Interpreting the Past: Civil War Pension Files

I just returned home from my second research trip this year to the National Archives I in Washington, D.C. My aim was to photograph as many pension files of members of the 63rd USCT (United States Colored Troops) as I could. When I was at the Archives in March, I managed to photograph about eighteen; this time I matched that number. Although the Archives itself has its own transcription project underway, I have no intention on waiting for its completion.

I have been studying the 63rd, organized at Memphis in the fall of 1863, for maybe ten years. They are a good unit to study for many reasons probably most especially because they were a garrison unit that guarded contraband (refugee) camps in the area. This is largely true of the entire regiment but especially so of Company K in which my paternal second great-grandfather, Daniel Williams, was enlisted.

The men of the 63rd were judged not fit for field service but were thought to be adequately prepared for guard duty. Many of them were in their 30s and some even in their late 40s when they enlisted. Their ages are relevant in many ways including that their years indicate that these men were more often than not born in the upper South, aka, Virginia rather than in Tennessee or Mississippi. They either had been sold into the deep South, or they had been taken out of Virginia by their masters or mistresses who migrated to the West.

The pension files of this unit are fascinating. I have not yet determined how many of them are “Widow’s Pensions” though in my own set of 36 files I would estimate that roughly 85 percent are. This always means that the file is thicker since the widows had to go very far in proving that they were eligible for their “husbands'” pensions. (I put husband in quotation marks because in some cases the women had remarried, or had been married before the marriage in question, or had no paper documentation, i.e. a marriage certificate.)

In all of these cases, the widows had to call upon their spouses’ comrades to vouch for them, to say they had known of the claimant as the wives of said soldiers. In many cases, the soldiers were conveniently nearby to testify, but maybe just as often, depending on when the pension was applied for, they had moved well beyond Memphis, to Arkansas–just across the river–or to the Oklahoma Territory. Whatever the case, investigators or examiners or determined attorneys seem to have been pretty successful in finding potential deponents.

Depositions of fellow soldiers recount when the couples married, and in very many cases their weddings either occurred at the contraband camp–President’s Island or Camp Fiske–or the couple already considered themselves married when they arrived at the camp together. In the latter case, the widow may state both her former owner and that of her husband, and one or more witnesses may also recall this important history. This is priceless information for a family history researcher. For African Americans, such testimony recreates the plantation past and, in so doing, triggers a shift from a present-future focus to a present infused with the past.

In addition to providing information about former owners, plantation locations, and contraband camp sites, pension files also narrate camp life. Fountain Walker, for instance, eighty-seven-year old father of soldier Isaac Walker, aka Isaac Jackson, states that his son’s unit–Co B of the 63rd–guarded the camp from the beginning of 1864 until late in 1865, when they were ordered to Pine Bluff, Ark. Fountain further dates the regiment’s movement, at the end of ’65, from Pine Bluff to DeVall’s Bluff, where they would be mustered out of service.

Fountain Walker, father of Isaac Jackson, aka Isaac Walker, filed for a Father’s Pension in December of 1892.

Despite a valiant effort, it would appear that Fountain does not receive his son’s pension. Reading his claim, one cannot help but feel for him in his old age and to experience the inhumanity that exists in the language by which he tells of his and his son’s bondage:

We Belonged to different

owners before the  war.

Pension file of Isaac Jackson, aka Isaac Walker, 63rd USCT, Co. B.

Fountain in fact belonged to Hiram A Walker of Marshall County, Mississippi while his broad wife and their son Isaac both belonged to Marshall Countian Andrew Jackson, who owned 60 slaves in years leading up to the war. According to the dictates of chattel slavery, Isaac inherited the condition of his mother, yet we cannot know if this is why he insisted, according to his father, on taking Jackson as his own surname. Did the newly-freed associate these names more with their own loved ones, or with their former owners? This question may be answered on a case by case basis, or we may recognize patterns while examining a dozen or more files.

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