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Secrets of Civil War Pensions – Part 2

Terminology and Abbreviations: In Part 2 of this series, we will define the terms and abbreviations that are found in Civil War pension files.

Table of Contents

Terminology & Abbreviations

Civil War pensions use a language all their own, including abbreviations that are not always obvious.


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.

An “Invalid Pension Application” does NOT mean that the application was “not valid.”  In this context, the word is a noun referring to a disabled veteran, i.e., an invalid.

Even that definition is misleading, however, because, as we will see, some veterans who received pensions were not disabled in any way.  Especially before 1900, however, NARA records used the terms “soldier,” “survivor,” “veteran,” and “invalid” interchangeably.

“Application” vs. “Certificate”

Anybody could apply for a Civil War pension – and more than two million people did.  Upon the receipt of an application, the Federal government assigned it a unique Application Number (sometimes known as the “Original” number).  If the application was approved and a pension was granted, it was assigned a unique Certificate Number.  Both types of numbers were assigned sequentially, but the numbering systems were independent and overlapped – so “App. #519021” is very different than “Cert. #519021.”

The numbers themselves can be very revealing.  A four- or five-digit Application Number was issued very early – probably indicating that the veteran’s service ended before or near the end of the war.  Conversely, a seven-digit Application Number likely means that the veteran applied around the turn of the century (some 40 years after the war) or later.  Some pension index systems provide the date of the application – but, as we will see below, even an estimated date based on the Application Number can suggest clues to the nature of the veteran’s disability.

“Rejected” or “Abandoned” Applications

If an index indicates that a pension application received an Application Number but not a Certificate Number, then that likely means that the applicant (1) failed to meet the eligibility requirements, (2) failed to provide sufficient documentation to support his claim, (3) was found to have committed fraud in making the application, (4) was found to have deserted the Union army, (5) was found to have provided aid or comfort to the Confederate cause or (6) died before the application was approved.

The only way to know the reason for the rejection is to pull the file.  While the files for most rejected pensions still exist, a few were destroyed in the early 1900s.

“Widows’ Pension”

Once a qualifying veteran died (whether or not he received a pension), his widow could apply for a pension with respect to his service.

Confederate pensions were limited to veterans and their widows.  For Union soldiers, other dependents could also apply. They are generically referred to as “Widows’ Pension Applications”, but the applicant might be a mother, father, minor child, sister, or brother who claimed that their livelihood was dependent on the veteran’s support.  If a veteran, his widow, and/or his dependents applied for pension benefits, those files and their supporting documents will typically be combined into one file and referenced by the highest Certificate Number.  In most cases, the relevant application and certificate numbers will all be recorded on a single index card.

As described earlier, a widow or dependent pension is likely to includes lots of genealogical information.

“Contested Widow”

In rare cases, more than one woman would apply for a pension claiming to be the widow of the same veteran. The purported marriage dates and other evidence in such disputed or contested claims were investigated in light of the laws at the time with one “widow” typically then being awarded the pension.  (See this Case Study).{abbr}


Some pension index cards will reflect cross-references to other files.  For instance, if a soldier’s widow has received his pension but then she remarries another veteran, there may be a second relevant pension file and the two files should cross-reference each other using codes such as the following:

  • SO = Survivor’s (or Soldier’s) Original application number, e.g., “SO390698”.
  • SC = Survivor’s pension Certificate number.
  • NSC = Navy Survivor’s Certificate number.
  • WO = Widow’s Original application number.
  • WC = Widow’s pension Certificate number.
  • MO = Minor dependent’s Original application number.
  • MC = Minor dependent’s Certificate number.
  • IO = Invalid’s Original application number (rare).  Same as SO.
  • IC = Invalid’s Certificate number (rare).  Same as SC.
  • CC = Child’s Certificate number (rare)

These special types of Certificate or cross-reference numbers are discussed below:

