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Why did some soldiers have aliases?

A researcher asked, “Why did some soldiers have aliases?”  There is a long list of possible answers.

A pension index card.

The soldier may have been running from something (like the law, a slave master, or a spouse/family) and didn’t want to be found. Or he may have been underage but lied about his age and enlisted without the permission of his parents. Many years later at the prospect of receiving money for his service in the form of a pension, he might ‘fess up.

Or he may have been a bounty jumper – one who would enlist in a regiment, receive a monetary bounty for enlistment, desert his unit, and enlist again somewhere else (maybe even with the enemy) under a different name.

There were even several hundred women who concealed their identity and enlisted with a man’s name – typically in order to stay close to her husband, father, or brother.

But the most common reason wasn’t quite so devious. A very large percentage of the enlisted soldiers were illiterate. They didn’t know how to spell their name so an adjutant or clerk would guess at the spelling based on its sound. This was complicated by the fact that many of the soldiers were immigrants and may have had a thick accent or spoke only broken English. Or their name may have been translated or Anglicized by the soldier or the clerk.

Keep in mind that in the 19th century, spelling was just not the priority that we think of it today. Many people would spell their name in different ways over the course of their lifetime – or sometimes even within the same document! When it came to qualifying for a pension, however, they would be highly-motivated to resolve any such inconsistencies in army documents. A pension file for someone who used an alias, therefore, usually includes an explanation and often testimonials from other parties about the various names by which the soldier was known.

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