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USCT Pension Files: A Rich Resource for African American Genealogy

Bernice Alexander Bennett
by Bernice Alexander Bennett

This article will show you how to review a USCT Civil War Invalid or Widows Pension application.

Background Information About the USCT Pension Records

“Approximately 180,000 black men — many former slaves — volunteered to fight in the Union army; nearly 40,000 gave their lives for the cause.” “By the end of the war, African-Americans accounted for 10% of the Union Army.” Several on-line resources on the United States Colored Troops, including how to locate a soldier’s file, are provided here as a reference.[1][2][3][4]

Many records and other information pertaining to the USCT exist at the National Archives in Washington, DC and on-line at Fold3 and ancestry.com. Compiled by the Colored Troops Division of the Adjutant General’s Office (RG 94), these records pertain primarily to the recruitment, organization, and service of black troops and their officers. Typical records include registers of applications of officers of colored troops, registers and rosters of officers, registers of colored enlistments, record of regiments of U.S. Colored Troops, and descriptive lists of colored volunteers.[5][6][7] 

In order to receive a pension, the claimant must be able to show proof of service in the armed forces of the United States. These records provide a treasure trove of information of great genealogical value to support the claim.  The records will most likely include information about events prior to enlistment and during service to include how an injury occurred, medical reports, marriage certificates, birth records, death certificates, family letters, statements from witnesses, and affidavits.

A pension file will include the soldier’s rank, place of residence, age or date of birth, time of service, and details of enlistment. A widow’s application can also include her place of residence, her maiden name, the date and place of marriage and in the case of a USCT veteran, a description of the slave marriage, the date and place of her husband’s death, and the names of children under 16. A minor, sibling, mother or father’s file will contain information to prove that the parent relied on the sole support of the soldier prior to his death.

Challenges Faced by USCT Claimants Submitting a Pension Application

The same application process was applied to White and African American claimants. This created problems because:

  • Former slaves may have enlisted under another name and had difficulty finding proof of their enrollment.
  • Slave marriages were difficult to prove and in most cases required eye-witness testimony to the event to support that the marriage took place.
  • The legitimacy of births within a slave marriage was difficult to prove. Again, witnesses to the birth were sometimes hard to locate.
  • Testimonies from witnesses were often challenged and the credibility of the witnesses was rated for reliability and accuracy of information.
  • Proving that the death is related to the war was difficult without prior medical reports. Many former slaves did not have a personal physician to attest to their physical condition prior to the war. (The biggest killer of all Civil War Soldiers was not combat, but disease. Also, such conditions as chronic diarrhea, rheumatism, small pox, broken limbs, lung and kidney problems could not in some cases be directly attributed to military service as a cause of the ailment or disability.)

For the African American soldier and widow, verification of what was presented required a degree of trust.

  • The credibility of the entire application was often challenged.
  • White witnesses and former slave owners carried more credibility when testifying or writing letters in support of the claimant.
  • Illiteracy created a major disadvantage simply because former slaves in most cases could not read or write and may have erroneously put their X mark on information that was often challenged because it was incorrect.
  • Claimant files may be delayed as much as 5-10 years after the date of injury or death of the soldier. This may be related to changes in laws over the years making the claimant eligible to apply for later pension funds.

Basic Guide to Reviewing a Civil War Widow’s Pension File

If you are successful in finding your pension file on Fold3 (only 4% of the files have been digitized), the file will be organized for you.  If the file has not been digitized and you ordered it directly from the National Archives, you should first organize the file for your review.[8]

Brief – This is a one-page form in the front of the file that includes a summary of all of the information in the file:

  • Name of applicant(s)
  • Resident
  • Post Office address
  • Service
  • Death
  • Marriage
  • Names and dates of birth of children
  • Proof of ages
  • Loyalty
  • Agent and his P.O. Box

 Look for the following evidence in the file:

  • Detailed Widow’s or Invalid Pension Application
  • Adjutant General’s Report attesting to the service record of the soldier
  • Letters from the commanding officer indicating that the soldier has died or is injured.
  • Detailed Medical examinations for the claimant for an invalid pension
  • Eye-witness reports – this may relate directly to combat duty, sickness, marriages, births and death.
  • Marriage license and or statement from the minister
  • Birth Certificate
  • Statements from witnesses 
  • Funeral information – sometimes
  • Congressional documentation – sometimes
  • Other supporting documentation generally in the form of formal testimonies listed under depositions

If your ancestors were enslaved, you will see the legacy of slavery in your USCT pension files. 

