Everyone knows court records are my very favorite genealogical record, but a very close second are civil war pensions. The depositions from former slaves are one of the few places you’ll find first person accounts of their lives as enslaved people. So, anytime I go to the National Archives in DC, I spend most of my time pulling pension records. As we all know, applicants had to prove their marriages, children, birthdates, service, etc. and for many former slaves, this was a difficult task. Donald Shaffer’s excellent book Voices of Emancipation points out that black applicants had a higher rate of Special Investigations than did their white counterparts, which makes sense since they would not have had the types of “proof” that white and freed people had for many of these life events.
After surviving the process to get the much-needed pension money, some people had their good thing thwarted by those who “dropped dime” on them.
George Holt, later known as George Marsh served in Co. F, 14th Reg, USCT, and provided a deposition that would be solid gold for any of his descendants. Part of it says this:
“ When I was born, I was owned by Solomon Marsh of Dickson County, Tennessee. He also owned my father and mother and my seven brothers and seven sisters [wow!]. All my brothers and sisters are dead, except two: Abraham Marsh now living in Evansville, IN, and my sister Angeline Porter now living in Turnbull, Dickson County, Tenn. When I was a baby, I was given to Elias Holt of Dickson Cty, Tenn.…I was a slave of Elias Holt until the time I enlisted in the army…I served under the name George Holt because I was last owned by Elias Holt…most people now call me Marsh because my father’s name was Marsh.”
However, the local Postmaster Andrew Black attempted to “drop dime” as evidenced by two letters he wrote to the Pension Agent:
“..yesterday I read to George Marsh alias George Holt his Pension Certificate..I was informed by several persons…that he never received the Gun shot wound in his left hip while in service to the U.S. …it could be proved that he received said gun shot wound at the hands of the husband of the wife with whom the said George Marsh was in criminal intimacy with. There is a fine respectable old colored lady in this vicinity who can tell of the circumstances. I considered it my duty as a Pensioner to give this information, and let the matter be investigated…As a favor, I wish my name not to be known in the matter, on account of personal and safety [sic] to property, at hands of either him or his colored friends.”
George Holt was receiving a pension as late as 1912, so it appears the Postmaster’s suspicions were uninformed, or at least, unproven. I think it’s funny how he stressed not to have his name used.
Reason Snowden served in Co. D, 30th Reg. of the USCT from Maryland. His wife Ann applied for a widow’s pension in 1878 and it was approved. Her application states that although she still had children at home under the age of 16 at the end of the war, that she never heard from her husband after 1864. The military determined that he had died.
But in 1894, Charles Sellman, of Poolesville, MD, “dropped dime” on Ann in his deposition:
“I am the person that informed a pension official about 3 or 4 weeks ago that there was a woman named Ann Snowden who was living in open adultery with a man by the name of Ewell, and still drawing a pension as Ann Snowden….she has been living with this man…for over 25 years. She has grown up children by this man. She has at least 8 children by this man Ewell. They have been living together as man and wife.”
C.V. Morrison’s deposition supported these facts:
“I have known Mrs. Ann Snowden for about 7 years now. She lives with a person by the name of J. Wesley Ewell and has quite number of children by said Ewell.”
Unfortunately, Ann Snowden’s pension status was revoked and the letter to her stated:
“..you have violated the Act of Congress of August 7, 1882, having lived in open and notorious adulterous cohabitation with one Ewell since the passage of said law and since the death of your late husband…the penalty for which is the termination of your pension.”
It’s true that fraud was rampant in the pension system, and people had ample reason to manipulate the system for their benefit. Once again, more evidence that human nature essentially hasn’t changed, which is one of the reasons I love genealogy. There were always people ready and willing to snitch!
P.S. Check out Claire’s 2010 article on Civil War Pensions, and also see an article done by the author of Voices of Emancipation .
Dr. Bronson also has one of the best websites for understanding the various pension laws and their requirements–I especially like that he links to the actual statutes.