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Secrets of Civil War Pensions – Part 7

Getting the Full Pension File: Once you have found a record of a pension in an index, the next step is to get access to the full pension file.  The pension file may be in one of several possible places, however, and you’ll need to know where and how to access it.

Table of Contents

Getting the Full Pension File

Much more information can be obtained directly from the index files than is generally understood, but there’s no substitute for the full pension file if you can get it.{online}

Online Records

Thankfully, many thousands of Civil War pension files (although still a small percentage of the total) have been digitized and are accessible online.

Don’t dismiss references to and on the grounds that they require a subscription ($). There are many ways to access them for free.

Digitized pension records fall into these categories:{army}

  • U.S. Army, 1861-1934.

    The first number in parentheses is the approximate number of pensions that have been digitized in each category as of this writing (September, 2021).

    “NAID” is the National Archives Identifier.  It was previously called the “ARC Identifier”, and you will still sometimes find that older label name in the NARA catalog.

    • Veterans:
    • Widows:
      • Approved (148100, 21%): Fold3 ($), and (148100+, 22%+, NAID 300020) National Archives (free).
        • Fold3 ($) includes WC1 (5 Mar 1862) through WC148100 (18 Feb 1871).
        • An index to those files with a summary transcript is available on FamilySearch (free), but to see the images of the whole file, you must access Fold3 ($).
        • NARA includes those same files and a few additional files from the Innovation Hub.
      • Disapproved (<200, 0.13%, NAID 567876) National Archives (free){navy}
  • U.S. Navy, 1861-1910.
    • Veterans:
      • You can search all four of these Navy collections at once using an index on ($). To see the actual files, however, you’ll need to use one of the links listed on the left.

        Approved: (~26000, 96%, M1469): Fold3 ($), (18500+, 68%, NAID 580580) National Archives (free)

      • Disapproved: (~26000, 100%, M1408): Fold3 ($), (13000+, 50%, NAID 580492) National Archives (free)
    • Widows:
  • Confederate Army and Navy.
    Pensions for Confederate veterans and their widows were awarded under some conditions by the southern state in which the pensioner lived after the war (not the state for which the veteran served).  Many of those states have digitized those pensions and made them available online.  The dates and conditions in which those pensions were allowed and the sites from which they can be downloaded are listed by state on this blog post.{offline}

Offline Records

If your ancestor’s pension has been assigned a C or XC number, then use our C/XC Number Tester to determine where it is likely to be stored.

To access records that have not yet been digitized, you’ll first need to determine where they are stored.  There are several possibilities:

  • The National Archives in Washington, D.C.: This is the repository for the vast majority of Civil War pensions.  If the file that you want is not available online as described above, then you can obtain it several different ways:
    • Our member fee for a pension file is frequently HALF of that charged directly by NARA.

      See a complete price comparison chart here.

      Hire Us to pull the records for you. This is our specialty at Gopher Records, and the order form is just a click away. Our fees are much lower than if you order directly from NARA and we are local to Washington D.C. so – absent special circumstances like COVID-19 – we can often fulfill your order within a few days and not typically more than a few weeks. Orders for records that are stored in St. Louis take longer than those in D.C. on average but we are confident that our fees and turn-around time are better than any other alternative.

    • Order online. NARA maintains a web site from which you can place an order for copies of original records. Order fulfillment typically takes many weeks or sometimes even many months.
    • Order by mail. You can submit a request by U.S. Mail that NARA pull and copy the files for you. Prices and turn-around time are about the same as when an order is placed with them online. Print and follow the instructions on the appropriate form:
    • If you’re considering a trip to NARA in D.C., we’ve put together some advice to help you prepare for your trip and to make the most of your time there.

      Go to NARA in D.C. If you live close to Washington, D.C., then you can go there yourself and get your hands on the original documents. It can be thrilling to have your ancestor’s pension file in your hands, knowing that he held those same documents, some of which bear his signature. You can then take photos or scan copies of the documents. NARA even has scanners which you can use (you’ll pay per page), or you can use the scanners in the Innovation Hub for free.

If you don’t live near Washington, D.C., it might still be less expensive to travel there, especially if you need many different files.{stl}

  • The National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri: This facility holds most of the pensions that have been assigned a C or XC number.  That typically includes only veterans and widows who survived past 1934.  To obtain a pension from NARA in St. Louis, you can follow the directions in the previous section to hire someone or submit the forms to have them pulled by NARA.  You can also visit the NARA facility in St. Louis under some conditions as described on this page.{opm}
  • The U. S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM): According to the last public instructions, this office holds the pensions for the relatively small number of civilian (i.e., non-military) government employees who retired before 1934 and whose pension Certificate Numbers start with the letter “R” (e.g., R-20379).  This would include, for instance, some civilians who served as clerks, teamsters, wagonmasters, interpreters, and guides. Note that this does not include soldiers who served in those same roles.  The distinguishing characteristic is the “R” prefix in their Certificate Numbers. You can obtain a copy of these records by writing a letter referencing the pensioner’s name and R-number to: Retirement Operations Center, Office of Personnel Management, PO Box 45, Boyers, PA 16017, (888) 767-6738.{va}
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs: The VA holds only the very few pensions that were still active as of 1955.  For a copy of the contents of such a file, you’ll need to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with them.

Please post comments or questions about this post below.

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