Black Widows and the Struggle for Pensions after the Civil War

This post is part of our online roundtable on Holly A. Pinheiro Jr.’s The Families’ Civil War.

African American Civil War veterans procession, May 30, 1912, New York (Library of Congress)

From enlistment to the pension, the working-class Black Civil War experience was a struggle for race, citizenship, and family. Building on recent works by Brandi Brimmer and James G. Mendez, Holly Pinheiro’s The Families’ Civil War explores the lived experiences of Black Philadelphian soldiers and their families before, during, and after the Civil War. The struggles of the selected soldiers of the Third, Sixth, and Eighth USCT and their families “reveals both the specific ways that the Civil War compounded this racial oppression as well as how northern African American families persevered in their lifelong battle against racism”(12). The pension process represented another phase of their ongoing Civil War. Pinheiro reveals past, present, and future struggles over access to familial information and their struggle for recognition in the national public consciousness while deepening scholarly understanding.

In short, Pinheiro’s deeply researched work has implications for twenty-first century descendants of USCT soldiers and their surviving kin, including myself. His work sheds light on the most common experience for veterans and their families seeking a pension – rejection.

After a five-year Freedom of Information Act struggle, I received a copy of my Civil War ancestor’s pension file from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in early 2022. The process was not an easy one. The National Archives did not have the pension file of Joseph Lane, a Twenty-Second USCT veteran, as it did for other Civil War soldiers. After relocating his family from Chambersburg to Shippensburg, PA, Lane’s file became one of the few located at Veterans Affairs. As a result, the process required a FOIA and an elaborate justification of why the request should be granted. COVID-19 eased some of the bureaucratic red tape. So, I, as well as my mother, aunts, and cousins, were elated by my persistence.1

As I opened the file, one word listed on the widow’s pension stopped me in my tracks. Rejected.

I learned that the actions of nineteenth-century white pension agents threw the entire Lane household into chaos. Lane’s widow, Irene Lane, simply wanted to place a headstone for her husband. Yet, her request for the headstone caused her to lose financial guardianship over her children to a white woman in Shippensburg, and her claims to her husband’s service were denied. She would never live to see her husband’s headstone placed as she and her infant child died shortly after the request. The eligible children received dependent pensions until they aged out. And I, a twenty-first-century descendant of Lane, experienced similar reactions and processes described by Holly Pinheiro. Lane and his family needed the pension. They subjected themselves to the intrusive, racialized, and gendered process because their family’s survival depended on it.

As Pinheiro shows, the pension process became a struggle over race, gender, and the Black family. Several federal Civil War pension legislative provisions afforded the commemoration and acknowledgment of Black military service in “national policy and memory”(69). However, success was not always guaranteed. White bureaucrats had immense power over the economic well-being and survival of Black veterans and their families. For disabled veterans, deceased soldiers’ surviving mothers, wives and children, and other chosen members of a veteran’s household, pensions became essential for overcoming ongoing racism resulting in underemployment and economic precarity. Applicants opened their lives up to scrutiny and deployed informal networks to ensure restitution for their military service. For some, the secured pension allowed for the improved economic health of the family. For others, rejection again became a common experience for not only my Civil War ancestor but also the veterans and widows showcased by Pinheiro in the later chapters.

Widows like Patience-Flowers Dorsey, had to dispute claims about their sexual reputation, while others had to address questions of infidelity. And then, it was not a guarantee. Black women’s claims, supporting affidavits, and payment of all pension costs, did not guarantee success. The appeal process might allow for issuing a pension but not always. Northern Black women, including Lane’s widow in rural Pennsylvania, lacked the rights and privileges afforded to formerly enslaved couples who had been unable to wed. These Philadelphian USCT widows and even dependent mothers overcame significant gender, racial, and class expectations to secure and keep a pension.

Widows, as Pinheiro shows, took advantage of informal networks for the process. They were learning that “pension agents obsessed with the legality of their unions” resulted in rejection for Margaret Parker and Mary M. Parker but not for Sarah Brown, the widow of William Brown (135-139). Black women fought for dignity and claimed respectability for themselves and their families through the memory of USCT veterans’ service.

Children took up the pension fight well into the twentieth century. Edmonia Woodson’s efforts went directly to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Her ongoing correspondence showed her refusal to accept Veterans Affairs as the sole arbiter. Woodson leveraged her relationship with the First Lady to obtain a reassessment of her pension application. For Pinheiro, Woodson’s twentieth-century struggle offered “one of the most compelling stories of the long-term hardships and perseverance,” yet cautioned against seeing her rejection “as a tale of victimization.” Instead, Pinheiro astutely concluded how Woodson demonstrated another “refusal to submit to the constant pressures of anti-Blackness in America” (145). Indeed, Edmonia Woodson’s audacity and resilience resonated with me.

