Discover Your Ancestors in U.S. Military Pension Records

Do you have an ancestor who served in the U.S. military during the American Revolution, War of 1812, Indian Wars, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection or other conflict prior to the first World War? If so, he (or his widow or child) may have applied for a pension for his service. Military pension records can be a rich source of information not only on his military service, but also on his family members, neighbors and military comrades.

Pensions were issued by the U.S. government based on service in the armed forces of the United States. The process of proving eligibility for pension benefits could be an ongoing, lengthy process, so pension application files often contain a wealth of genealogical information. Some pension files can be hundreds of pages thick with supporting documents such as narratives of events during service, affidavits of military comrades and neighbors, death certificates, physician reports, marriage certificates, family letters and pages from family Bibles.

The conditions under which individuals were eligible to apply for a pension changed over time. The earliest pensions for each conflict were usually offered to widows or minor children of those who died in service. Disabled veterans were often eligible for invalid pensions due to physical hardships related to their service. Pensions based on service, rather than death or disability, eventually followed, often decades after the conflict ended.


 

Revolutionary War Pensions

The U.S. Congress first authorized the payment of pensions for Revolutionary War service on August 26th, 1776, however, the government did not begin accepting applications and paying pensions until July 28th,  1789. Unfortunately, fires in the War Department in 1800 and 1812 destroyed almost all pension applications made prior to that time.

There are, however, a few surviving lists of early pensioners in published Congressional reports of 1792, 1794 and 1795.

Continued resolutions and acts of Congress related to pension eligibility for Revolutionary War service continued as late as 1878. The surviving pre-1812 pension applications, as well as those established after that date (about 80,000 in number), are available online as digitized images.

More: How to Find Revolutionary War Pension Records


War of 1812 Pensions

Until 1871, pensions related to service in the War of 1812 were available only for service-related deaths or disabilities. Most War of 1812 claims were filed as a result of acts passed in 1871 and 1878:

  • The Act of 14 February 1871 granted pensions to surviving soldiers and sailors who had served at least 60 days in the War of 1812 and had been honorably discharged, or to those who had been personally named in any resolution by Congress for specific service of less than 60 days, as long as they had at no time supported the Confederacy. The widows of deceased soldiers and sailors who would have been eligible under this act, were eligible for pension provided the marriage had taken place before the treaty of peace was ratified on 17 February 1815.
     
  • The Act of 9 March 1878 provided pensions for surviving soldiers and sailors of the War of 1812 who had served for 14 days or in any engagement and had been honorably discharged and for their surviving widows. There were no limits based on date of marriage.
     

War of 1812 pension files typically give the veteran’s name, age, place of residence, unit in which he served, the date and place of enlistment, and the date and place of discharge. If he was married, the marriage date and the maiden name of his wife are also given. A widow’s pension file will typically provide her name, age, place of residence, evidence of their marriage, the date and place of the veteran’s death, his enlistment date and place, and the date and place of his final discharge. 

A War of 1812 Index to Pension Application Files, 1812–1910 can be searched for free online at FamilySearch.org.

Fold3.com hosts a collection of digitized War of 1812 Pension Files as the result of the Preserve the Pensions fundraising project spearheaded by the Federation of Genealogical Societies. Fundraising is now complete due to the hard work and generous donations of thousands of individuals, and the remaining pension files are in the process of being digitized and added to the collection on Fold3. Access is free to all. A subscription to Fold3 is not required to access the War of 1812 pension files.
 

Civil War Pensions

Most Union Civil War soldiers, or their widows or other dependents, applied for a pension from the U.S. federal government. The biggest exception was unmarried soldiers who died during or soon after the war. Confederate pensions, on the other hand, were generally only available for disabled or indigent soldiers, and sometimes their dependents.

Union Civil War Pension Records are available from the National Archives. Indexes to these Union pension records are available online by subscription at Fold3.com and Ancestry.com. Copies of the full Union Pension File (often containing dozens of pages) can be ordered online or by mail from the National Archives.

More: Civil War Union Pension Records: What to Expect and How to Access
 

Confederate Civil War Pension Records can generally be found in the appropriate State Archives or equivalent agency. Some states have also put indexes to or even digitized copies of their Confederate pension records online.

More:  Confederate Pension Records Online – A State by State Guide

 

Pension Files Can Lead to New Records

Comb the full file for family history clues, no matter how tiny! Marriage and death dates from included certificates or affidavits can substitute for missing vital records. A widow's pension file may help to connect a woman who later remarried to her previous husband. An elderly pensioner’s file might help you trace his migration over a lifetime as he applied for additional benefits as they became available. Narratives from your ancestor and his relatives and friends can help paint a picture of who he was and what his life was like.