Author Interview: Dale Kretz

Author Interview: Dale Kretz

Today we share an interview with Dale Kretz, who published an article in our September 2017 issue, titled “Pensions and Protest: Former Slaves and the Reconstructed American State.” The article is available for journal subscribers and also on Project Muse.

Dale is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. He received his B.A. at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and his Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis. At Texas Tech, Dale teaches courses in U.S. and African American history at the graduate and undergraduate levels. He is currently revising his dissertation into a book manuscript entitled State of Health: Slavery and Pensions in the Age of Emancipation.

We are thrilled to speak with you, Dale, about your research. Can you tell us a little about how you got interested in this topic?

I was initially drawn to the pension files of former slaves after reading the late Anthony Kaye’s remarkable book, Joining Places.[1] As I began writing my dissertation on the relationship between violence and labor in the history of emancipation, I wanted to use the rich pension records of former slaves to learn more about the hardships they endured in slavery. While working through hundreds of pension records at the National Archives I noticed that very few applicants discussed the violence of slavery. Most freedmen I encountered explicitly denied having suffered any hardships until they entered the Union army. Intrigued more than frustrated, I wanted to know why. The answer turned out to be that former slaves were operating within the strictures set by the U.S. Pension Bureau, which held that pre-existing conditions before military service disqualified an individual for a disability pension. It struck me as a vexing situation for a former slave.

Can you briefly explain what the pension process looked like for a black applicant in the nineteenth century?

On paper, formerly enslaved veterans, their widows, and their dependents followed the same procedures as their white counterparts when applying for a pension. Typically they would locate a pension agent who would assist them in filing the necessary paperwork. Moreover, widows and veterans both required a “legal examination,” involving the submission of official records of marriage or military service as well as any depositions, affidavits, or special investigations testifying to the applicant’s claims. Veterans who applied directly would also have to undergo a “medical examination” before a board of three local physicians deputized by the federal government to evaluate the pension claimant’s inability to perform manual labor. Black veterans and widows underwent special investigations roughly twice as often as white claimants, resulting in a wealth of documentation on the most intimate aspects of their lives across years and even decades.

Although procedurally the same for all Union applicants, the colorblind statutes of the pension system betrayed a profound and early example of institutional racism at the federal level. The vast majority of U.S. Colored Troops, and relatives of these veterans, were former slaves—and the vast majority of former slaves remained in the South until the Great Migration. Because the Pension Bureau relied upon local physicians and agents to perform the examinations, former slaves were made to confront parties that were suspicious of their claims, even hostile to them. This was a far cry from the experiences of white Union veterans in the North, where evaluations were often performed by medical examiners who were also family physicians.

These pensions are a fascinating source for understanding the experiences of freedpeople. What questions guided your research, and what is the main argument you make in this article?

The central question guiding my research was: How should we understand the widespread participation of formerly enslaved men and women in the pension system? I was curious not only how African Americans negotiated their pension claims with federal officials but also what those negotiations tell us about the larger story of emancipation in America. I focused on ten infantry regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops: the 21st, 33d, 50th, 52d, 84th, 92d, 93d, 104th, 136th, and 138th. Most of these regiments were organized in South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, or western Mississippi, and composed chiefly of former slaves.

In my article, I argue that freedpeople’s experiences with the Pension Bureau tell us a great deal about what freedom meant to them—and what it meant to the central state. Put simply, my article suggests that the Pension Bureau inadvertently worked to bracket off the slave past and reconstitute the nation-state on a free labor foundation. In so doing, the federal government absolved itself from the history and the ongoing legacy of slavery and institutional racism, which garnered surprising protest from ex-slave claimants in the Deep South.

How did these pension applicants help to reformulate the relationship between black Americans and the state? Could you elaborate further on what that relationship looked like in practice?

Many African Americans had first encountered the federal government during the Civil War, either through the Union army or the Freedmen’s Bureau. With the evaporation of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the withdrawal of the Union army from the South by the early 1870s, it has been widely assumed that former slaves were left to their own devices. And while their prospects did in fact diminish considerably without tangible federal support, there remained an important access point to the federal government, one that was not available to any ex-Rebel: the U.S. Pension Bureau. Unlike the wartime federal agencies, freedpeople’s engagement with the Pension Bureau was a sustained encounter, stretching well into the twentieth century.

The face of federal authority in the post-Civil War South, however, was a peculiar one. Given the bureau’s policy of hiring locally, freedpeople in the Deep South found personnel of the old regime—slave doctors, slaveholders, and descendants of slaveholders—in their new roles as federal officials. These men now served as the arbiters of freedpeople’s claims to citizenship rights. The disaffection experienced by many ex-slave applicants offers a new glimpse at how freedpeople understood the American federal state, wherein matters of administrative justice required a full accounting of the nation’s slave past and its ongoing relevance rather than a liberal assumption of unencumbered individualism.

How does your work align with the historiography on pensions and how individuals related to the state, such as work by Theda Skocpol, Donald Shaffer, or Elizabeth Regosin?

Many scholars have done invaluable work on the Pension Bureau. Theda Skocpol’s influential 1992 book, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, characterized the bureau as a “precocious spending regime” and established its influence on the emerging American welfare state.[2] Almost most historians have chosen to focus on the pension records of white veterans and widows in the North, the pension claims of black Americans and former slaves are quickly becoming an essential source for understanding African American history. Donald Shaffer’s Beyond the Glory and Elizabeth Regosin’s Freedom’s Promise use the pension files of African Americans to great effect, detailing the contours of black life in post-Civil War America.[3] In my article, I move beyond questions of social and family relations and instead focus on how African American pensioners encountered and shaped the federal government.

Do you think knowledge of the pension process in the nineteenth century can help inform how we craft policies to benefit veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I think so. The story of Union veterans and widows in the pension system reminds us—because we need reminding—of the historic responsibility of the state to support veterans and their families. The immense difficulties faced by ex-slave veterans in particular ought to alert us to the moral costs of reducing human beings to a battery of measurements and disorders.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, Dale, and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future. To learn more about Civil War pensions, please check out his article in our September 2017 issue, on Project Muse.


[1] Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[2] Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[3] Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2004); Elizabeth A. Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002). These historians have also written an excellent guide to using pension files; Donald R. Shaffer and Elizabeth A. Regosin eds., Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files (New York: New York University Press, 2008).


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