  • R = Civil Service Certificate number.
  • A = A certificate reflecting an approval date for an applicant who lived beyond 1934. (see “C and XC Numbers” below).
  • C = A veteran’s pension file that was administered by the Veteran’s Administration after 1934. (see below)
  • XC = A widow/dependent’s pension file that was administered by the Veteran’s Administration after 1934. (see below)

Other common abbreviations that you may encounter include:

  • F = Father
  • M = Mother (or sometimes Minor)
  • W = Widow
  • C.W. = Contested widow (or sometimes C.Widow or Cont.Widow)
  • C = minor Child (<16)
  • HC = Helpless Child
  • B = orphaned minor Brother
  • S = orphaned minor Sister
  • Gdn. = Guardian{rnumber}

R Numbers

A pension certificate number like “R-20379” was for a civilian, that is non-military, government employee (e.g., a civilian teamster), who retired before 1934.  You’ll find these on typewritten cards in the “General Index to Pension Files” (T288).  These pensions are stored today at the U. S. Office of Personnel Management.{CXC}

C and XC Numbers

A “C” number typically indicates that the veteran survived past 1934. A “XC” number usually (but not always) means that it was subsequently assigned to his widow or other dependent.

In addition to application numbers and certificate numbers, some pension index cards reflect a number starting with a C or XC (e.g., XC2648241) at the bottom of the card.  If such a number is found on the card, then it overrides all other numbers and would have a dramatic effect on how/where you’ll find the physical records.

As described later in this series, there are several types of pension indexes. Only the “General Index“reflects the C or XC numbers (if there is one), however.  In particular, those critical numbers are NOT reflected in the popular “Organizational Index” on

Therefore, if you first consult the “Organizational Index” (or any of the alternatives) then it is always a good idea to follow-up by checking the “General Index” for a C or XC number. That’s especially true if you know that the last recipient in a case (veteran or dependent) lived until at least 1934 or if the index card reflects any of the following conditions:

  • The Soldier’s Certificate number (SC) is 1,000,000 or higher.
  • The Soldier’s Certificate number (SC) is an “A” followed by a date (e.g., A-7-24-30″). The date represents the day on which the application was approved.
  • The Widow’s Certificate number (WC) likewise starts with “A”.
  • There is no Soldier’s Certificate number (SC) but the Soldier’s Original application number (SO) is larger than 1,654,862.
  • There is no Widow’s Certificate number (WC) but the Widow’s Original application number (WO) is larger than 1,644,996.

An unknown number of Civil War pension files that were active as of 1955 are still in the possession of the Veteran’s Administration today. You can obtain a copy of such a file by finding its index card(s) and then submitting a FOIA request with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sometime in the late 1920s, pension files that were still active (i.e., still being paid to someone) were assigned a C or XC number by the Pension Bureau. The “X” indicated the veteran had died. The XC file designation may (but not necessarily) indicate that a dependent was still being paid.

In 1930 the Pension Bureau became part of the V.A.  Over time closed cases were transferred to the National Archives in Washington D.C. Major transfers occurred in 1952, 1955 and 2015.

Case files with a C/XC number were handled differently, however.  More than 2700 of those pension files were transferred to NARA in Washington D.C. and remain there today.  Many more of the C/XC pension files were transferred to the NARA facility in St. Louis, Missouri.  And some were never sent to NARA and are still in the possession of the Veterans Administration.

Use this handy lookup tool to determine whether a C/XC file is currently stored in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, or the V.A.{cxclookup}

WARNING: We are informed of an additional batch of pensions that were delivered to NARA in D.C.  If you used this utility prior to 1 June 2023 and were told that a C/XC file was not in D.C., you may want to test the same number again.

C/XC Number Tester

Again, if there is a C or XC number, then you know that the last recipient was still living as of 1934.  This is among the many reasonable conclusions that you can draw from the index card –  without even pulling the full pension file.

Please post comments or questions about this post below.

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