Genealogy Tip: Your Ancestor’s Civil War Pension (part 1)

Introduction: In this article – the first in a three-part series – Katie Rebecca Garner gives tips for researching your ancestor’s Civil War pension. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, an event that tore the country in half and ended with the freeing of African American slaves. Many men fought on both sides, some coming home permanently disabled – and others not coming home at all, leaving widows behind. These men and women sacrificed much for their country, so the government rewarded them with pensions.

If your ancestor applied for a Civil War pension, they left you with a paper trail with which to research them. This three-part blog series will go over what your ancestors did to get a pension and what we can learn from those paper trails.

Photo: Civil War Union display.
Photo: Civil War Union display.

Photo credit:

About Pensions

Civil War pensions for Union soldiers were granted by the federal government. Confederate soldiers’ pensions came from their former Confederate states, with each Southern state having their own system. The Confederate systems largely paralleled the federal pension system.

The federal government started granting pensions to Union soldiers and widows in 1862. To qualify for these early pensions, a soldier had to have been disabled in service; for a widow to qualify for a pension, the soldier had to have died in service. The pension amount at that time was $8 a month for totally disabled veterans, about $236.97 today. The pension amount increased over time, partly to aid in recruitment of soldiers.

Before the Arrears Act of 1879, pensioners received their pension starting from the application date. As a result of the Arrears Act, pensioners received back payment of their pension from the time the soldier was released from service up to the application date.

The Dependent and Disability Pension Act of 1890 made pensions available to any veteran who was disabled, even if the disability wasn’t contracted in the war. Because this law paid more than the old pension act, many surviving soldiers applied to transfer their pensions. This act also loosened the requirements for widows’ pensions; a widow could qualify if the soldier died from any disability. Disabled dependents could also receive a pension throughout their lives.

Photo: Civil War Confederate display.
Photo: Civil War Confederate display.

Photo credit:

In 1901, a widow who had remarried could qualify for a widow’s pension if she was widowed again. Previously remarriage meant she no longer qualified for a pension.

In 1907, old age was considered a disability for invalid veterans, and the amount was based on the age of the veteran. This was over 40 years after the Civil War ended, so not many of the veterans were alive anymore.

In 1916, the widows’ pension laws were loosened so that any widow of an honorably discharged veteran could apply for a pension. This was about half a century after the Civil War, so there wasn’t a ton of widows still alive.

The above changes to the pension laws meant many pension applications were reevaluated. Some pensioners may have reapplied because of any of these acts, especially if a pension act meant that someone who previously didn’t qualify for a pension now qualified.

African Americans who served in the Union also qualified for pensions, as there was no law stating that pensioners had to be white. However, black people had a harder time than white people with the application process, including traveling to offices and hiring lawyers. Furthermore, the pension boards were completely staffed by white people. Both these factors were to the disadvantage of black pension applicants.

Women who served in the Civil War as nurses also qualified for pensions.

Federal pensions were funded by tariffs. Former Confederate states granting pensions to Confederate veterans had to use their own state funds rather than federal funds to pay the pensioners. Not being able to levy tariffs, many Confederate states struggled to afford payment of pensions, especially in times of economic crisis such as the Great Depression. Some states resorted to skipping payments, which led to pensioners writing in with complaints about why they couldn’t afford to go without their pension payments.

What did all these acts and processes mean for our ancestors? Tune in for the next article in this series to find out.

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Note on the header image: Civil War reenactment. Credit:


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