Avis Lane, my grandmother’s grandmother, succeeded in the pension office. Her mother’s experience did not serve as a barrier. Lane’s daughter applied for extended benefits by becoming classified as an “invalid.” Her older siblings and many informants who testified in her father’s application confirmed a disability that allowed her to receive an invalid dependent pension until she died in the mid-1960s. Her actions caused the file placement in Veterans Affairs and eventual entrance into a VA hospital for end-of-life care. She successfully deployed the memory of her father’s service and community and familial networks and, in the process, ensured some financial security for herself, two sons, and granddaughter until March 25, 1966.  Only her death ended federal benefits.2

My mother was a teenager when Avis Lane, daughter of Joseph and Irene Lane, died. For my mother, Lane’s daughter’s struggle and success were more than words on a page. She was a family member whom she regularly visited, heard family stories from, and received an education of communal history not taught in the rural Pennsylvanian K-12 schools. And yet, the original widow’s rejection cast new appreciation for her struggles and other women documented in The Families’ Civil War.

In February 2022, Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton announced plans for awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the African Americans who served in the federal military effort during the U.S. Civil War. The African American representatives hoped their proposal would bring honor and gratitude to those men who served in segregated USCT regiments.  “More than 150 years after the end of the war,” Booker proclaimed,” I am proud to introduce bicameral legislation with Congresswoman Norton that would award these heroes the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their brave and selfless actions on behalf of our nation.”3 Norton, on the other hand, spoke to the reparative nature of their legislation. She hoped that it would “help correct that wrong and give the descendants of those soldiers the recognition they deserve.”4

As the federal government considers possible ways to acknowledge the service and USCT soldiers and their families fully, Pinheiro provides practical resources in the appendices. His methodological essay introduced a potential roadmap for locating Black USCT soldiers and their families in the census records, NARA-based pension files, and other archival sources. He also offers a complete listing of the Philadelphian men comprising his sample by regiment and unit.  For others who trained at Camp William Penn alongside these Philadelphians, like my ancestor, or elsewhere, these genealogical resources and an explanatory essay might assist them in learning more about the struggles of Civil War soldiers and their families before, during, and after the Civil War.

My pension fight, however, suggests another requirement of the federal government. The burden should not be placed on families to prove through blood quantum or FOIAs. Pinheiro’s research demonstrates the need to avert another long struggle against anti-Blackness. The hiring of genealogists, empathy by federal agencies, and transparent processes must guide this process. Otherwise, I fear that the twenty-first-century descendants will share a common experience of the Civil War USCT generation and their surviving kin – rejection.

  1. Pension File of Joseph Lane, Twenty-Second USCT, Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC, released under the Freedom of Information Act to the author who is a direct descendant on March 16, 2022.
  2. Pension File of Joseph Lane.
  3. “Booker, Norton Announce Bill to Award Congressional Gold Medal to the 200,000 African Americans Who Fought to Preserve the Union in the Civil War,” Booker.Senate.Gov, February 7, 2022, https://www.booker.senate.gov/news/press/booker-norton-announce-bill-to-award-congressional-gold-medal-to-the-200000-african-americans-who-fought-to-preserve-the-union-in-the-civil-war.
  4. “Booker, Norton Announce Bill to Award Congressional Gold Medal to the 200,000 African Americans Who Fought to Preserve the Union in the Civil War.”
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Hilary Green

Hilary Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press, 2016).  She is currently writing a second book manuscript exploring how everyday African Americans remembered and commemorated the Civil War from 1863 to the present. In addition, she is the Chief Reader Designate for AP US History, 2022-2023, Digital Media Editor responsible for Muster, the blog for the Journal of Civil War Era, and the co-series editor with J. Brent Morris of the Reconstruction Reconsidered, a University of South Carolina Press book series.

Comments on “Black Widows and the Struggle for Pensions after the Civil War

  • I’ve been waiting over a year to receive pension records of great great grandfather (29th USCI). Thank you for the research.

    Reply
  • It probably goes without saying, but the horrendous treatment of African American veterans and their families by white pension agents (and by the government bureaucracy more generally) — so well documented by Holly Piñheiro, Hilary Green, and other historians — becomes even more evident if one compares these sources to pension records for some white veterans. In a project that involves reading both Black and white pension applications, it is astounding to see the ease with which white claims were approved with scanty or contradictory “documentation” compared to the level of scrutiny and reasons for denial to which Black applicants were subjected.

    Reply

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