If you’ve reached an impasse when researching your direct-line ancestors, you’ll need to cast a wider net. Whether called “collateral research”, “whole family research”, “cluster research” or similar variants, the concept remains the same: to break down our proverbial “brick walls” we need to broaden the scope of our research to include members of our target ancestor’s extended family and larger social circle. We may need to research the lives of friends, neighbors, colleagues, comrades and the like. The more difficult the problem to be solved, the further afield we may need to go to track down records relevant to our research problem.
It is with this idea in mind that I recently ordered three United States Civil War pension files, all for the brothers or brothers-in-law of several of my direct ancestors, each of whom served in the Union Army. To order their files, I needed information from the pension index cards. There are two readily available indexes online: T288, available at Ancestry.com, and T289, available at Fold3.com. (To see the card images, you either need to be a subscriber, or go to an institution that has a subscription to one of the databases.) Both indexes were created and microfilmed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) from the original index cards.
I’ve uploaded the pension index cards from T289 for each of the soldiers whose file I’ve ordered. Each card shown illustrates a different scenario with respect to Civil War pension research.
Soldier: David M. Bingaman of Companies C, D and E of the 20th Indiana Infantry, brother of my 2nd great-grandfather, Josephus Bingaman who also served in the Civil War.
In the image above, note that David Bingaman (the “invalid”) applied for a pension 13 Aug 1892, application no. 1,125,866, certificate no. 890,449. Following his death, his widow also applied for a widow’s pension, application no. 645,202, certificate no. 464,995. The fact that the card references a certificate number beside each pension type means that both David and his widow received pensions.
Soldier: George Carson, alias George Cassner, of Company F 38th New Jersey Infantry, brother of my 3rd great-grandmother, Caroline Carson.
George Carson applied for a pension 14 Apr 1902 less than a year before his death. His application was no. 1,283,970. His widow also applied for a widow’s pension, application no. 781,136. Applications for both George and his wife were apparently rejected, as there is no certificate number recorded for either of them in the column on the right. Perhaps there was a problem establishing his identity, especially since George seems to have also used the last name of Cassner.
Should I allow the fact that it appears that the applications were rejected to deter me from following up and ordering his pension file? Most definitely not! Even if a pension was rejected, the file will still contain, at a minimum, the application. Indeed, rejected applicants often tried multiple times to prove their claim, offering additional details and advancing more witnesses to vouch for them. On occasion, a Special Examiner was appointed to investigate the merits of the claim, in which case the file may yield a great deal of information.
Soldier: Jackson Wells of Co. D, 128th Ohio Infantry, brother-in-law of my 2nd great-grandfather, Washington R. Wallace.
In this last example, the soldier himself did not apply for a pension. Instead, his widow applied under application no. 462,465. She received a pension under certificate no. 508,610.
Widows’ applications typically provide more family information than a soldier’s application as a widow had to prove:
1. that she was married to the soldier, and the date of the marriage
2. that she remained a widow (she lost the pension if she remarried)
3. divorce or death of any previous wife or wives
4. that the soldier was deceased (if he died outside of actual service)
5. birth information for soldier’s minor children under 16
Although acquiring a Civil War Pension file isn’t cheap ($75.00 for the first 100 pages from NARA), oftentimes a pension file can contain the key to solving a brick wall problem. You can spend literally years searching for proof of a relationship only to discover the answer plainly stated within the file.
How to order a Civil War pension file
Civil War pension files are still, for the most part, textual (i.e. paper) records. They have never been microfilmed, and are only now being digitized. With the large number of pension files available, it will be years before they’re online. To access a pension file, you’ll need to do one of three things:
1. Visit the National Archives in Washington D.C. yourself
2. Order the pension file from the National Archives directly
3. Hire a private researcher to examine and copy the record for you
To order a pension file from the National Archives, go to: https://eservices.archives.gov/orderonline/start.swe#SWEApplet1
Veteran’s first and last name
Branch of service (Army, Navy, Marine Corps)
Kind of service (Regular, Volunteer)
War in which he served
State from which he served
However, I have found that having the pension application number and name of widow or other claimant will ensure you are getting the correct file.
Whenever possible, I recommend acquiring a complete military pension file early on in your research. If you don’t look, you won’t know what nuggets of family information may be included. I have heard tales of family bible pages and photographs being found within a pension file, although I myself haven’t been that lucky.
Stay tuned as I reveal the goldmine of family information discovered in just one of these pension files!