Everyone knows court records are my favorite genealogical record, but a close second are civil war pensions.
The depositions from former slaves are one of the few places you’ll find first person accounts of their lives.
Applicants had to prove their marriages, children, birthdates, and service. For many former slaves, this was a difficult task.
Donald Shaffer’s book Voices of Emancipation shows that black applicants had a higher rate of Special Investigations than did their white counterparts.
They did not have had the types of “proof” that white and freed people had for many of these life events.
After successfully navigating the application process, some people had their good thing thwarted by those who “dropped dime” on them.
George Holt served in Co. F, 14th Reg, USCT. He gave a deposition that would be solid gold for any of his descendants. Part of it says this:
“ When I was born, I was owned by Solomon Marsh of Dickson County, Tennessee. He also owned my father and mother and my seven brothers and seven sisters [wow!].
All my brothers and sisters are dead, except two: Abraham Marsh now living in Evansville, IN, and my sister Angeline Porter now living in Turnbull, Dickson County, Tenn.
When I was a baby, I was given to Elias Holt of Dickson Cty, Tenn.…I was a slave of Elias Holt until the time I enlisted in the army…
I served under the name George Holt because I was last owned by Elias Holt…most people now call me Marsh because my father’s name was Marsh.”
However, the local Postmaster Andrew Black attempted to “drop dime” as evidenced by two letters he wrote to the Pension Agent:
“..yesterday I read to George Marsh alias George Holt his Pension Certificate..I was informed by several persons…that he never received the Gun shot wound in his left hip while in service to the U.S. …
it could be proved that he received said gun shot wound at the hands of the husband of the wife with whom the said George Marsh was in criminal intimacy with. There is a fine respectable old colored lady in this vicinity who can tell of the circumstances.
I considered it my duty as a Pensioner to give this information, and let the matter be investigated…As a favor, I wish my name not to be known in the matter, on account of personal and safety [sic] to property, at hands of either him or his colored friends.”
George Holt received a pension as late as 1912, so it appears the Postmaster’s suspicions were unproven.
Reason Snowden of Maryland served in Co. D, 30th Regiment. The Bureau approved his wife Ann’s widow’s pension in 1878.
Although she still had children at home at the end of the war, she never heard from her husband after 1864. The military determined that he died.
But in 1894, Charles Sellman, of Poolesville, MD, “dropped dime” on Ann:
“I am the person that informed a pension official about 3 or 4 weeks ago that there was a woman named Ann Snowden who was living in open adultery with a man by the name of Ewell, and still drawing a pension as Ann Snowden….
she has been living with this man…for over 25 years. She has grown up children by this man. She has at least 8 children by this man Ewell. They have been living together as man and wife.”
C.V. Morrison’s deposition supported these facts:
“I have known Mrs. Ann Snowden for about 7 years now. She lives with a person by the name of J. Wesley Ewell and has quite number of children by said Ewell.”
Unfortunately, The Bureau revoked Ann Snowden’s pension. In a letter, the Pension Bureau wrote to Ann:
“..you have violated the Act of Congress of August 7, 1882, having lived in open and notorious adulterous cohabitation with one Ewell since the passage of said law and since the death of your late husband…the penalty for which is the termination of your pension.”
It’s true that fraud was rampant in the pension system. People had ample reason to manipulate the system for their benefit.
This all serves as more evidence that human nature essentially hasn’t changed. There were always people ready and willing to snitch!
P.S. Check out Claire’s 2010 article on Civil War Pensions, and this terrific article written by Donald Schauffer.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
This is fascinating. I had no idea that so much information and so many stories (even with the drama of snitching) were in the Civil War pension records. I’ve made a note of Donald Shaffer’s book. It seems as if the “snitcher” ought to give a name, at least — isn’t there something about the right to face one’s accuser? And I can’t help but wonder how these folks managed without their pensions.
Isn’t “dropping a dime” a saying for an anonymous tip, come to think of it? Like, calls from a public telephone used to require you to drop a dime in the slot, and then you could call from the phone booth and accuse someone anonymously..
I enjoy pension records too. They give so much additional background information. It is funny how there is always someone willing to snitch. Great post!
The Civil War pensions records are my favorite records to research. There was always someone willing to snitch and someone willing to steal the money from the pensioner.
Great article! I’m looking forward to researching more pension records at NARA later this year!