Genealogists are always looking for hidden treasure troves, those secret spots in archives and on the Internet that, once unlocked, reveal unexpected discoveries within. Over the years, family history researchers have discovered that military service pension records, whether federal or state, may be one of the best places to look.
The federal Veteran’s Bureau (later, Veterans Administration) was founded in 1920, but the history of military pensions goes back to the Revolutionary War. In the first decades of the American republic veteran benefits were minimal and challenging to collect. With the advent of the Civil War, the urgency of veterans benefits became a national issue.
The American Civil War began on 12 April 1861, 160 years ago this month. The last veterans of the war died in the 1950s. This might suggest the Civil War is something in our country’s distant history, but thanks to the tracing of Civil War pensions we can see that’s not really the case.
The American Civil War remains to this day the bloodiest war in American history: between 650,000-750,000 soldiers died alongside uncounted civilians, with over half a million soldiers alone wounded, often severely. More than 50,000 soldiers returned home with amputated limbs.
The first response of federal and state officials to the postwar needs of veterans was the establishment of “soldiers’ homes.” These offered medical care and shelter to severely injured or needy veterans. The boom in soldiers’ homes created what became, by the end of the 19th century, the largest welfare program in the world.
It wasn’t easy to receive veteran benefits. Claimants had to provide not only proof of service, injury, and medical necessity, but also evidence of good character. These usually required letters of commendation from friends and colleagues in the community, which can be valuable documents for the genealogist looking for biographical details about their ancestor. Information might include details about the work an ancestor performed, or notable contributions they made to their community. Civil War pension files may offer much more granular detail about an ancestor who served, than other records from the time period.
Civil War pension records can even reveal valuable information about people who never served in the Civil War: widows and orphans. The last known person to receive a Civil War pension was still receiving it until less than a year ago, in June 2020! That’s when Irene Triplett died at the age of 90 in a nursing home in Wilkesboro, North Carolina and received her last monthly VA check for a war that ended a century and a half earlier. The Department of Veterans Affairs paid Irene $73.13 per month, for over five decades. A few factors made this long arrangement possible.
Irene Triplett’s story is unusual in many respects. Irene was neither a widow nor an orphan; she was the daughter of enlisted soldier Mose Triplett. Mose was not just a Civil War veteran; he was a veteran of both the Union and Confederate Armies. Mose Triplette joined the Confederate Army in North Carolina in 1862. Then, just a week before the deadly Battle of Gettysburg in July 1864, he joined the 3rd North Carolina Mounted Infantry. They became famous as “Kirk’s Raiders” and focused on destroying the transportation infrastructure of the Confederacy.
Mose first joined a Confederate regiment in North Carolina in 1862, then defected to the Union Army in 1864 (presumably he only received a pension for his Union service). He missed the bloodshed at Gettysburg by just a few weeks. What is known about him reveals a classic 19th-century character, with a long “Wyatt Earp-style” mustache drooping below his chin. Mose Triplett reportedly enjoyed shooting acorns off tree branches from the comfort of his front porch. He once held a live rattlesnake around his neck. When his daughter Irene was born to his second wife, Elida Hall, in 1930, Mose was 78 years old. Elida was 27. Irene was 8 years old when her father died on 18 July 1938.
Irene had a long and challenging life. She was born with cognitive impairments that were aggravated by physical abuse at the hands of her parents and teachers. Still, she survived, living in poorhouses and later in assisted living facilities, where she was well-liked and cheerful. “I didn’t care for neither one [of my parents], to tell you the truth about it,” she once told a reporter. “I wanted to get away from both of them.” Her intellectual disabilities made her eligible for her father’s Civil War pension, as a “helpless adult child” of a veteran. Irene loved chewing tobacco, cheese balls, and the Bill Withers song, “Lean on Me.” Irene Triplett died on Sunday, 31 May 2020, 155 years after the end of the Civil War.
Although Irene Triplett was the last known recipient of Civil War benefits, she was not the last known Civil War widow. That title belonged to Helen Viola Jackson, who died at the age of 101 in Marshfield, Missouri, on 16 December 2020--less than six months ago. Yet, although Helen was entitled to her late husband James Bolin’s VA benefits, she never claimed them.
Helen Jackson was 17 years old when she married Bolin, then 91. It was 1936, the Great Depression, and Jackson’s family was struggling to make ends meet. Her father offered Helen’s services as a caretaker to the elderly Bolin, who had been a Private in the 14th Missouri Cavalry and lived nearby. Bolin, who needed the assistance, offered to pay her through his Civil War pension after his death, presumably not too far in the future. A deal was struck. Bolin married Helen Jackson but both parties remained living in their separate houses and were never intimate, according to Helen.
Helen kept up her end of the bargain for the next three years, until Bolin died at the age of 94. Helen was now a very young widow. But she soon realized that claiming her late husband’s pension could destroy her reputation; their marriage had been a secret between the two families and if she revealed it now, could create a scandal due to the 74-year age difference between the bride and groom. Helen was concerned for James Bolin, too. “I had great respect for Mr Bolin,” Helen later said, “and I did not want him to be hurt by the scorn of wagging tongues.” Helen claimed that Bolin’s daughter threatened to defame her if she tried to collect the pension she had been promised. So she never did.
