Pension battles offer insight into Civil War
Wrightsville’s James Barton of the 127th regiment helped man trenches in Petersburg, Va., near the Civil War’s end.
Earlier, he had been sent home from his segregated black unit with a life-threatening case of the measles. Back with his unit, he still did not seem right. He was not immediately put back on duty. His head and face did not seem right, a fellow soldier observed.
Still, there he was in Petersburg near the war’s end, and he served with his unit until September 1865 before receiving an honorable discharge pay of $100, less $24.24 for his clothing.
But his real battle began at that point. He fought for years for a full military pension.
“Barton, one of seven members of his family to fight for Negro units, eventually received a monthly check of $6,” I wrote in “East of Gettysburg…
Civil War pension information brings forth enlightening and useful information, as retired York County Heritage Trust archivist June Lloyd wrote in the York Sunday News on May 28, 2006:
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 Web site — 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. More than 300,000 Union soldiers and sailors died from wounds or disease during the war, leaving dependents with no means of support, and many of the more than 2 million 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 dependents 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 percent of pension applicants before 1900 were assisted by attorneys who were familiar with the paperwork 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 at 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.