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York County Civil War Veterans Had to Persevere to Collect Pensions

Simon Anstine’s affidavit for the CW widow’s pension application of my great-great grandmother, Susanna Crosby Berk (Burk).

After the Civil War ended, the battle often still wasn’t over for the soldiers or their survivors. It wasn’t easy to get the pensions they were due, and they usually had to rely on the assistance of attorneys who could keep up with the changing pension laws.

One of the most active York pension attorneys was Hugh Whiteford McCall. My York Sunday News column on Civil War pensions and McCall’s own struggle to get his own pension approved appears below.

(Perhaps you know a York County Civil War story. There is still time to submit an article for the 2013 Journal of York County History, published annually by York County Heritage Trust. Submissions are due December 1, 2012. Preference will be given to Civil War related articles for the 2013 journal, because of the 150th anniversary of the Confederate invasion of York County. Click this link for the submission guide.)

See below for my Civil War pension column:

Civil War Pensions–Not So Easy

Articles regularly appear in the newspaper giving updates on medical, educational, or pension benefits for veterans. Veterans Affairs offices are available in counties, ready to help veterans obtain their deserved benefits. Information and applications are readily available online at the U.S. Veterans’ Administration website www.va.gov.
It was much more difficult in the past to receive warranted compensation for serving your country. This became apparent after the U.S. Civil War. York County contributed a high proportion of troops to that war. Examination of pension papers reveals that even the poorest disabled Civil War veteran or soldier’s widow often hired an attorney to file a claim.
The Civil War was a cataclysmic event that affected the lives of nearly every American. Over 300,000 Union soldiers and sailors died from wounds or disease during the war, leaving dependants with no means of support, and many of the over 2,000,000 Union Veterans who returned were disabled to various degrees. Numerous pension laws were passed during the second half of the 19th century. Most addressed some aspects of the General Law of 1862, which provided for pensions for disabled veterans and for widows or other dependents of deceased veterans. The disability or death had to be caused by war-related wounds or illnesses. The 1873 Consolidation Act included conditions contracted during the war that led to disability.
The application process was lengthy. After filing, Pension Bureau examiners checked military and hospital records. If evidence was not sufficient, the claimant had to provide testimony from officers and fellow soldiers. Then he needed to report to a designated surgeon in his area for a physical exam to determine that the disability was war related, not non-war or caused by “vicious habits.” If the surgeon did not agree, the claimant had 100 days to get more evidence. If he was then rejected, he had 12 months to gather more evidence and resubmit the claim. A review board made the final determination, in conjunction with a medical reviewer.
The 1890 Disability Act brought major changes, extending pensions to disabled veterans or dependants even if their disability or death was not service-related. Claimants still had to rigorously prove disability.
It is little wonder that as high as 70% of pension applicants before 1900 were assisted by attorneys who were familiar with the paper work and tedious process of obtaining sometimes dozens of individual affidavits supporting each claim. Since pension attorneys often advertised their services, they are sometimes viewed as opportunists. Some researchers point out, however, since attorneys were required by law to charge no more than $10 for each successful pension claim, they could make a profit only by handling a volume of claims.
Attorney Hugh Whiteford McCall’s name appears on hundreds of York County applications. McCall likely didn’t acquire his impressive residence at 228 East Market Street (now the York Woman’s Club) at the expense of the veterans. His wealth came from 64 years of successfully practicing law and from the extremely productive family shad fishery at McCall’s Ferry. Still, being a good York County Scotch-Irishman, McCall was not about to pass up the pension he himself was due. He had seen plenty of action as Captain of Co. A, 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry. In 1910 he was receiving a $12 monthly pension with disabilities of rheumatism, piles, loss of sight in one eye and impairment of the other. The Act of 1907 increased pensions to $15 upon reaching age 70. Being born in June 1839, McCall applied for the increase. There was a discrepancy concerning his age in his military records. R. P. Fletcher, Special Examiner for the area, wrote that it took a while to investigate the claim because he “couldn’t find” H. W.: “He is a widower and quite well off and spends much of his time away from York looking after his business interests.” There wasn’t “the best of feelings” between Hugh and his sister’s children, the Livingstons of Chanceford Township, who had the McCall Family Bible. Fletcher did go look at the Bible himself and ended his report: “P.S. As to pensioner’s reputation, it depends on who you ask. From twelve years acquaintance with him, I have found him reliable in dealings with me–and I am satisfied he has frankly told the truth. RPF.”
The demanding process of application and proof created an immense body of pension files. Disability, need, and integrity had to be documented through countless affidavits from comrades-in-arms and home community members. This has left us an unmatched picture of the life of a Civil War soldier, during the war and in its aftermath. These files can be obtained by visiting or contacting the National Archives www.archives.gov. The York County Heritage Trust has a large and growing collection of copies of pension papers donated by interested researchers. Reading just a few or these documents gives a great appreciation for the sacrifices these soldiers made when war came to their own country.

Click here to read about a proposed Pennsylvania state Civil War pension.