Helen Jackson only confessed the truth of her marriage a few years before her death, when she offhandedly mentioned to her pastor, Nicholas Inman, that her late husband had fought in the Civil War. Shocked and curious, Inman followed up with officials at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, who verified Bolin’s service record.
Like a good genealogist, Inman even managed to verify the secret marriage when Helen produced James Bolin’s family bible, in which he had handwritten the date and details of their wedding. Inman even found a firsthand witness, a local doctor who had been pulled away from his squirrel hunting as a boy in order to serve as a witness to the wedding. His parents told him not to tell anyone what he’d seen and he didn’t, not for the next 70 years anyway.
The strengths and weaknesses of veteran benefit records are exemplified in these two lives. Irene Triplett’s story is preserved in the archives, at least through the record of her pension payments. But the story of Helen Jackson’s life remains more obscured, not because she was less deserving of benefits, but because she never applied for them. Her name does not appear in Civil War pension records but she was nevertheless a legitimate and important link between the history of the 19th and 21st centuries. Had she never told her pastor about the marriage it’s likely the secret would have died with her.
It’s easy to assume these May-December marriages between old Civil War soldiers and their young brides were simply a financial transaction. No doubt some were. But not for Helen Jackson. Once the secret of her marriage was revealed, James Bolin’s descendants made contact with Helen. They traveled to her side in Marshfield and brought her a photograph of her late husband. Pastor Inman knew Helen to be a toughened survivor, not even crying at her own siblings' funerals. But when Helen, who had never remarried or had children, saw the photograph of Bolin, something in her changed.
“She broke down and cried,” Inman recalled. “She kept touching the frame and said, ‘This is the only man who ever loved me.”’ That love was something that survived the decades, too.
If you had adult ancestors who resided in the United States prior to the 1860s it is likely, if not probable, that you had either direct or collateral antecedents who participated in the War Between the States, as it was then called. Why is it likely that your male ancestors would have participated? Because approximately 75 percent of draft-age men in the Confederate States and almost 50 percent of those in the Union served during the conflict.
To determine if your ancestors served during the Civil War, begin with establishing where appropriately-aged males would have likely resided at the onset of the conflict. Most soldiers were men between the ages of 18 and 30, but one should keep in mind that they were sometimes as young as 10, or even as old as 70, meaning a birth year of 1791 to 1854. Begin with identifying the geographic location your ancestor was enumerated in during the 1860 and 1870 Censuses. The Civil War Draft Registrations provide details about the registrants with which to compare known details and include residence, age, occupation and location of birth, as well as any former military service. The location of residence at the time of registration helps in determining where your ancestor may have served. They likely served in the state of residence; however, it was common that they enlisted in a bordering or nearby county, even though that county may have been in another state.
It is common knowledge that the 1890 Federal Population Census was largely destroyed in a fire, with only a few fragmented pages from a few geographic areas extant. What you may not know is that there were multiple schedules recorded that year, one of them being the Veterans Schedule. This special census recorded the surviving Union veterans of the Civil War, as well as widows of those who had not survived. Though intended for Union veterans, Confederate veterans can also be found in some locations. The details recorded include the dates of enlistment and discharge, length of service, military rank, name of regiment or vessel, injuries incurred and other biographical details.
Determine if your ancestor would have served in the Confederate or Union Armies (or even in the Navy). Research the county of residence, or potential county of enlistment to establish if they were one of the states that seceded from the Union, a border state, or one that raised regiments for both sides. Union States includes 20 free states, four border states and seven territories. The states were California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. Border states were for the Union, but had slaves, with many men serving in the Confederacy instead of the Union. Colorado was a territory of the Union. The Confederate States encompassed only 11 states, along with two territories. The seceded states included Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, with the territories of Arizona and Oklahoma.
Search the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, hosted by the National Park Service. This database includes the names of soldiers and sailors who served during the War Between the States and is an index of the records held by the National Archives. In addition to the information available for the soldiers, they also provide a brief summary of most of the regiments or batteries of the Civil War, both Confederate and Union.
Once you have identified your ancestor, or a potential match, in one or more of these records, seek records from their time in the military. Initially to compare details and confirm that the records do indeed belong to your ancestor, and then to broaden your knowledge of your ancestor. These records include his military service records, such as the Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations, the Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations or the [Confederate] Military Service Records, all held by the National Archives. In addition, this federal archive holds the records of the Navy for both the Union and the Confederacy in the collection titled “Civil War and Later Navy Personnel Records at the National Archives.”
Seek the pension records, which can provide a wealth of information that might not otherwise have been documented. Pension records can be found in online databases such as the U.S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865, as well as numerous state archives. In addition, you can find special collections that provide enrollment records, muster rolls, correspondence and prisoner of war records, among others.
No matter what you call it - the Civil War, the War of Northern Aggression, the War of the Rebellion, the War for Southern Independence or the War Between the States - the conflict was a tragic time in the history of our nation. However, the records that have survived can provide a wealth of knowledge about our persevering ancestors! Enjoy your journey of discovery!
Expand your knowledge of one of the best record types stemming from the War Between the States with the article Civil War Pension Records: A Wealth of Knowledge. The Civil War had a deep impact on the South; learn more about the unique records and research obstacles of the Southern states in The Basics of Southern Genealogy.
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Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 8 April 2021), “The Last Surviving Widow of a Civil War Veteran Dies at 101.”
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