Using Civil War Pension Files

The value of Civil War pension files and how to locate them

pension index

The Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 and included more than 2.8 million people between the Union and Confederate armies. If you have an ancestor that fought in the American Civil War, a pension file can be a great way to find out more about them. A pension file was an application that soldiers (or spouse or children) filled out to receive funds from the state or federal government.

Many veterans were eligible for pensions. In 1861, pensions were granted to those veterans who had war-related disabilities, their widows, and their children under 16. In 1890, pension benefits were expanded to include any veteran who could prove they have served for at least 90 days with an honorable discharge. The large majority of Union soldiers applied for pensions, and there are even some Confederate soldiers that were awarded pensions from their southern states (although not from the federal government). Additionally, pension files can help you find widows, children or parents because they were eligible for them through their deceased veteran.

What kind of information can be found in a pension file?

A pension file includes the information and documents given by the person who applied for the pension, affidavits written by relatives or friends to prove the veteran's service, and notes from the federal government related to the pension being granted or denied. Information will include details about the veteran's war service including enlistment information and where they served, as well as the veteran's place of residence at the time of the filing. Medical information about the veteran is included, as well as a detailed physical description of the person. Affidavits from family members may be included. The veteran may have included birth or marriage information. Applications from widows, children or parents can have additional helpful information such as proof of marriage, proof of birth, affidavits from family members, and witnesses since they had to prove their relationship to the soldier.

Types of Pension Records

Union pension records were issued by the federal government. The original documents are held in the National Archives in Washington D.C.

Confederate pension records were issued in some cases by individual states. The states that issued Confederate pensions were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Widow's Pensions

In some cases, a widow or dependent would also apply for a pension for a deceased soldier and there will be a corresponding file. Often when there is a widow's pension, the soldier applied first and received a pension. Then when he died, his widow or another dependent would apply to continue to receive the pension.

A widow's pension file will contain marriage information about the couple and sometimes other details such as names of children or death information for the soldier and widow. Often someone who was present at the marriage of the couple wrote an affidavit stating knowledge about the marriage as well.

Where to Obtain Pension Records

There are 2 steps to obtaining a Union pension record:

  1. Search the pension record index on Ancestry or on FamilySearch. It will be helpful to know events, military dates or family members to enhance your search.
  2. Once you have the index information, obtain the full file from the National Archives. You can go to the National Archives to obtain a copy, hire a researcher, or order a copy directory from the archives. Though there is a cost to obtaining the file, it is worth the effort as the full pension files can be lengthy and range from 50-120 pages and can be packed with useful information.

To find the Confederate pension records you have to search the state records. The National Archives has a list of where Confederate pension records can be found.

Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.

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