucky. After her husband died 1 March 1863 at Ohio County, Kentucky, she married Amos Right, who had in turn died 5 July 1880.
Polly Ann Right had four sons in the Union Army at one time, and her husband was killed by Confederate troops as he worked on their farm. This unusual family situation is fully explained in the collected Civil War pension files of the entire family. This family’s files are representative of the majority of the records on file.
Pensioners also completed periodic requests for additional information. The file of Solomon Winne, Kingston, New York, shows documentation of the maiden name of his wife, the date of their marriage, and the names and birth dates of their living children. Because she died a few months before her husband, his pension file included a copy of her death certificate. The document provides the exact date of her death, her age at the time of her death, the names and birthplaces of her parents, and where she was buried.
Winne’s file also included an unusual document. His daughter, Mary H. Swarthout of Kingston, New York, filed an application to be reimbursed for expenses related to his last illness. He died 20 July 1909 at the Old Soldier’s Home in Bath, New York, owing $75 for his board at the time of his death. He owned no real estate, personal property, or money.
Another document in the pension file is the termination of the pension. If the cause was death—the most common reason—the death date is usually listed.
One of the most valuable contributions that a pension file from any era can make in genealogical research is listing the veteran’s residences after discharge The World War I pension file of Giovanni Tenuta shows residences in Wisconsin and Italy. Westward expansion sent many families leapfrogging states between censuses in the post–Civil War years. Tracing the exact movements of individuals and families during that period is difficult at best and sometimes impossible without the assistance of the “road maps’’ provided in these pension files.
Because the Confederacy was dissolved after the war, no central governmental agency provided pensions for service or disability of Confederate soldiers. Some of the former Confederate states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, authorized pensions to veterans and their widows. Each state had its own regulations which applicants had to meet. In each case, however, the pension could be paid only if the applicant continued to reside within the borders of the state. If he or she moved elsewhere, the applicant had to qualify under the regulations of the new jurisdiction. State repositories may provide online searches of collections relating to pensions and other assistance that was given to veterans who resided in their states (regardless of their state of enlistment). The Library of Virginia website at http://www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/mil offers several databases of state-created Confederate files. “Confederate Pension Rolls, Veterans and Widows,” consists of pension applications and amended applications filed by resident Virginia Confederate veterans and their widows, and “Confederate Disability Applications and Receipts” are applications to the Board of Commissioners on Artificial Limbs from injured soldiers. Other online indexes are in the list of websites that appears at the end of this chapter.
The attached images illustrate pages from the the Soldier’s Application for Confederate Pension from the State of Texas. The record lists the veteran’s name, date and place of enlistment, residence, date and place of birth, injuries resulting from military service, marital status, the number and ages of his children, the age of his wife, the number of years he resided in Texas, and his occupation. There is no standard format for pension applications for the Confederacy, but the Texas application is representative of most of the others. The attached image is a Widow’s Application for Confederate Pension.
- Pension Application #W10156 for Reuben Johnson and Nancy Johnson, service from North Carolina. Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Files, NARA Microfilm M804, roll 475, image 548-57.
- Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Files, NARA microfilm M804.
- Selected Records From Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications Files, NARA microfilm M805.
- Virgil D. White, Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files (Waynesboro, Tenn.: National Historical Publishing Co., 1990-92).
- Lloyd deWitt Bockstruck, Revolutionary War Bounty Land Grants Awarded by State Governments (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996).
- Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2000), 174.
- Mexican War Survivors Brief and General Affidavit for James M. Phelan, Clay County, Arkansas, dated 02 June 1894, ftp://ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/ar/clay/military/mexwar/pensions/phelanj.txt
- Virgil D. White, Index to War of 1812 Pension Files (Waynesboro, Tenn.: National Historical Publishing Co., 1989).
- Virgil D. White, transcriber, Index to Indian Wars Pension Files, 1892-1926 (Waynesboro, Tenn.: National Historical Publishing Co., 1987).
- Index to Mexican War Pension Applications, 1887-1926, NARA microfilm T317.
- Barbara Schull Wolfe, transcriber, An Index to Mexican War Pension Applications (Indianapolis: Heritage House, 1985); Virgil D. White, Index to Mexican War Pension Files (Waynesville, Ten..: National Historical Publishing, 1989); Navena Hembree Troxel, Mexican War Index to Pension Files, 1886-1926 (Gore, Okla.: VT Publications, 1983-95).
- General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, NARA microfilm T288.