“Great Injustice”: Social Status and the Distribution of Military Pensions after the Civil War

Russell L. Johnson

In recent years, historians have paid increased attention to the Civil War pension system created for Union army soldiers and their families. It has come to be seen as a milestone in the evolution of U.S. social policy. Despite the overall appearance of generosity and of unbiased treatment for applicants, however, individuals actually experienced the system very differently based on the social status of the soldier involved. Looking at pension legislation, its implementation, and nearly one thousand pension claim files, this article argues that three types of status discrimination appeared in the distribution of pensions: Pension laws paid larger amounts to officers and their families, the Pension Bureau used ability to perform manual labor to determine the level of disability regardless of the applicants’ true ability to earn a living, and claims based on the service of officers generally were decided more quickly and more favorably than those of enlisted men. Because military ranks reflected the soldiers’ civilian social position—most manual laborers served as enlisted men, for example—these biases meant that individuals of higher social status received significantly better treatment than those of lower civilian status.

Other Resources: 

There are a number of online collections of Civil War Pension Records. The National Archives provides a guide to Confederate state records at http://www.archives.gov/research/military/civil-war/civil-war-genealogy-resources/confederate/pension.html. The Archives notes: Most Union army soldiers or their widows or minor children later applied for a pension. In some cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension. The pension files are indexed by NARA microfilm publication T288, General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934 (544 rolls) which is also available online at Ancestry.com (for a fee).

The Civil War Pension Articles, Information, and Samples site provides much useful information and full records for two Union pension applicants.