Black Women and Civil War Pensions

Six generations, portrait taken by R.W. Harrison in Selma, AL, 1893 (Library of Congress)

By the late-nineteenth-century, Civil War pensions not only comprised a quarter of the federal budget, but they also provided a privileged status to a select group of people with direct connections to Civil War soldiers. As I previously noted, applying for and potentially receiving a pension had the ability to demonstrate how the federal government, through the Bureau of Pensions, refuted the Lost Cause narrative by documenting the lives of United States Colored Troops (USCT) and their kin. At the same time, Black families continually fought with pension agents to have their family units recognized as “legitimate.” Black women, unfortunately, faced their own hardships throughout the pension process as white society, through pension agents, attempted to impose their racialized notions of gender upon them. Their unwillingness to adhere to, or at least present themselves as doing so, had the potential to not only harm them financially, but also thrust their personal lives into the line of fire with the federal government. In doing so, Black women and the Bureau of Pension engaged in a battle over the competing notions of race and gender. To be clear, the fight between Black women and the federal government began during the Civil War era and continued well into the twentieth century.

In 1879, Patience Buck, the widow of George H. Buck (a USCT veteran) filed her Widow’s Pension application. Her application came nearly eight years after George accidentally drowned while working as a ferryman. Over the next eleven years, Patience submitted four more applications. In every application Patience submitted, she noted that a cannon shell, from his time in service, made him permanently disabled. Multiple people, including a USCT veteran, corroborated her claim and confirmed that the cannon shell occurred during his regiment’s siege at Morris Island, South Carolina. For instance, Joshua James believed that George’s accidental drowning occurred because of the “spells” connected to his military-related head injury.

Each time Patience submitted an application, pension agents did not approve them. Pension agents chose to either not render a decision (a de facto rejection) or stated that George’s drowning had nothing to do with the cannon shell in his cranium. True to her name, Patience never quit in her pursuit and she finally had her 1890 application approved, most likely due to the passage of a U.S. Congressional law that expanded the pension-eligibility of USCT veterans and their dependents. The 1890 pension law, pushed through by U.S. Army veteran organizations (such as the Grand Army of Republic), sought to extend pension benefits to many individuals previously denied due to the stringent and bureaucratic pension application process. 

Becoming a pensioner did not necessarily stop whites from injecting themselves into, or negatively assessing, the private lives of Black women. Patience learned this, in 1891, when she received a Special Examiner over rumors that local whites in her community claimed she was a sex worker. The Special Examiner had grounds to possibly remove Patience as a pension since the U.S. Congress passed numerous federal laws denying “lewd” or “notorious” women from becoming or remaining a pensioner because male politicians used policies to control the intimate lives of women.  

The Bureau of Pensions only caught wind of Patience’s suspected sex worker after multiple locals reported the issues. One example came from a local white man, John Wright, who testified, “She is a terrible character[.] She is often in jail….She is a public whore.” Patience’s housemate and fictive kin, Susie Battle, refuted the claims as baseless. 

Throughout the multi-year examination into Patience’s personal life, no one provided any substantive evidence to corroborate the accusation that she was a sex worker. In the end, it did not matter to the Special Examiner who used rumors to reject Patience’s pension. Additionally, the Special Examiner felt it was necessary to deride the character and intimate life of Patience by categorizing her as a “known adulterer.” His words illustrate how negative opinions about a Black woman mattered more than testimony supporting her character. Furthermore, the Special Examiner felt it was necessary to deride Patience’s character, in federal government records, for others to see and comment on.

Other Black women also experienced gender and racial discrimination when navigating the pension process. For instance, Mary Purnell applied for a pension after her husband, Edward Purnell, Jr. (a USCT veteran), died. She later applied for a Widow’s Pension, which unfortunately thrust her private life into the sights of the federal government. The pension agent, rather than quickly approving her case (since she was Edward’s legal wife), he became obsessed with learning more about the child that Mary had, out of wedlock, with another man, Frank Williams. Unfortunately, Mary had to provide information to the pension agent about her previous intimate encounter as part of the assessment of her pension application. “It was at Atlantic City [,New Jersey,] that said Williams had carnal intercourse with me. And this is all there is to the Frank Williams affair except that I had a child,” she testified. 

Mary Purnell’s application is a telling case of the power dynamics of gender and race in the pension process. Her case should, theoretically, only focus on whether she and Edward legally married. However, once the pension agent discovered she had an “illegitimate” child. Her actions did not adhere to white middle-class gendered norms of respectability which disapproved of women having sexual encounters outside of a legal marriage. But this logic fails to recognize there were even white women who did not live up to these standards.

Both cases, while not representative, align with the scholars, such as Noralee Frankel, who denotes Black women—nationwide—fought for generations with the Bureau of Pensions. The circumstances and outcomes often differed from case to case. But there was one ever present issue in Widow’s Pensions cases for numerous USCT widows, their race defined journey to become and remain a pensioner. Pension agents regularly made themselves into the lives of Black women, often looking for ways to deny them access to the pension roles. And yet, Black women did not stop applying for pensions. Nor did they take an initial rejection as the definitive answer.

Ultimately, the Civil War pensions was a bureaucratic system that often imposed racial and gender barriers to privilege who gained access to the rolls. Part of this included pension agents invasively examining and documenting the personal lives of Black women. As a result, the Bureau of Pensions and Black women engaged in a battle to define Black womanhood and their connections to the USCT. Understanding the conflict highlights how the kin of USCT veterans fought against the same federal government that they helped save in their relatives’ hopes of acquiring a pension. 

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Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Dr. Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Furman University. His book, The Families' Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice, will be released in June of 2022. Follow him on Twitter @PhUsct.

Comments on “Black Women and Civil War Pensions

  • So informative. I had no idea, that anything like this happened to some of our fore parents and ancestors. A good sobering writing and evidence of our struggle for equal and fair treatment. Keep up the good informative efforts. The right time to get it all out in the open.

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