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. Ancestry.com 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.

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