Civil War Pensions remain, in my opinion, the crown jewel of genealogy research for those with enslaved ancestors. The first-hand descriptions of their lives given in the testimonies, both before, during and after the war still take my breath away. I do not have any direct ancestors who served (although I have some collateral), but I have researched soldiers in the counties where my ancestors lived and gotten a rich sense of the times that no other source could come close to describing.
African-Americans from the start of the war clamored to join the Union effort, but were initially repelled in their efforts by the Lincoln administration. Not until the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 did formal recruitment of enslaved people begin in earnest. Even that went slowly, as many black men reacted to the blatant discrimination of having unequal pay and no black commissioned officers (a few were later commissioned). Frederick Douglass gave impassioned speeches for black men to join the war effort and demonstrate their manhood; two of his own sons would join. In the end, almost 200,000 black men fought in the Union Army & Navy.
The large numbers of escaping slaves, combined with the struggling Northern war effort forced Lincoln to eventually have to deal with the issue. However, Lincoln’s Republican Party had the destruction of slavery firmly in their party’s platform from at least the 1840s on. Lincoln’s rejection of the Crittenden Compromise before the war started, as well as his push to try to get slave states to abolish slavery on their own are just two of many points that place Lincoln on firm ground in his commitment to ending slavery. James Oakes has written a marvelous book called “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865“ if you are interested in reading more about the struggle. Ironically, it was the South’s secession that removed the legal protection the states had for slavery; the war opened the doors for Lincoln to use “military necessity” as a way to destroy slavery in the states.
Lincoln had initially tried to avoid freeing and enlisting slaves because he was afraid that the four border states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky & Missouri), who were all slave states, would abandon the Union and join the Confederate war effort. He was in a very precarious position and it’s a nod to his political prowess that he read the national mood correctly. He famously stated, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us.” I love that quote. Lincoln certainly had a way with words.
There are some wonderful places online to find out how to research the courageous black men who served our Nation. The National Archives is ground zero, and the various types of Civil War records they hold can be found here. Of course, the massive Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database lists the soldier’s names and regiment(s), but I absolutely recommend reading the 3 post series on Randy’s Genea-Musings blog about using this database. I learned quite a few things I didn’t know before.My friend Michael Hait also wrote a great post on researching black soldiers. And there is an excellent article on Black Sailors at Prologue Magazine.
I also like the website by Dr. Bronson which explains and describes the various Pension Acts that were passed and the provisions of those Acts. Typical pension files often include several different applications; those often occurred when the Pension law changed. Some files will include applications from the soldier and then after his death, applications from his wife or children.
Today, I am starting a series of posts where I discuss some of the amazing stories and interesting facts found in Civil War pension files. Today’s excerpts are from the pension file of Cap Ross, a former slave living in Colbert County, Alabama who served in the 101st USCT.
Various parts of his deposition give us his background:
“I belonged to Walter Sherrod during slavery time… I was born near Courtland in Lawrence County, Alabama and was a farm laborer. I enlisted at Huntsville and the regiment stayed there about 2 weeks then went to Nashville where we were mustered in. Our company was guarding the railroad at Scottsboro when we had that little fight…I was slightly wounded in my right foot in a scrimmage…the ball did not go deep and our doctor…took his knife and picked the ball out.”
Cap added this about his service:
“I was first a Private and promoted to Corporal while in Huntsville and then to a Sergeant for a short time…they reduced me down to Corporal again because I left camp without permission and went to the correll where there were a lot of women.”
Cap, like many former slaves, had no idea exactly how old he was, or exactly when he married, or even exactly the birthdates and ages of his children. Most slaves tried to approximate these dates, but since attaining a pension depended on these very things, a large number of black soldiers ended up with a Special Investigator whose role it was to do just that—to investigate the claim. Another common problem with former slaves was their enlistment under one name, and their later going by a different surname. The investigators had to ferret out false claims (which were rampant). When Cap Ross was asked why he enlisted under the surname “Ross” and not “Sherrod,” his answer was telling:
“I enlisted under Ross because that was my father’s name. I am generally called Cap Sherrod but I was married under Cap Ross and have voted under the name Ross..A good many people call me Sherrod because I belonged to Sherrod but I calls myself Cap Ross.”
That last statement is pretty powerful; it illustrates the desire of former slaves to exercise their newfound rights as freedmen to identify themselves as they pleased.
The constant movement of former slaves to find work, often sharecropping or living as tenant farmers, is shown in Cap’s description of postwar life:
“I was in Mississippi a part of 1892 then I came back here [Alabama] and stayed the balance of that year  and next. I went to Louisiana and lived on Dr. Gillespie’s plantation near Panola and lived there 3 years then came back here and lived on the Felton place 1 year with Mr. Stretcher, with Jim Houston 1 year, with Captain Kelly 1 year on the Abernathy place, and 2 years with Albert Eggleston last year.”
Cap Ross’ Special Investigator, held the same prejudices of most white men of his era. He referred to Cap Ross as “an ignorant negro,” but also wrote that Cap had had a “stroke in about July 1902 entirely disabling his right side and he can’t get about at all…he owns absolutely nothing and without question suffers for want of food.” When interviewing Cap Ross’ wife Edith about their childrens’ birthdates, the Special Investigator noted that “she does not seem to be smart enough to know that the younger they are, the more pension they would get.” Notwithstanding his prejudices, the Special Investigator did ultimately assist in Cap and later his wife getting a pension.
I absolutely recommend looking at these records for enslaved people from your research county whether you have an ancestor who served or not. They provide invaluable insight into the lives of slaves. I’ll keep looking at the stories in pension records in future posts. Please share in the comments any stories you have found in this rich resource.