Patience pays off

October 2007:

 I wrote a letter to the National Personnel Records Center requesting the military service and/or pension records of my great-grandfather, William Seal, under the Freedom of Information Act. I also filled out and sent in Form 180 (Request pertaining to military records) although I wasn’t sure which form was the correct one to use because the VA website is clear as mud.

My great-grandfather didn’t serve in one of the “big wars” (Civil War, WWI, WWII), he fought in the little known war called The Philippine Insurrection. Because his military service fell between the Civil War and WWI, I couldn’t figure out which agency might hold his records, but I knew that he definitely served, definitely drew a pension, and that his wife drew a widow’s pension until her death in 1952. The only thing I didn’t know was where his records were being held.

 April-May 2008:

I received a rejection letter from the NPRC, telling me that they couldn’t find his records and that I needed to contact the National Archives. I visited the website, found out what forms I needed and filled out NATF Form 85 (Order for copies of federal pension or bounty land warrant applications), ticking the box marked “Full pension application file-Civil War, 1860 and later.”

November 2008:

Another rejection letter, this time from the National Archives. Even though I had located (via’s wonderful military section) both the application number and certificate number of William’s pension request and approval, the National Archives stated that they could not find his records.

April 2009:

After moping for a few months not really knowing what to try next, I happened across a thread on, a site dedicated to cataloging cemeteries and gravesites, which had tips and pointers for requesting military records. One board member told of his own frustrations and hassles with trying to obtain pension files, and suggested a way to do it that would allieviate having to go blindly through myriad agencies.  His suggestion was to write to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs and request that they run a BIRLS search for the file from the Federal Records Center under the Freedom of Information Act. BIRLS is an acronym for Beneficiary Identification and Records Locator Subsystem, which is a database  that contains records of all beneficiaries, including veterans whose survivors applied for death benefits. When a BIRLS request is submitted, every government agency that has anything at all to do with military/pension records will have to run a search for the file.

It sounded worth a shot, so I typed up a letter and sent it off. I got my first rejection card a month after I mailed off the letter, but this time instead of it being a dead end, the card informed me that my request had been forwarded to another agency. Two months later I received another rejection card, and was informed that my request was being forwarded to yet another agency. At least this was promising – I finally felt as though the government was actually responding to my plight.

December 2009:

JACKPOT! After hearing nothing for several months, I received a huge parcel in the mail and in it was the motherlode of information on my great-grandfather’s service during the war and all pension records from the time he applied for it until my great-grandmother’s death. And oh, what a wealth of information it is! Hundreds of pages, including many letters handwritten by my great-grandfather, stories of his illness (malaria) and injury, stories from friends and acquaintances, copies of both great-grandparents’ death certificates, and letters written by their children.

Best of all was the enclosed letter from the government agency that located the records for me. They apologized for the length of time it took to find the records, and they sent them to me free of charge, even though I offered to and expected to pay for them.

If this is part of President Obama’s government restructuring program, I am all for it!


For those wishing to have a BIRLS search done for an ancestor’s military records, here is what you need to do:

1. You must write a letter to the VA Freedom of Information Officer.

2. State that you are requesting access to the pension file under the Freedom of Information Act.

3. Give them the XC pension file number and any other info you have to identify the soldier you are requesting the file on.

4. Be sure to include the following sentence: “I am requesting that you conduct a BIRLS search for the file and retrieve it for my use from the Federal Records Center where it is currently housed.”

The VA requires a FOIA request in writing and signed by the requestor. Your request must reasonably describe the records so that they can be found with a reasonable amount of effort. You must state your willingness to pay any applicable fees or provide a justification for a fee waiver. Also include your daytime phone number in case they need to contact you, and put your address on the letter in case the envelope is misplaced.

Write “Freedom of Information Act Request” on the envelope and mail the request to:

VA FOIA/Privacy Act Officer, VA Central Office
Department of Veterans Affairs
Director, Records Management Service (005E3)
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420

Best of luck in your search – and remember, persistence and patience can pay off.

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 10:31 am  Comments (1)  

Hitting the Jackpot With Pension Files

The wealth of information found in old pension records never ceases to amaze me.

I already knew that my great-great-grandfather Thomas Stewart had enlisted as a soldier in the Kentucky Cavalry, along with older brother David and father Elijah, to fight for the Union cause during the Civil War. I also knew that he was the only member of the family to come home. His brother and father died within a week of each other in Barracks Hospital, New Orleans and are buried in Chalmette National Cemetery. Most of this information was gleaned from their military records, which had been ordered from the National Archives.

Because Thomas was the only one to come home, and because he lived a very long life, I had a hunch that he must have received a soldier’s pension somewhere along the way. is an excellent resource for locating soldiers’ pension numbers, so I nosed around in the Civil War section until I found them. Using this information, I filled out Form 85D on the National Archives web site, hit the “send” button, and waited.

Thomas R StewartIn less than one month an oversized parcel arrived via UPS from the National Archives. Inside were the first 100 pages of Thomas Stewart’s pension claim. I was astonished that there were so many pages – most of the other pension files I have for ancestors aren’t nearly so large – and was surprised to find out that there are more pages available if I am interested. The National Archives only sends the first 100 pages (because most pension files are less than that) but if there are more they send along a letter and an order form with a discounted rate for the remaining pages.

I was even more amazed by what the file itself contained. For starters, there were handwritten letters from my great-great grandfather regarding his pension. His daughter, my great-grandmother, was very proud of the fact that “all the Stewarts were educated and knew how to read and write” and here in the file was proof. The correspondence was fairly basic and his handwriting wasn’t as grand as those of the census takers and court workers of the time, but it was physical proof of what my great-grandmother had always proudly proclaimed.

