Family Tree Friday: How to make sense out of a Civil War pension file…with some online help!

Have you ever looked at a Civil War pension file and wondered, what does this all REALLY mean? More specifically, have you ever tried to figure out what each document or slip of paper actually was, where it came from, and what relevance it had to the file as a whole?  Believe it or not, each pension file has a specific order or arrangement–not always apparent to the untrained eye, especially if records have not been kept in their prescribed order over the years–which was imposed by the Pension Bureau to reflect the administrative aspects of the application.

Orders, Instructions, and Regulations Governing the Pension Bureau (1915)Now the good news: there is a resource available online that helps explain the order and purpose behind each document included in a Civil War pension file.  Cornell University Library has digitized a 1915 government publication called Orders, Instructions, and Regulations Governing the Pension Bureau (Washington: Government Printing Office).  The publication is available online through the web site at

The Orders, Instructions, and Regulations provided not only a thorough overview of the Pension Bureau and how it operated, but also an explanation of the the application process for invalids, widows, and dependents, describing what types of evidence were needed and why they were necessary.  The publication also included a basic “anatomy” or outline of a typical file–i.e., what specific documents were to be included in the application and how they should be arranged.  This handy “handbook” even explained how the composition of the pension files differed according to what pension law they were filed under.

For example, an application for an original invalid pension filed under Sections 4692 and 4693 of Title 58 (Pensions) of the Revised Statutes of the United States (1878), were expected to include (in the following order): 1) a face brief; 2) declarations by the invalid (in order of filing); 3) other statements of claimants; 4) powers of attorney; 5) fee agreements; 6) War Department reports; 7) other department reports, if any; 8 ) certificates of disability for discharge; 9) evidence of prior soundness, when necessary; 10) evidence of origin (surgeon, commissioned officers, enlisted men); 11) evidence of continuance, in chronological order, beginning with discharge; and 12) certificates of medical examinations, arranged chronologically.  If a widow or minor child continued the claim after a soldier’s death, the following documents were to be filed immediately after item 11 (evidence of continuance): for a widow’s claim, 1) evidence showing date of death of the soldier; 2) evidence showing marriage; 3) evidence showing death of former husbands or no prior marriage; and 4) evidence showing widowhood or remarriage.  For a minor’s continuance, the file was supposed to include 1) evidence showing the death of the widow; 2) evidence showing date of birth; 3) evidence showing no other minor; and 4) letters of guardianship.

Before you page through another Civil War pension, it might be worth your time to read the Orders, Instructions, and Regulations Governing the Pension Bureau. Those old documents might suddenly make a whole lot more sense, and that pension file will become even more valuable to your research!

9 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: How to make sense out of a Civil War pension file…with some online help!

  1. Thank you for posting. I just began research into an ancestor’s Civil War records and this will help me decipher the Pension Records I found on microfiche.

  2. I have a question about military pensions. I saw my ancestor’s Revolutionary War pension papers on line at If I come into the National Archives building on the Mall in Washington DC can I see the ORIGINAL papers? Or will I just see a copy? One of his papers for a badge of merit was signed by George Washington, and I’d love to know if I can see the original.

    1. Hi Heather,

      Since the Revolutionary War pension files have been microfilmed and are now available digitally online, the general rule of thumb is that the originals are no longer pulled for public access. The Archives is especially protective of Revolutionary-era documents, and particularly those bearing an original Washington autograph.

      – John

      1. Is there ANY way to see this or any special petitions to fill out? I’m a direct line descendant. I don’t even have to touch it, just would like to see it. It would be the highlight of our trip to Washington DC.

  3. Marvel (Bonny) Edney was a confederate soilder captured by the northern and marched south again as drummer boy and then drew a federal pension please verify

    1. Hi Pat,

      I did a quick search of Confederate service records and found only one soldier named Marvel Edney (Co. A, 25th North Carolina Infantry) so I assume this is your soldier? I can’t confirm he was captured or received a federal pension because the service record states he died at Charleston, SC on December 8, 1861. If you think this information is incorrect or this is not the right man, it might be a better option for you to send your question, including everything you know about the soldier, to our general reference email: That way, your question can be routed to the appropriate reference staff.



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