revolutionary war pensions

Revolutionary War Pensions – History and Resources, Part I

Editor’s Note: The following post is an adapted, edited and updated article originally written by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. In its adaptation it has been divided into two-parts on Revolutionary War Pensions and useful resources. In part I, published below, the background information on Revolutionary War Pensions is provided including the types of information you may find in them, or why you may want to find them. Part II, which will be posted in the coming days, will address where and how you can find the pension records, challenges you may face in locating them, and ways to improve your search. 

How well do you know your Revolutionary ancestor? If he had a federal pension (or his wife received a widow’s pension), the information included in the application for that pension may provide you with a great deal of information that will help you know him better. Please note that state level pensions were also awarded. The best source for state pension information can be found in Lloyd de Witt Bockstruck’s Revolutionary War Pensions Awarded by State Governments 1775-1874, the General and Federal Governments Prior to 1814, and by Private Acts of Congress to 1905.

Pensions as incentives/rewards for military service were not a new concept to colonists at the time of the Revolutionary War. Previously during a conflict, Great Britain had used the promise of a pension to encourage enlistment and to reduce rates of desertion and resignation. After a peace treaty was signed, pensions were provided as rewards for service already rendered.

Three basic types of pensions were granted by the new federal government as a result of the Revolutionary War:

  • Disability/invalid pensions given to servicemen for physical disabilities incurred in the line of duty.
  • Service pensions given to veterans who served for specific periods of time.
  • Widows’ pensions given to women whose husbands had been killed or who had been veterans for a specific period of time.

Pension benefits depended on a series of legislative acts outlining qualification requirements. It is important to know the specific date of the legislation authorizing your ancestor’s pension. Detailed information on military pension law can be found in Christine Rose’s Military Pension Laws 1776-1858 from the Journals of the Continental Congress and the United States Statute-at Large (Rose Family Association, 2001). Among the many pension acts relating to Revolutionary War service, four important acts should be noted:

  • 22 August 1776. This act was the first to authorize pension payments for Revolutionary War service. It stated that “every commissioned officer, non-commissioned officer and private soldier, who shall lose a limb in any engagement, or be so disabled in the service of the United States of America as to render him incapable afterwards of getting a livelihood, shall receive, during his life, or the continuance of such disability, the one half of his monthly pay from and after the time that his pay as an officer or soldier ceases.” (Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. V, 700-706).
  • 15 May 1778. This act authorized half-pay for a period of seven years after the war to all officers who remained in Continental service to the end of the war. Enlisted men who served for the duration received a bonus of $80.00. (Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. XI, 502)
  • 24 August 1780. This act was the first to authorize pensions for the widows of soldiers. It provided half-pay to widows and orphans of officers meeting the requirements of the act of 15 May 1778. It increased officers’ pensions to half-pay for life, but this amount was reduced again on 22 May 1873 to full pay for five years. (Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. XVII, 773)
  • 7 June 1832. This act stipulated the most liberal provisions. Every officer and enlisted man who served at least two years in the Continental line or state troops, volunteer or militia (including musicians and Indian spies) received full pay for life. The amount was reduced if service had been for less than two years (but a minimum service of six months was required for eligibility under this act). (4 (Stat.) 529 [&530], Twenty-Second Congress. Sess. I. 1832, Chap. CXXVI. An Act supplementary to the “Act for the relief of certain surviving officers and soldiers of the revolution.”)

Needless to say, as with any governmental process – particularly one involving a financial outlay to individuals – a substantial amount of paperwork was required to apply and to track payments once a pension was granted. That paperwork included:

  • Pension applications. Originally, documents relating to an individual claim were folded and placed in annotated jackets. These documents were later flattened and filed in 10 x 14 envelopes. The original jackets were included in the envelope because of the useful annotations they often contained. The envelope and its contents became known as the pension application file.
  • Single claim file: This file contained the application of the claimant (soldier) with supporting documents establishing identification and service, as well as any evidence of governmental action on the claim. Although the information could vary, the soldier’s application normally included his name, rank, military unit, period of service, residence, birth place, date of birth or age, and property if the application was based on need.
  • Multiple claim file: This file contained all pertinent claims (soldier, widow, children or heir) for a single application. The widow’s pension normally included more genealogical information. If the wife remarried, the file continued to be filed under the name of the veteran with designations such as “former widow” or “remarried widow” indicated on cross-reference cards. The file also included the surname of the widow once she had remarried. The widow’s application normally included the same information as did the soldier’s, in addition to the name of the widow, her age, residence, maiden name, marriage date and place, and date and place of husband’s death. The children’s/heir’s application added to the information in the widow’s pension by providing the heir’s names, dates and places of birth, their residence, and the date of their mother’s death.
  • Indexes. Indexes to the pension files are alphabetical under the name of the veteran and indicate the type of application by one of three symbols (S for soldier; W for widow; and R for rejected).

All of the various types of pension applications were amplified by supporting documents and might include copies of discharge papers, affidavits, depositions of witnesses, narratives of events during the soldier’s service, marriage certificates, death certificates, pages from family Bibles, and other items such as muster rolls, diaries, orders, and statements from other veterans who served with the claimant.

From these descriptions, it should be apparent that a great deal of useful genealogical and historical information is readily available in the application files. However, the path of genealogical research is seldom so straightforward. While we’ll discuss some of the challenges of locating complete pension records in Part II of this piece, there are some quick resources to utilize before all hope is lost.

As the granting of pensions was part of various acts of Congress that started with the Revolutionary War, those that were granted pensions for invalid claims or for military service, and the accompanying pension rolls – or lists of veterans entitled to receive pensions – were frequently published as Congressional reports.

All such reports published between 1792 and 1841, totaling twelve volumes and containing the names of approximately 120,000 pensioners, are available on a single Family Archive CD, Revolutionary War Pension Records. The CD is complete with an electronic name index that enables you to locate the pensioner quickly and efficiently.

Please visit us again for Part II, when we’ll discuss potential complications on the path to finding your relative’s pension records, how to locate them in various places, and other workaround solutions.

Image Credit: The American Soldier, 1781: The troops in this painting wear the uniforms prescribed in the regulations of 1779 and supplied at the time of the Yorktown campaign – blue coats with distinctive facings for the infantry regiments from four groups of states: New England; New York and New Jersey; Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia; and the Carolinas and Georgia. All of the infantry coats were lined with white and had white buttons. All troops wore white overalls and waistcoats. A Lieutenant in the right foreground is recognizable by the epaulette on his left shoulder. By U.S. Army Center of Military History (United States Army) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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