The big shocker, however, was that I never knew that Thomas had been married prior to his marriage to my great-great grandmother Josephine. In the 1860 census he is 16 and living at home, and in 1870 he is married to Josephine. Obviously a lot had happened to Thomas during the ten years in between. As I read, I learned that he had wed a young woman a year after returning home from the war. I learned her father’s name and the names of her many siblings were there too. They were wed in May of 1866 and made their home in Jackson County. She gave birth to a son which they named James, and died at home before the baby was able to walk.

Thomas briefly courted Josephine and they were wed in her parent’s house in July of 1868. Josephine’s sisters remembered that the wedding took place much earlier in the day than originally planned, on account of the preacher arriving sooner than they had anticipated. Their brother had walked over to the general store thinking he had plenty of time before the preacher showed up, and ended up missing the entire ceremony. Josephine recalled that her brother had accompanied Thomas and her father to the county courthouse to get the marriage license. The name of the early-bird preacher was also in the pension file, as well as the church where he ministered.

Josephine admitted that she and Thomas married quickly because he needed “someone to attend to the child,” who “was too little to walk” and that they moved into the house he had shared with his former wife. She told of the child dying “about two years of age – just as he was beginning to walk real good” and of how she learned from neighbors that most of the deceased wife’s siblings had also died young: “The family all died of consumption when they got grown or about it.”

All this detail was in the pension file because after Thomas died and Josephine turned in the paperwork for a widow’s pension, the Department of the Interior-Bureau of Pensions tried to deny her claim when she could not produce a marriage license to prove she had married Thomas Stewart. That she had given him eleven children and lived with him for over 55 years wasn’t enough for the Bureau of Pensions in Washington D.C. They wanted proof – and what the pension inspector found while going through the courthouse ledgers was the marriage of Thomas and his deceased wife, rather than the marriage of Thomas and Josephine. Over the course of the next year, correspondence whizzed back and forth between the little hamlet of Duluth, Kentucky and Washington D.C., with inspectors visiting any and all living relatives along the way. They visited Josephine in Duluth; interviewed a sister in Ohio and two more in Illinois. They went to Clover Bottom, Ky. and spoke with the surviving kinfolk of the first wife as well, and scoured the courthouses of three Kentucky counties looking for proof that she had died, and that Josephine and Thomas had married.

By the time Josephine finally began receiving her widow’s pension two years after originally filing, she was 80 years old. She would continue to draw $40 a month until her death five years later.

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 10:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

In Search of my Great Grandfather

I really hate trying to wade through government bureaucracy, but it is a necessary evil when requesting military files on deceased ancestors. Most government web sites are incredibly bloated, with the pertinent information buried so deep on the site that it takes a lot of patience to weed out the wheat from the chaff.


The National Archives is one of the better governmental web sites, but it is filled with a frustrating nightmare of subcategories. First time users to the site may throw up their hands in defeat, no matter how web savvy they may otherwise be. I know when I first began using their site I would get aggravated quite a lot. Usually this was because after clicking through the links on the site – getting deeper and deeper into the labyrinth – I’d suddenly come out exactly where I’d began, and none the wiser as to how to go about ordering the records I wished to order.


Once I found the correct path, I saved it as a favorite so as not to lose it again. The National Archives is a great resource for requesting pre-WWI military records – once you locate the proper forms and go through the proper channels. I’ve gotten a number of ancestor’s files from the Archives, mostly Revolutionary and Civil War records. Each Military Service Record costs $25.00 and is money well spent since the records give an interesting glimpse into the life of the ancestor.


It took awhile, but I managed to track down the military service records for my great grandfather William Seal. I knew he had been a proud member of the U.S. Military because he had the information inscribed on his tombstone: Private Wm. Seal, Company H, 41st Regiment, US Volunteer Infantry. I also knew that he drew a pension and that my great grandmother continued to draw it after his death, but no one in my family could remember which war William had fought in.

 William & Elizabeth Seal grave marker

A quick look at his birth date clued me in – he wasn’t born at the time of the Civil War, and he would have been too old for service in WWI. That only left the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. I filled out Form NATF 86 (Compiled Military Service File) online at the Archives with the information I had on hand, and because my ancestor had been proud enough of his service to have the information forever inscribed where he lay, there was enough information for the researchers at the Archives to locate his service record and copy it for me.


My next task was to obtain a copy of his pension file. I tried to order them through the National Archives Request and Order Records link (which is how I got his military records), but when I finished filling out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) I was thwarted by a pop-up window that told me that the Archives stopped storing pension records for soldiers who had died after 1929. My great-great grandfather died in 1942, so according to the National Archives web site, I needed to file a request with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs using the Freedom of Information Act.


Can I just say that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs is the most unfriendly web site I have ever encountered? Links go round and round in circles, giving precious little information and a whole lot of broken links and pages saying “We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties.” It’s truly unbelievable that ANYONE could ever find what they are seeking on this site.


Using information provided by the National Archives pop-up window, I learned which form was needed and where to send it, and I filled out and faxed Form NARA SF 180 to the processing center in St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately the processing center experienced a devastating fire in 1973 and lost more than 16 million Army and Air Force personnel records. Over 80% of the records for Army personnel discharged between November 1912 and January 1960 were lost in the fire, as well as 75% of Air Force records from 1947-1964.


William was discharged in 1901, but his pension claim continued until the death of his wife in the 1950’s, so chances are likely that his pension file was in the building destroyed by the fire. Still I wait and hope, and out of desperation I printed and filled out Form NATF 85D (Federal Military Pension Application – Civil War and Later, Complete File) and mailed it in to the National Archives, just in case the pension record of a young volunteer serviceman from Tennessee, discharged in 1901, is there.

Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 10:02 am  Comments (2)