  • Stories of enslavement
  • Name of owners
  • Plantation(s)
  • Slave marriage or cohabitation history
  • Name (aliases) and why
  • Consolidated records (invalid pension and widows pension) provided a detailed account of the soldier and family

Example of a Proof of Service Document

George Marsalis – A Private of an organized Company known as Company (K) 10 Regiment of US Colored Infantry Volunteers, who was enrolled on the seventh day of January one thousand eight hundred and sixty five to serve three years. George Marsalis was born in Mississippi, 23 years, 5 feet, 9 inches high, Colored complexion, Black eyes, Black hair, and by occupation, when enrolled a Farmer, Given at Vicksburg, Mississippi, this seventh day of March 1866.[9]

 

Proof of Service Document for George Marsalis, Company K, 10th USCT.

George Marsalis- Invalid Pension Application #927558 Certificate# 1039060, Juda Marsalis – Widows Pension Application #778748, Certificate # 587592, National Archives, Washington, DC.

Deposition A – Sample Deposition by the Widow of George Marsalis

“I can’t tell my age. I am an old time slave; I had a slave husband before the war and had one child. My P.O. is as above. I live 1/4 mile E. of P.O. I am the widow of George Marsalis, an account of whose service in the Federal army. During the war of the Rebellion and subsequent death, I claim a pension under the Act of June 27, 1890. I was born in this County about five miles from where I now live, the slave of Alexander Hughey. I remained his slave until freedom. While a slave, I had Moses Congor for a husband. He belongs to my master. Mose and I went together by consent of our master and lived as man and wife until Mose went in the war. I can’t give the Company and Regiment, but he was in H.A located at Natchez, Miss. He died of small pox while in the army. I never saw him after he went to the war. His child went by Margaret Sangrove until she married. I remained with my old master until I married George Marsalis. He was born in this Co., and belonged to the Marsalis. I knew him during the war but did not get well acquainted with him until after the surrender. He had a slave wife and I heard she married another man while George…”

Pension Deposition of Juda Marsalis

Deposition, Juda Marsalis – Widows Pension Application #778748, Certificate # 587592, National Archives, Washington, DC.

 

The above testimony includes several pages about this widow, her community and life during and after enslavement.

The claimant identified individuals that could provide testimony on their behalf to a Special Examiner. The form below includes the name of the witnesses and a rating concerning their reputation.

 

Special Examiner's Report

Special Examiner’s Report, George Marsalis- Invalid Pension Application #927558 Certificate# 1039060, Juda Marsalis – Widows Pension Application #778748, Certificate # 587592, National Archives, Washington, DC.

 

The witness in the deposition below is a descendant of the former slave owner: “I am 61 years of age. George Marsalis, my father owned the husband of this claimant. From his marriage to this claimant to his death…  I know that he never got a divorce…I feel confident that George married this first woman.”

Deposition of Descendant of Former Slaveholder, Pension Application of Juda Marsalis.

George Marsalis- Invalid Pension Application #927558 Certificate# 1039060, Juda Marsalis – Widows Pension Application #778748, Certificate # 587592, National Archives, Washington, DC.

