Civil War Pensions: Black Women as Legal Authorities in Veteran Pensions

McGlothlin, Lauren, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, AS-History, University of Virginia

There are about two million Civil War Pension files in the National Archives, as the U.S. federal government granted pensions to Union veterans, their widows, children, and dependent parents starting 1862. These files often contain copies of vital records, like death certificates, birth records, and marriage certificates, along with information and questionnaires gathered from a multitude of voices in a veteran’s life. Pensions were available to applicants of all races, including ex-slaves and free blacks who fought within Union regiments. However, while the pension system was in principle race-neutral, in practice it was discriminatory, with black veterans often receiving fewer and smaller pension awards than their white counterparts. Despite the prejudiced nature of awarded pension files, the sources still offer an unrivaled view into black life during the nineteenth century. Black veteran pension claims in particular hold indispensable significance for the historiographies of black families, as their contents supplement and contribute to growing areas of historical conversation, especially around the role women played in offering testimony and legal legitimacy to pension applications. By analyzing Civil War pension files, readers can glean critical insights into the structure and experiences of black communities during and after the war. This thesis will argue that formerly enslaved women exerted crucial legal authority in pension cases, and that such authority was rooted in the formation and resilience of female communities that had been formed before emancipation and persisted into the postwar era.

MA (Master of Arts)
Civil War, Pension Files, Women's History, Black Women's History
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