Why Pensions?For many African American families, especially those whose ancestors were enslaved by Southern Whites, tracing family members back beyond the 1870 census can prove a daunting task. One resource—the pension files for those who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War—can help carry that research journey into the 1860s and earlier. In their book Voices of Emancipation, authors Elizabeth A. Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer placed great emphasis on the research value of these documents, for scholars and genealogists alike: "In former slaves' claims, the pension process generated a virtual treasure trove of documents...that offer invaluable insight into the experiences of slavery, African American military service and civilian life during the Civil War, the experience of emancipation, and postwar experiences of former slaves."
What's in a file?
Though it varies from file to file, genealogists and researchers can expect to find documents related to:
- family structure and kinship and friendship networks
- medical condition, disease, or maladies
- birthdates, birthplaces, and ages
- occupational skill sets and training
- name changes or changes in spelling
- military service
- residential relocation in the postwar years
Less often but still possible are personal correspondence items like condolence letters. The widow’s pension file of Milbry Griffin contained such letters from her husband’s orderly sergeant and captain. Edward Griffin, a corporal in the 36th Regiment Infantry, was shot in the breast by a Confederate sharpshooter at Petersburg, Virginia, on August 22, 1864. In his letter to Milbry, Captain Charles Frye assured her that Edward was well-regarded, a “good soldier, faithful and reliable” who died “manfully fighting for his country and his race.”
Other files may contain documents that shed light on the ways slavery could complicate, but not weaken, family bonds. When Ephraim Crandall, of the 35th Regiment Infantry, died from the effects of smallpox in January 1864, he left not one but two widows. In the prewar years, Ephraim was sold away from his first wife Rosetta against his will around the year 1855. He remained close enough to visit her and their children, providing provisions as he could, but was ultimately married to a second woman, Dolley Powers, with whom he had more children.
Following Ephraim’s death, each widow presented all the required evidence to claim the pension. The federal government, however, refused to acknowledge Rosetta as a lawful widow of Ephraim, awarding the pension to Dolley. Rosetta’s reply to the pension bureau is heartbreaking: “You see from evidence on file we both was slaves & did not desert each other. My husband was sold to Edmond Moore[. H]e did not go there on his own free act & deed.” In a later form, she reiterated the same, pointing out that their separation was not at all voluntary: “My husband was sold away from me…could I or he help that[?]”
Other pension materials illuminate the journies of enslaved persons who sought freedom by escaping to Union lines. As part of a group of about eighteen freedom seekers, Blunt Askew, his wife Adaline, and their son William left Hertford County, North Carolina, one Saturday night in the winter of 1863-1864. Piloted by fellow slave Ross Askew, the course of the group’s escape took them first to a gunboat, which then transported them to Plymouth, North Carolina, where all the men of the group joined the army in March 1864. Their journey to freedom is perhaps recorded nowhere but the pension file of Blunt Askew.
To Learn More
To learn more about the kinds of information you will find in pension files and about the unique challenges faced by members of the United States Colored Troops and their dependents in obtaining their pensions, I highly recommend “USCT Pension Files: A Rich Resource for African American Genealogy” by Bernice Alexander Bennett (published by the International African American Museum on their blog).