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Secrets of Civil War Pensions – Part 3

Eligibility: The qualifications to receive a pension changed over time.  Some reasonable conclusions can be drawn merely by examining the date of the application and the laws that were in place at that time.

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.

Veterans of any rank in the Federal army, navy or marine corps (including regular army, volunteer or draftee) who served on or after 4 March 1861 were eligible for a pension upon completion of the veteran’s service if certain conditions were met as described below.

Members of home guard units and other state-mustered militia units were not eligible for a pension with respect to that service.  Of course, many of those soldiers went on to Federal service and would be eligible with respect to that later service.

In general, a veteran was eligible for a pension if he was in Federal service at least 90 days, was honorably discharged, and was unable to support himself through manual labor.  Upon his death, the widow, minor children, or other qualifying dependent(s) were eligible to receive a pension based on his service.

In no case was any person permitted to receive benefits from two pensions at the same time, e.g., in relation to a husband and son who were both in service.

Beyond that, eligibility was principally determined by the (1) veteran’s date of application, (2) the law as it stood at that time, and (3) the veteran’s death or the degree and source of his disability, if any.  But the detailed criteria and the payment amounts changed dramatically over time.1  So the date on which a veteran or his dependent(s) applied for a pension can be very revealing.

These are the important cut-off dates to remember (click on the name of the Act to see its full original text):

  • 14 Jul 1862 (retroactive to 4 Mar 1861): Any wartime injury qualified {1862}

Starting with An Act to Grant Pensions, a surviving veteran of the Civil War could receive a pension after the conclusion of his service if he could prove that he suffered a disability as a direct result of that service.  While this might mean that he was severely wounded during a battle, many pension applications claimed, for instance, that the veteran contracted a persistent respiratory or intestinal disease due to the harsh living conditions of an army on the march or while confined in a P.O.W. camp.  The amount received in a pension depended on the veterans last rank and on the extent of his disability.  Veterans who applied within one year of their discharge were paid from the date of their discharge.  Those who applied more than a year after their discharge, however, were only eligible for benefits starting on the date of their application.

If the veteran died in service or later died due to a disability that was contracted in service, then his widow would qualify for his pension, provided that she had not remarried.  In the event that there was no widow, the veteran’s children under 16 years of age would qualify.  If the veteran left no widow or dependent child, then a dependent mother would qualify.  And in the event that the veteran left neither widow, nor minor children, nor dependent mother, then one or more sisters who were dependent on the veteran for support could qualify for a pension under this act.  Dependent benefits in all of these cases commenced on (and, upon application, were paid retroactively to) the date of the veteran’s death.

  • 25 Jan 1879: Retroactive eligibility{1879}

Starting with the Arrears Act of 1879, a veteran’s pension benefits would begin on the date of his discharge, regardless of the date of his application.   This retroactive eligibility applied to new applicants as well as to those who were already receiving a pension.  The prospect of a large lump sum to cover the period from their discharge to the date of their application resulted in a flood of new and amended pension applications.

  • 27 Jun 1890: Any disability qualified{1890}

The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was the leading Civil War veteran’s organization with over 400,000 members in 1890. Under intense lobbying by the G.A.R, to increase veterans’ benefits, U. S. Congressmen and Senators, many of whom were themselves Civil War veterans, responded in 1890 with another Act to Grant Pensions.  It extended the pension eligibility to any disabled veteran even if that disability was not related to his military service.

The benefit was likewise extended to a widow (if she had married the veteran prior to 27 Jun 1890) and to dependent fathers under some conditions.  Life-long benefits were also extended to the child of a veteran if such child was “insane, idiotic, or otherwise permanently helpless.”  (See this case study).

Naturally, this extension of eligibility resulted in a sudden rush to apply for pensions by tens of thousands of surviving veterans and their dependents whose previous applications had been rejected for failing to meet the war-time disability requirement.

The members of Congress recognized the tremendous expense of the pension system (by 1893 it represented 40% of the Federal budget) and the increasing prevalence of fraud, so the 1890 Act codified some new restrictions on eligibility.  For instance, veterans must have served for at least 90 days in order to qualify for a pension, must have been honorably discharged, and their disability must not have resulted from “vicious habits” (e.g., use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, etc.).  Veterans or their dependents were disqualified if they were shown to have aided or abetted the rebellion, and disabled veterans became subjected to re-examination every two years by a Federally authorized civil surgeon.

  • 30 Mar 1898: Remarried widows filing deadline{1898}

Under the Act of March 30, 1898, in the case of a widow or dependent mother/sister who had (re)married, the woman would be entitled to her pension benefits up until the date of such (re)marriage, even if she did not apply for those benefits until after the (re)marriage.

  • 3 Mar 1901: Remarried widows who were re-widowed/divorced{1901}

Although since 1862 the benefits of a widow or dependent mother/sister would end upon her (re)marriage, the Act of March 3, 1901 specified that if such marriage ended by death of the new husband or by divorce through no fault of her own, leaving her with no means of support, then her right to the original veteran’s pension could be restored.

  • 6 Feb 1907: All surviving veterans qualified{1907}

The Act of 6 Feb 1907 extended pension eligibility to all surviving Civil War veterans requiring only that they had reached the age of 62. Again, there was a sudden rush by many thousands of veterans who had not previously qualified for a pension.

  • 1 May 1920: Widows of later marriages{1920}

The Act of May 1, 1920 extended the qualification to widows who had married a veteran prior to 27 June 1905. As described above, the previous cut-off was 27 Jun 1890. (See this case study in the news).

“The date on which a person applied for and received a pension can be a strong indicator of the nature of the veteran’s disability or lack thereof.”

Here, then, is another hidden clue on the pension index card: the date on which a person applied for and received a pension can be a strong indicator of the nature of the veteran’s disability or lack thereof. And, of course, if the veteran’s death date is unknown, it was certainly before (and very often within a month before) the date on which the widow first applied for a pension.

Pensions could be denied on the grounds that the applicant failed to meet any of the foregoing qualifications or because the he/she failed to respond to requests by the Pension Office for documentation or clarification. It could also be denied if the veteran was found to have aided the Confederacy or deserted Federal service.  And, of course, pensions were denied when the applicant was found to have committed fraud – such as when more than one “widow” applied for the same pension based on the service of the same veteran.

If an applicant was denied for failing to meet the eligibility requirements, then he/she could (and very often did) re-apply when those qualifications were loosened.  In many cases, the pension index card will show evidence of those multiple applications and, again, their dates may be revealing.

Please post comments or questions about this post below.

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1 Dozens of public laws (applicable to the general public) and thousands of private laws (each typically applicable to a specific person) made the evolution of eligibility criteria very complicated.  This post summarizes the laws with the most genealogical significance, but readers should refer to these sources for more details:

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