Civil War "Widows' Pensions"
Records: 2,137,078 · Complete: 21%
In 2012, Fold3 began an ambitious project to scan millions of images from the Civil War Widows’ Pension files. In partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), we have completed approximately 20% of the archive and hope to resume work on this collection in the near future. In the meantime, we have digitized pension files 1-148100. These completed pension files are searchable by:
WC (Widow’s Certificate) number
Widow’s name; or pensioner (children or dependents) if widow is no longer alive
If the pension file you are searching for has not been digitized yet, you can search the general index to all pension files. Everyone applying for pension benefits was required to fill out an application. An index of those application cards was kept by the Pension Office. This digitized index is 100% complete and can be searched on Fold3. The index will provide you with the WC file number needed to request a copy of the complete pension file from NARA. (see “Deciphering Codes of Pension Files” below).
Photocopies of file contents can be requested online. Visit the National Archives’ website for details.
Initially, Union soldiers who were injured or suffered debilitating illness during the Civil War could apply for federal pension benefits. If a soldier was killed, his widow was also eligible to apply for a pension. Confederate soldiers were not eligible for this federal benefit but could apply directly to the states they resided in for assistance. It wasn’t until the 1900s that Confederate veterans and their widows were granted federal pensions.
After the Civil War ended, legislation was expanded to allow pensions for widows and dependents of soldiers who served, survived the war, and died later. Under this Dependent Pension Act, approved on June 27, 1890, widows of soldiers serving in the Union Army could apply for a pension by proving the following:
- that the soldier served the Union for at least ninety days during the Civil War;
- that he was honorably discharged;
- that the widow provide proof of death, but it need not have been the result of his army service;
- that the widow is without other means of support than her day labor;
- that she married the soldier prior to June 27, 1890, the date of the act.
Documents Found in Pension Files
Pension files are a rich source of information. It is not uncommon for a pension file to contain 100 pages of documentation. This can include information on the soldier’s spouse, children, and even dependent parents. The size varies by the number of dependents and the complexity of the pension. Most pension files will include the following:
Proof of soldier’s service
Proof of death
Proof of marriage – affidavits or certificates proved that the widow seeking the pension was, indeed married to the soldier.
Proof of children - when children are listed, you often find copies of bible records or town records
Declaration of a Widow for Restoration of Pension – When a second marriage revoked the pension, and the death of the second husband left the widow once again without support
Dropped from rolls – this record will give a date of death or other circumstance which required the widow be dropped from the rolls.
Deciphering Codes of Pension Files
Pension files rely on a series of codes that are helpful to understand when exploring these records.
SO: When an invalid soldier applied for his pension benefits, his original application was designated SO, or Soldier’s Original and given an identifying number.
SC: When the pension was granted, it was given a second identifying number and the designation SC, or Soldier’s Certificate.
WO: When a widow applied for benefits after the death of her husband, her application was assigned a number and given the designation WO, or Widow’s Original.
WC: When her pension was granted, the file was given an identifying number and the designation WC, or Widow’s Certificate. With a few exceptions, the WC number was the final number designated by the pension office and the number where entire pension file can be found at the National Archives.
XC/C: Veterans who lived to an older age, had their files renumbered to either an XC number or a C number. That means the file was still active after 1928 and was transferred to the Veterans Administration.
MO: An MO or Minor’s Original, was the file assigned to a minor dependent.
MC: An MC or Minor’s Certificate, was the file assigned when a minor was granted pension benefits. Minor dependent’s files are interfiled with WO and WC files. The last number used by the pension office for a file is the number under which it is filed. That is generally the WC number.
Using the collection
Records are arranged by state of service, then branch of service. Next, by regiment, then company, and veteran's name. The widow's pension is found under her husband's name.
Because the images in these files are digitized from the original paper records, most of which are over a hundred years old, there may be instances where you will need to view side-by-side images to see the full page. The two images presented here are an example of this where a weight keeping a page flat covers part of the document. Another shot, after moving the weight, brings the rest of the page into view.
Many of the first files scanned included a target page written by volunteers at NARA. These should not be considered part of the original application file.
Digitization of this collection is the result of a partnership between FamilySearch, NARA, and Fold3. In addition to name, state, regiment, company, and pensioner given name, the pension files are also indexed by Widow's Certificate number (WC#).
Posts from NARA's online edition of Prologue.