In Summary

Remember – your goal is to find the story:

  • Note the date the application was submitted, approved or disapproved and, dropped from the Pension rolls.
  • Develop a timeline of significant events.
  • Note if this is a consolidated record (Invalid and Widows Pension Application)
  • Note the Pension Act in the file
  • Name and type of the claimant (applicant)
  • Is this a widow, minor, mother, father or sibling applicant?
  • Name of the soldier (does he have an alias?)
  • Company, Regiment, State
  • When, where and how did the Veteran die?
  • Adjutant General
  • Report from the Surgeon
  • Commanding Officer
  • Date of marriage (were they married prior to the Civil War?)
  • Was this a slave marriage?
  • Describe the evidence or narrative to support the marriage. (eyewitnesses, marriage record, former testimony from the slave owner, clerk of court, minister or church record).
  • Did the claimant have children? How many and when?
  • What evidence did the claimant submit to support the birth of each child?
  • Do you see any controversy associated with the record?
  • List the names of witnesses and review the rating for each testimony.

 

Learn More

To learn more about USCT pension files, please visit Bernice Bennett’s recorded webinar United States Colored Troops Civil War Widows’ Pension Applications: Tell the Story at Legacy Family Tree Webinars.

References Cited

[1] “United States Colored Troops: The Role of African Americans in the U.S. Army,” Civil War Trust, https://www.civilwar.org/learn/collections/united-states-colored-troops

[2] “Black Soldiers in the Civil War: Preserving the Legacy of the United States Colored Troops,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war/article.html

[3] “United States Colored Troops in the Civil War,” FamilySearch Wiki, https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Colored_Troops_in_the_Civil_War

[4]“USCT History,” The African American Civil War Memorial Museum, http://www.afroamcivilwar.org/about-us/usct-history.html

[5] “Military Service in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War, 1863–1866,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/files/research/military/civil-war/us-colored-troops.pdf

[6]  “Civil War ‘Widow’s Pension’ Applications,” Fold3, https://www.fold3.com/page/3496_civil_war_widows_pension_applications#description

[7]“Military Service in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the Civil War, 1863–1866,” National Archives,https://www.archives.gov/files/research/military/civil-war/us-colored-troops.pdf

[8]“Civil War Records: Basic Research Sources,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/research/military/civil-war/resources.html

[9] George Marsalis- Invalid Pension Application #927558 Certificate# 1039060, Juda Marsalis – Widows Pension Application #778748 Certificate # 587592. National Archives in Washington, DC.

About Bernice Alexander Bennett

Bernice Alexander Bennett is an author, teacher, family historian, researcher, business owner and host of her own Blogtalkradio show–Research at the National Archives and Beyond! Bennett is also a Citizen’s Archivist with the National Archives in Washington, DC where she and others are preparing the Civil War Widows’ Pension files for digitization on Fold3.

After a 35-year career in health care, Bernice Alexander Bennett launched her Blogtalkradio show–Research at the National Archives and Beyond to offer a virtual learning opportunity for individuals to listen to experts share their research on African American history, and offer advice on genealogy strategies. Listeners are invited to log on every Thursday at 9 pm eastern time for 60 minutes of information from an array of guest speakers. Bennett has over 245 podcast available on iTunes.comTunein.com and Stitcher.com. In addition, her website and services are also listed on Cyndi’s List a trusted genealogy research site for more than 15 years.

Bennett is a family historian researching and documenting her African American roots in Orleans, St. Helena and Livingston Parishes of Louisiana, and Edgefield and Greenwood Counties of South Carolina. She has researched federal census, land, and civil war pension, War of 1812 as well as, state and parish records. She found the Homestead Act land entry papers and patent granting her great-great grandfather 159.33 acres of land in 1896. She also began a journey to connect with her kinfolks in 2004, unraveling the mystery of her South Carolina heritage. The quest resulted in a miraculous union with relatives she never knew, as well as the slave owner’s descendant of her great-great-great-grandfather and mother.

Bennett is the Coordinator of the DNA Track and faculty member with the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute.

Bennett has presented her research at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogy Society, South Carolina Genealogy Society Summer Workshop, National Genealogy Society, the International Black Genealogy Summit, RootsTech 2015 and 2016, Legacy Webinar Presenter, Southern California Genealogy Jamboree 2014 and 2015, the Old Edgefield Genealogical Society Southern Showcase and several other genealogical workshops.

Bennett received her Bachelor’s of Science in Education from Grambling State University and a Master’s of Public Health in Community Health Education from the University of Michigan. She is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

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