Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records

Black Families’ Unending Fight for Equality: Teaching Civil War Pension Records

When teaching the history of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), students often ask how we can find historical records from these historically marginalized people? Since many of the soldiers were working poor and formerly enslaved, they did not have (for various reasons) the time, resources, or (in some cases) literacy to document their lives. Additionally, it also depended on whether there was an audience that was willing to both listen and document the lives of USCT veterans and/or their kin. However, it does not mean that their lived experiences are non-existent. It also does not suggest that the families and communities connected to their soldiers are lost. Many of their stories exist within an often examined and cited primary source—Civil War pension records. From these documents, it is possible to rediscover the lives of Black Americans connected to the Civil War over extended periods of time. Using pension records allows us to analyze and discuss the lives of USCT veterans, their kin, familial dynamics, and battles with the federal government over issues of race, gender, and the public memory of the war. For instance, the pension records of Third United States Colored Infantry (USCI) George K. Buck and Patience Buck, his wife, provide a window to exploring how the war for equality and hopes of receiving social welfare from the Bureau of Pensions occurred years after the Civil War ended.

Many scholars recognize and argue that pension records are invaluable sources that extensively detail USCT soldiers’ lives at various points from the antebellum era to the early-twentieth-century. Military service affected the lives of over 178,000 USCT soldiers and their families during and long after the Civil War. Black families were critical to USCT soldiering. Historians Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland, for instance, state that the decision to enroll was a family decision “since it entailed profound consequences for those who remained at home as well as for those who marched off to war.”[1] A new wave of scholars have re-examined pension records with a critical eye for families’ stories, including veterans’ relatives and adopted individuals who cared for the men throughout their lives and not isolated moments. Collectively, these scholars demonstrate that we need to recognize the impact and prominent role that families played in the lives of Civil War soldiers. Therefore, when discussing the various aspects of military service—enlistment, training, combat, disabilities, pay, military disobedience, veteranhood, and other issues—their families are critical to understanding the Civil War and its lasting impact. Even after the war ended, the hardships (such as economic) for many USCT veterans and their kin chose to apply for a Civil War pension, which brought complications and oversight into their private lives.[2]

The highly bureaucratic system influenced USCT veterans’ decision to apply for a pension through the Bureau of Pensions. The lengthy and honestly daunting process involved numerous individuals listed on the application—invalid (veterans deemed, depending on the enacted pension law at a specific time, as disabled or elderly, and unable to resume working) and dependents (widow, mother, minor, sister, or father). Witnesses (including family members, employers, community members, and other veterans) were critical participants who could potentially substantiate vital information on the personal lives of an applicant. While not all applicants used lawyers, these hired individuals advocated on behalf of their client and facilitated conversations with pension agents. In the case of invalid (or veteran) cases, medical examinations could either prove or refute a veteran’s visible disability or disabilities that the veteran claimed, prior to the 1890 pension law, made him pension-eligible. All applications required extensive documentation. White male pension agents scrutinized the materials and intrusively probed into the claims of the applicants, listed dependents, and witnesses. Many applicants had to provide information on their employment history, relationship to the veteran, medical ailments, dates of births, financial standing, character assessment by community members and agents, and sometimes sexual history as part of the process, which could take years, if not decades.[3]

While many USCT veterans did not apply for pensions, some did. The number of USCT pensions explodes exponentially when investigating various dependent pensions—mothers, fathers, widows, and minors. As a result, it is possible to trace the familial dynamics of USCT soldiers and their multi-generational kin over an extended period. For instance, Patience Buck’s widow’s pension offers valuable insight into the role of Black familial persistence in their demands to have their wartime sacrifices and its lasting effects on their male-kin recognized by the federal government.

Patience Buck, the widow of USCT veteran George K. Buck, discovered that her hope of receiving a pension after George’s death would only occur after an invasive federal government investigation into her personal life and George’s passing. George, a native Philadelphian and Third USCI Infantry veteran, married Patience after relocating to Camden, Georgia in 1867. Together, they had two children. The family later moved to Florida, where George found work as a ferryman. A lingering Civil War wound, however, shaped the family. George suffered from mental health issues as a result of a cannon shell fragment permanently lodged inside his head after the siege at Fort Wagner in Morris Island, South Carolina. Joshua James, a fellow USCT veteran and childhood friend, testified that the injury left Buck “completely insane.”[4] George’s physical and mental disability eventually led to a work-related drowning in 1871. Eight years later, Patience submitted a widow’s pension application. Multiple USCT veterans confirmed George’s injury and resulting problems as a consequence inside and out of the military. The officiant who oversaw the couple’s marriage attested to the validity of their union. In 1883, the Bureau of Pensions rejected her application by stating that George’s death was not due to an injury he received while serving.

By not accepting the rejection, Patience remained resolute in her desire to get a pension. She again applied in 1890 when she received eight dollars monthly, primarily due to the 1890 Dependent and Disability pension law.[5] Patience’s eleven-year journey to receive a widow’s pension was challenging. The process also put her personal life under the microscope of the federal government. Where many Black families received rejections or abandoned their applications, Patience Buck persevered and forced the federal government to remember George’s service during the Jim Crow era when the Lost (False) Cause solidified across the nation.[6]

Patience’s widow application, similar to many other Black women, reveals additional scrutiny on the interior lives of widows of USCT veterans. Unfortunately, she spent her youth in bondage and had three different enslavers before acquiring her freedom in Florida during the Civil War. As a freedwoman, she found employment by washing and ironing clothes within her community. Some locals, possibly because male clients, entered and exited Patience’s residence, began claiming that she kept a “lewd house.” The rumors even led to her arrest on multiple occasions. These rumors only surfaced after George’s death. Numerous neighbors refuted the claims as baseless lies from people that, for undisclosed reasons, did not like Patience. Even though Patience successfully became a pensioner in 1890, the gossip of her intimate life caught the attention of the Bureau of Pensions, which resulted in a five-year-long examination into her personal life, sexual activity, and character. In the end, the pension agent eventually removed Patience from the pension role for violating an 1882 Act of Congress that stated widows known to be engaging in adultery automatically forfeited their pensions. The pension agent even noted that Patience was a “public prostitute.”[7]

In the end, pension records are valuable primary sources that provide depth on Black life—military and personal. The records undoubtedly have abundant information on the Civil War. But it can also yield a plethora of information on the familial dynamics, civilian occupations, government and public assessment on the private lives of Blacks, and the politics of race and gender that many of my students have found fascinating as it complicates their understanding of USCT soldiers and their kin.

[1] Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era, eds. Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland (New York: The New Press, 1997), 79.

[2] Please refer to the following studies for insight on USCT families and their connections to Civil War pensions: Elizabeth Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002); Brandi Clay Brimmer, Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[3] Donald Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2004); Larry M. Logue and Peter Blanck, Race, Ethnicity, and Disability: Veterans and Benefits in Post-Civil War American (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[4] On December 9, 1879, the Deposition of Joshua James in George H. Buck, Third USCI pension file. National Archives Records and Administration—Washington, D.C.

[5] Ibid., Undated Pension slip.

[6] Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020); Kevin M. Levin, Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[7] Ibid., 1895 Special Examiner’s Notes.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History at Furman University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is forthcoming June 2022 with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.

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