Over two million soldiers enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. At its end, the United States had far more veterans and surviving dependents than it had ever had before. In the decades that followed, military pensions became a significant part of the federal budget, accounting for 37% of the budget in 1894.
Despite the huge growth in payments to veterans and their loved ones after the civil war, obtaining compensation could be a difficult process that required a lot of time and resources. The legacy of slavery has made this process especially difficult for black women claiming benefits.
READ MORE: Veterans pensions were once considered government handouts
Marriages of initially unrecognized slave couples
Widows of Civil War soldiers could begin to approach the Pension Office during the war, and one of the first major obstacles for black women who had survived slavery was the office’s marriage requirement. Women had to prove that they had been married to their deceased husband in order to receive survivor benefits. However, because enslaved men and women did not have the legal right to marry, the Bureau of Pensions did not initially recognize their unions.
In 1864, the government began to retroactively recognize these marriages, but there were still other factors that made it difficult to start the process. Some veterans and families did not know they were eligible for pensions or benefits in the first place. Retirees were required to provide several records, from military service documents to marriage certificates to medical examinations. Access to lawyers who could help applicants navigate the complex system was a barrier for many formerly enslaved families, as was literacy, as pre-war laws punished those enslaved for learning to read or write.
“In addition to the type of obstacles to the application, [Black women were] also faced with ideas about what constitutes a worthy widow, ”says Brandi Clay Brimmer, professor of African, African-American and Diaspora studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Claiming union widowhood: race, respectability and poverty in the post-emancipation South.
“One suspects almost immediately that the families of former slaves are not legitimate, that they are not nuclear, that women… are demanding allowances for children who were not those of the soldiers,” she said.
Benefits could be revoked
Even though black women were successful in receiving benefits, Brimmer says “it was just as difficult to maintain their position on the list.” The Pensions Office could and did cut women’s benefits if they earned a salary outside the home, if they remarried, or if the office suspected them of behaving that it considered inappropriate.
This was the case with Patience Buck, whose husband, George K. Buck, suffered a serious wartime head injury that contributed to his death in 1871. Patience Buck first applied for benefits in 1879 and had to make several requests in front of the office. approved her request in 1890 (the bureau had argued that her husband’s death was unrelated to his war wounds). However, the office later cut her benefits due to rumors that she was a prostitute. These rumors were false, but were enough to deprive her of her advantages.
In addition to criticizing an applicant’s own actions, the Pensions Office could hold her husband’s actions against her if it learned that her husband had been having an affair, says Holly Pinheiro, Jr., professor of history at the ‘Furman University and author of a forthcoming book. The Civil War of Families: Black Soldiers and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
“The federal government, through the Pension Bureau, is basically going to wage war on black families to prove that they are legitimate, that they deserve a pension,” he said.
Many of the black women who applied to the Pension Office applied for benefits based on the service of their husbands or fathers; but black women also did their military service during the Civil War and could claim pensions themselves. One of those women was Harriet Tubman, who claimed a pension based on her wartime service as a nurse, cook, spy, scout and the first woman in U.S. history to lead a raid. military.
READ MORE: After the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman led a cheeky Civil War raid
Tubman has spent decades appealing to the government to compensate her for her military service and pay her a pension. After the death of her second husband, veteran Nelson Davis, in 1888, she also claimed survivor benefits based on her service and began receiving $ 8 per month in 1892.
In 1899, Congress passed a bill increasing office payments to Tubman to $ 20 for his contributions as a nurse, but not, Congress clarified, for his service as a spy, scout. and military raid leader. It was partial recognition of his service, 34 years after the fact.