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Secrets of Civil War Pensions

This series will explore the many mysteries of the Civil War pension file, including how to find and interpret the many types of online pension indexes, some details of which are rarely documented elsewhere.  Those indexes alone may contain hidden clues and a remarkable amount of detail about the veteran’s life, family, and military service.

This series is intended to provide the researcher with a single reference point for the many confusing issues related to Civil War pensions and their indexes.

We hope that you will bookmark this series and refer to it frequently.  

The series will then explain how and where you can get your hands on the full contents of those pension files, some of which are also online.

In Part 1, we will describe the typical contents of pension files and explain why they are among the very best sources of biographical and genealogical information for those who are researching their Civil War ancestors.

If you don’t know if your ancestor served in the war or the regiment in which he served, then you may want to start with this post: How to Research Your Civil War Ancestor.

Table of Contents


Applies to:

  • Union soldiers

Although many of the concepts in this series apply equally to southern records, Confederate pensions were issued by the individual southern states. For more information, see our separate post on Confederate Pensions.

Civil War veterans and their widows were entitled to apply to their government for financial assistance in recognition of the soldier’s service and sacrifice. The application, along with its supporting documents produced a remarkable archive – a pension file – that today serves as one of the best sources for those who are researching their Civil War ancestors.

When paired with the soldier’s Service File, the researcher may gain great insight into the soldier’s military service, as well as his life and family before and after the war.

The Civil War pension file typically contains an application by the soldier himself in which he details the dates of his service and the reasons that he believes that he qualifies for a pension.

The laws governing pension eligibility changed over time.  For detailed information, see Part 3  of this series.

In support of his claim of military service, the file may contain copies of enlistment or discharge papers, furlough records, and testimonials by his commanding officer and/or fellow soldiers, and detailed accounts of his wounds and when/where/how he received them, among other types of military records.  The file also will frequently contain affidavits about the soldier’s character and disability from family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employers, or his local postmaster, among others.  In addition, the file will frequently contain documents which include details beyond his military service, including the date and place of his birth, residence before and after the war, occupation, spouse and date/place of marriage, a list of his living children, his signature, and his death/burial.  In the event that the veteran had accrued benefits when he died, the file may contain the name and address of his widow or next of kin.

If his application claimed a disability, then the file may contain dozens of medical reports detailing (in a very graphic way) the nature of that disability over time.

If the pension application was approved, then the file will typically include the cit(ies) of his residence (i.e., where to send the checks) and the date on which payments stopped upon the veteran’s death.

Pension applications were not always approved, however.  A pension application could be denied if the applicant failed to meet the eligibility requirements, failed to respond to requests for supporting documentation, was found to have aided the Confederacy or deserted Federal service, or died before the application process was complete.  Most declined applications and their supporting documents still exist and can be obtained by the same process as approved applications as described later in this series.

Confederate pension files are typically much smaller and contain fewer supporting documents than their Union counterparts.

When the veteran died, his widow was entitled to apply for a pension with respect to his service. The Federal (Union) government also allowed minor children, parents, or unmarried siblings to apply if they could demonstrate that they were financially dependent on the soldier.  In the case of any such dependent, the file will likely contain much more genealogical data.  That’s because the applicant would be required to prove that the soldier served and had died but – most importantly – how he or she was related to the soldier.

So a widow’s pension file could contain the veteran’s death certificate, their marriage certificate, and a list of children with their birth dates. When death or marriage certificates didn’t exist, the file will often contain affidavits on the subject from witnesses or other family members. In order to demonstrate the widow’s need for financial support, the file may contain evidence of her property and its value.  The pension file may also contain original wartime letters when, for instance, the applicant was trying to provide evidence of his/her financial dependence on the soldier.  And in a few rare cases, pension files have even been found to contain a photograph of the soldier.  These are just a few of the genealogically-significant types of documents that you might find in a pension file.

Pro Tip: When children are listed on a pension application, that list typically includes only minor living children (<16 years) because those are the only ones who might be eligible for pension benefits. Don’t assume that it is a complete list of the soldier’s children. 

If a soldier applied for a pension and later his widow/dependent(s) applied, then the applications and their supporting documents will almost always be merged together in one file – so when you request a copy of one, you’ll automatically get the other(s).

Pension Index Cards

In order to find a veteran’s pension file, you must first find it in a pension index.  That can be an exasperating experience because there are several types of pension indexes, they contain different types of data, and some of them are available in multiple formats and repositories.  While that might sound like a good thing, one has to know the differences between those indexes, including their respective strengths and weaknesses, in order to avoid dead-end streets and false conclusions.

Pension Indexes are described in detail starting with Part 4 of this series.

But a pension index card may be a rich source of information in its own right, and its many secrets are often overlooked in the rush to find the full pension file.  A thorough understanding of the index card will not only maximize your chances of finding the full file, it may reveal clues to the veteran’s life, service, disability, or death that are not evident in the full file.  And in the too-common case that the full pension file cannot be found, is incomplete, or has been destroyed, the index card may serve as the only evidence of the veteran’s pension application.

Best of all, unless you have the ability to personally visit the National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter “NARA”) in Washington, D.C., you’ll typically have to pay to obtain a full copy of the pension file and then wait to receive it – but the benefits of the index card are free and readily accessible online.

In fact, as we will see, the information on the index card alone may answer your questions about the veteran, reasonably predict whether his pension file is likely to contain genealogical information, and help you to rule out certain avenues of research.  So it may help you to prioritize your research efforts when time or budget are limited.  And aren’t they always?

Please post comments or questions about this post below.

Copyright © 2021, Gopher Records, LLC


  1. Susan Britsch


    If the pension file indicates: “Issue certificate for eight dollars per month, commencing 25th day of July 1866” but also shows a date on which it was “passed” does that mean the applicant did not receive funds until the date when the application was “passed”?

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