The Struggle of Men in the 29th to Obtain Pensions
A Civil War era cartoon displaying corruption within the pensions system
(Puck Magazine, 1882)
In July 1862, the federal government enacted a law granting a pension to any soldier who was injured in the Civil War, or to the widows or orphans of men who were killed. Over the next fifty years, this legislation was amended to grant pensions to an increasing number of men, first those who suffered from illnesses connected to the war, and then to those of certain ages. The dollar amount given by pensions depended on the degree of disability or age, regardless of the veteran’s employment status, his job if employed, or his wealth.
While pensions were intended as a means of taking care of all soldiers who had made sacrifices for the Union cause, it is indisputable that African American soldiers faced significant obstacles when applying for a pension. Because Black soldiers were less likely to be hospitalized for their wounds and illnesses, Black survivors of the war lagged significantly behind whites in their ability to produce documentation that their wartime experiences might be linked to their disabilities in later life. The process was difficult and expensive, and required much documentation, particularly difficult tasks as many Black applicants were poor and illiterate. Claim agents who assisted in the application process often took advantage of black soldiers by submitting fraudulent claims. The applications from African American veterans for pensions were sent through special examinations in the United States Pension Bureau unlike white applicants applications. Many pension applications by Black veterans were just simply overlooked by the Bureau. Many African Americans relied upon manual labor to support their family, and found these circumstances increasingly difficult as they grew older and more impacted by wartime injuries or illness. One piece of good news for veterans was that the Dependent Pension Act of 1890 made it so the federal government had to financially support the family even if the injury or cause behind why the work couldn’t be done anymore wasn't a cause from the war. The only requirements were that a soldier had to have served 90 days and been honorably discharged.
Another cover of Puck Magazine (this one from the 1890s) displaying some frustration towards pension spending
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization made up of American Civil War veterans from the Union. Founded in 1866 by Dr. Benjamin F. Stephenson on the ideals of “fraternity, charity, and loyalty,” as a group the GAR was rather progressive and supported black voting rights. Their main political goal was to increase both access to and funding for army pensions. The GAR.s members grew rapidly, from 31,016 in 1878 to 397,974 in 1889. In an era when women were still prohibited from voting, GAR members made up a significant percentage of Nrothern voters and as such were able to influence members of Congress, especially in the appointment of new pension commissioners. One of those main commissioners, William Dudley was particularly effective in increasing support for pensions, for in a period of only two years (1881-1883), the budget of the Pensions Bureau went up by 152%..
It was particularly difficult for widows of soldiers of color to secure pensions. In 1864, Congress required widows who had formerly been enslaved who had applied for pensions to show proof that they had previously been married for two years. Of course, in almost all cases there were no records kept of marriages among enslaved persons. These widows therefore often turned to loopholes in order to survive. Formerly enslaved women would marry or live with veterans because of their pensions or would sometimes even marry men on their deathbed to gain money that they could not make on their own. This was a dangerous game, however, for they could also lose these benefits if they were found guilty of committing adultery. The law was changed after a man by the name of Lafayette S. Foster, a Republican from Connecticut, led a committee which ended with them deciding that black widows were entitled to pensions without proof of marriage by 1866.
Even free Black residents of the North had difficulty providing documentations of their marriages. To prove that they were married to soldiers and were entitled, as widows, to that soldier’s pensions, these women had to acquire affidavits from friends and family; this was both time-consuming and expensive. The pension system in the post-Civil War era was begun with the best of intentions - to provide assistance to those men or families who had sacrificed much for the Union. However, the bureaucracy set up to administer these pensions ended up, in many cases, preventing those who needed assistance the most from obtaining it.