Civil War Pensions remain the crown jewel of genealogy research for those with enslaved ancestors.
The first-hand descriptions of their lives in the testimonies, both before, during and after the war still take my breath away.
Though I have no direct ancestors that served, I have some collateral ancestors who did. I also make it a practice to thoroughly research soldiers in the communities where my ancestors lived.
This provides researchers with a richer understanding of what their lives were like.
African-Americans from the start of the war clamored to join the Union effort, but were initially repelled in their efforts by the Lincoln administration.
Though some states had already formed black regiments, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 began formal recruitment of enslaved people in earnest.
Even that progressed slowly. Many black men reacted to the blatant discrimination of unequal pay between themselves and white soldiers.
They also disliked the idea that there were no black commissioned officers (a few were later commissioned).
Frederick Douglass gave impassioned speeches for black men to join the war effort and demonstrate their manhood; two of his own sons would go on to serve.
In the end, almost 200,000 black men fought in the Union Army & Navy. There role in securing Union victory is undisputed.
The large numbers of escaping slaves, the amount of intelligence the Union gained from slaves, and the struggling Northern war effort forced Lincoln to address black service and black freedom.
Lincoln’s Republican Party had the destruction of slavery firmly in their party’s platform from at least the 1840s. Combined with his push to get the slave states to abolish slavery on their own, Lincoln is on firm ground in his commitment to ending slavery.
James Oakes’ marvelous book “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865“ describes this struggle.
Ironically, it was the South’s secession that removed the legal protection in the states for slavery. That act opened the doors for Lincoln to use military necessity as a way to destroy slavery in the states.
Lincoln initially tried to avoid freeing and enlisting slaves because he was afraid that the four border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky & Missouri), all slave states, would abandon the Union.
He was in a very precarious position and it’s a nod to his political prowess that he read the national mood correctly.
He famously stated, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.”
I love that quote. Lincoln certainly had a way with words.
There are some wonderful places online to find out how to research the courageous black men who served our Nation. The National Archives is ground zero. The various types of Civil War records they hold can be found here.
The massive Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database lists the soldier’s names and regiment(s), and I recommend reading the three post series on Randy’s Genea-Musings blog about using this database.
I learned quite a few things I didn’t know. My friend Michael Hait also wrote a great post on researching black soldiers. And there is an excellent article on Black Sailors at Prologue Magazine.
I also like the website by Dr. Bronson which describes the various Pension Acts and the provisions of the Acts.
Cap Ross: Slaveowner and Military Service
This is one of two posts where I discuss some of the amazing stories found in Civil War pension files. Today’s excerpts are from the pension file of Cap Ross.
He was a former slave from Colbert County, Alabama who served in the 101st USCT.
Various parts of his deposition give us his background:
“I belonged to Walter Sherrod during slavery time… was born near Courtland in Lawrence County, Alabama and was a farm laborer.
I enlisted at Huntsville and the regiment stayed there about 2 weeks then went to Nashville where we were mustered in. Our company was guarding the railroad at Scottsboro when we had that little fight…
I was slightly wounded in my right foot in a scrimmage…the ball did not go deep and our doctor…took his knife and picked the ball out.”
Cap added this about his service:
“I was first a Private and promoted to Corporal while in Huntsville and then to a Sergeant for a short time…they reduced me down to Corporal again because I left camp without permission and went to the correll where there were a lot of women.”
Cap, like many former slaves, had no idea exactly how old he was. He did not know exactly when he married, or exactly the birthdates and ages of his children.
Most slaves tried to approximate these dates. However, since getting a pension approved depended on these facts, a large percentage of black soldiers ended up with a Special Investigator assigned to their case.
Their role it was to do just that—to investigate the claim.
Another common problem with former slaves was that they enlisted under one name, and later used a different surname. The investigators had to ferret out false claims which were rampant.
When Cap Ross was asked why he enlisted under the surname Ross and not Sherrod, his answer was telling:
“I enlisted under Ross because that was my father’s name. I am generally called Cap Sherrod but I was married under Cap Ross and have voted under the name Ross..
A good many people call me Sherrod because I belonged to Sherrod but I calls myself Cap Ross.”
That last statement is powerful. It illustrates the desire of former slaves to exercise their newfound rights as freedmen and to identify themselves as they pleased.
Former slaves constantly moved in search of work. Their lives as sharecroppers or tenant farmers is reflected in Cap’s description of postwar life:
“I was in Mississippi a part of 1892 then I came back here [Alabama] and stayed the balance of that year  and next.
I went to Louisiana and lived on Dr. Gillespie’s plantation near Panola and lived there 3 years then came back here and lived on the Felton place 1 year with Mr. Stretcher, with Jim Houston 1 year, with Captain Kelly 1 year on the Abernathy place, and 2 years with Albert Eggleston last year.”
Cap Ross’ Special Investigator held the same prejudices of most white people of his era. He referred to Cap Ross as “an ignorant negro.”
However, he also wrote that Cap had a “stroke in about July 1902 entirely disabling his right side and he can’t get about at all…he owns absolutely nothing and without question suffers for want of food.”
When interviewing Cap Ross’ wife Edith about their childrens’ birthdates, the Special Investigator noted that “she does not seem to be smart enough to know that the younger they are, the more pension they would get.”
Notwithstanding his prejudices, the Special Investigator did ultimately assist in Cap and later his wife getting a pension.
I recommend looking at these records for enslaved people from your research counties whether you have an ancestor who served or not. This is part of cluster research and part of researching the entire community.
In another post, I discussed how others in the community sometimes aimed to get a person to lose their pension for breaking the rules. Take a look for little humor.
Please share in the comments any stories you have found in this rich resource.
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.