American citizens have always had the right under the U.S. Constitution to petition Congress directly to redress specific grievances or recoup financial losses resulting from government actions (such as private property damaged by the Union Army during the Civil War). In the 19th century, Americans commonly exercised this right, sending hundreds of thousands of private claims to members of Congress for action. Many of those claims included petitions from veterans seeking pension benefits. Under established pension laws, the normal application process went through the War Department, but if a pension claim was rejected for whatever reason, the veteran could still appeal directly to Congress for money. Through faulty memory or loss of records over the years, many veterans of older wars, particularly the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, had a hard time proving their military service. The private claim thus offered them an important loophole where they could rely upon the empathy of Congress for help. Most private claims were approved, as Congress rarely passed up an opportunity to honor those veterans by granting them money. The useful thing about private claims is that they required the same kinds of evidence or documentation as regular pension applications.
So, the moral of the story is this. If you ever find yourself researching the pension of a veteran ancestor and you discover that a claim does not exist or was rejected, the paper trail may not end there. Check the private claims in the House and Senate records because there is always the chance you might locate another file with more information about your ancestor’s military service.
Private claims relating to pensions are described in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) under Accompanying Papers (ARC ID 559821) in the House, and Supporting Papers (ARC ID 576977) in the Senate records. You can also use the search terms private claims, petitions and memorials, or committee papers.