UPDATE: The custodial information presented in this post may be out of date. Please visit the Civil War Military Records Research page on archives.gov for information on how to order Civil War Pension Files.
The following is a guest blog from Diane Dimkoff, director of the Customer Services Division.
Most Union Army soldiers, their widows, or minor children applied for a pension. In rare cases, a dependent father or mother applied for a pension. The pension application file will often contain a statement of service prepared by the Adjutant General’s Office and it may contain medical information if the soldier lived for a number of years after the war. To obtain a widow’s pension, the widow had to provide proof of marriage, such as a copy of the record kept by county or local officials, or by affidavit from the minister or some other person. Applications on behalf of the soldier’s minor children had to supply both proof of the soldier’s marriage and proof of the children’s birth. Researchers can order copies of Civil War and later pension applications by using the form NATF 85, “Order for copies of Federal Pension or Bounty Land Warrant Applications.”
There are several indexes to the Civil War and Later pensions. The most important and frequently used is the name index. It is available as a NARA microfilm publication (T288, General Index to Pension Files). It was scanned by Ancestry.com and is available for free at all NARA facilities and to subscribers at: www.ancestry.com
The online pension index is a digitized copy of the index used by the National Archives to retrieve pension files for copying. Not all of the index cards are reproduced on Ancestry.com. Cards that were too dark to read were not included on Ancestry.com. The majority of the dark cards relate to Navy pensions. The index cards include information that can be used to identify a particular soldier. The cards may include the unit(s) in which the soldier served, a widow or other dependant’s name (if they applied), and the state where the application originated.
There are actually five separate series of Civil War and later pension files. There are two series of applications that were rejected and never converted to certificates of pension. These series are the soldier’s or survivor’s original (SO) application and the widow’s original (WO). These files tend to be thinner but that is not always the case. Sometimes a soldier or a widow kept reapplying each time the laws became liberalized, and the files are very rich. There are three series of certificate files: soldier’s certificates (SC); widow’s certificates (WC), which include minor child and indigent parents; and certificates (C or XC).
The pension case file is filed under the last certificate number. If a soldier applied for a pension based on wounds or illness suffered while in the service, his application file got a number (SO) in the soldier original series. Once the pension office had reviewed the application and decided that the soldier was an invalid and deserved a pension, they gave him a certificate number and moved the entire application file into the soldiers’ certificate file series (SC) soldier certificate files under the new SC number. The original application number (SO) became void. When the soldier died if his widow applied to have the benefits continued her application was given a new number (WO) widow’s original. Once the claim for continued benefits was approved, the entire file was given a new number as a widow’s certificate (WC). Minor children and invalid parents’ claims were processed in the same way as a widow’s claim. This system continued until the beginning of the 20th century. The pension office decided to stop moving files around and to create a single pension series of certificate (“C”) files. Old numbers of active files were given either an XC or a C number. Active files of soldiers were given new C file numbers and active files for widows and dependants were give XC file numbers. These new file numbers (C & XC) appear at the bottom of the Pension Index Cards. Pension files (C and XC files) are filed together in sequence.
In some cases, we know that we don’t have files for a soldier in the index. The files usually have a C or XC pension claim number and were still active files after circa 1928. The C or XC pension file number should appear at the bottom of the index card. There are a lot of C and XC files that we do not have. If there was anyone still alive who had a claim against the pension in roughly 1928, then NARA probably won’t have the file. It was still an active record and therefore is still in the legal custody of what is now the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA).
Originally, we told researchers to contact their local VA office with the C or XC pension number and provide any other identifying information on the soldier. Today, we would advise them not to include the name of the war. We advised them to write: “I am requesting that you conduct a Beneficiary Identification and Records Locator System (BIRLS) search for the file and retrieve it for my use from the Federal Records Center where it is currently housed. Procedures for recall of records from Federal Records Centers are found in VA Handbook 6300.1, Chapter six, Part five.” The VA will retrieve the file and either 1. Make the researcher a copy or, 2. Invite the researcher to their office to review the file. The request should be made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Benefits Administration (20M33), 810 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, DC, 20420.
The historic C and XC files (Civil War, Spanish American War, etc.) are filed in the same series as World War I and World War II era pension files in VA custody in the record centers. So one box may contain files from the Civil War, Spanish American War, Philippine War, World War I and World War II. They are bar coded with the number. There is no way to isolate the Civil War claims from World War I and World War II without the number. Once researchers send a FOIA request to VA, the VA conducts a BIRLS search, locates the file, sends the file to VA Headquarters, copies the file, sends the copy to the researcher, and then eventually sends the file to NARA. We (NWCT1) receive the files in batches every year or two when a couple thousand C and XC files are legally transferred to us.
Currently, the National Archives is in the process of reappraising as permanent the XC files that have closed since 1928 and are currently in the custody of the VA. When completed, this project will allow the accessioning of XC files 60 years after their transfer to Federal Records Centers. This will bring a large number of pension and other claims records into the National Archives and should simplify the search process for those records by eliminating the FOIA request to the VA. We do not currently have a timetable for the completion of the reappraisal project, but we have verbal concurrence from the VA that it will occur.