Introduction to Pension Page
In 1860, enslaved African Americans numbered nearly 62,000, or forty-four percent of the 140,424 residents of the State of Florida. During the Civil War thousands of enslaved Floridians escaped from their owners and found refuge in the Union-occupied towns of Fernandina, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Key West, where they were considered “contraband of war” and were not returned to their former owners. They found work on the abandoned plantations in the area controlled by Union forces, built fortifications, worked as teamsters for the Federal troops. As soon as Union policy permitted, more than 1000 self-liberated men from northeast Florida farms and plantations who settled into the swelling refugee camps outside the coastal towns, began joining three Union regiments organized at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Known originally as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd South Carolina Loyal Volunteers, these regiments were officially mustered into the Union Army as the 33rd, 34th, and 21st regiments of United States Colored Infantry. For the remainder of the war these once-enslaved black men fought to free their families and other Africans Americans from bondage, and to bring a permanent end to slavery in the United States of America. By the end of the Civil War, 186,017 African American men from all over the divided nation had enlisted as “Colored Troops” in the Union army.
This web page contains transcribed documents from the applications for Union army veteran’s pensions submitted by dozens of black soldiers who returned to northeast Florida after discharge from the U.S. Army. The pension records for veterans of the United States Colored Infantry regiments represent a valuable yet under-utilized source of historical information about the lives of black Americans when they were enslaved, when they were in the Union army, and during the postwar years when they were trying to build new lives and create new identities as free black American citizens.
The records were copied at the National Archive and Record Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C., and edited for Florida History Online by undergraduate and graduate students at the University of North Florida. Many of the images in the web page were obtained from the Library of Congress and from the Army War College at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Visuals from other repositories are cited in the web page.
Those who view this web page will be able to search for genealogical information, medical records, slave treatment, black life in the army during the war, occupational adjustments after the war, and the other important themes that can be explored in the pension records. The history of these black veterans can be found in the pages of the files that contain reports of the vigorous investigations done special examiners and the detailed medical examinations given by physicians. Of the 68,178 black men who died while serving in the Union army, only 2,751 fell during combat. The rest died of disease (a rate twice that of white soldiers), despite the efforts of surgeons such as John and Esther Hawks, and Seth Rogers) to save their lives. The nonfatal diseases contracted during the war followed many of the soldiers throughout their lives, prompting inquiries and examinations by the physicians that are included in these documents. A significant number of invalid pensions are included.
Most of the veterans who applied for pensions underwent painstaking scrutiny at the hands of government investigators who repeatedly questioned them. The fact that they had served their country was not usually sufficient to guarantee them a pension when they became disabled or when they grew old. These men had to prove beyond a doubt, through repeated and relentless questioning and a tedious and time consuming bureaucratic process that they had served the Union government, had been injured or had contracted a debilitating disease in the line of duty, and that they had lived upstanding lives as citizens after leaving the army. In the pages of the pension records, therefore, the black veterans explained what life was like during slave times, what they experienced in the army, and what they attempted as they built lives as new citizens.
The editors of this web page encourage viewers to pay careful attention to the applications for widow’s pensions submitted by black women who married the soldiers and lived longer lives than their husbands. Some contain information concerning women’s lives during slavery, especially the tenuous and precarious nature of slave marriages. Glimpses of black women’s lives before and after the Civil War ended are woven into the pension applications they made as widows. Found in the widow’s pension applications are biographical data that provides information on the child mortality rate among the poor during the second half of the nineteenth century, stories of the hard work and community building which had to be undertaken in the wake of the War, and tales of the fierce independence and hope these women possessed even when caught in the worst of circumstances.
Viewers might also contemplate the significant role played by the special examiners and physicians were employed by the Pension Bureau to process the pension applications. The vast majority of the black veterans and widows seeking pensions were poor and illiterate, and their applications and depositions were filtered through the perceptions and questions of middle-class and educated white males, not all of whom held egalitarian attitudes or enlightened views on race relations.
The 8th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry was a northern black regiment organized at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Volunteers in the 8th--unlike those that joined the 33rd, 34th, and 21st who were primarily former slaves from Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia--were primarily free blacks from the northern states. The 8th USCT is included here because of the significant role the regiment played in the Battle of Olustee and the subsequent occupation of Jacksonville, Florida.
Sources Utilized or Recommended:
Berlin, Ira, Barbara J, Fields, Steven F. Miller, Josephy P. Reidy and Leslie S. Rowland, ed. Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War. New York: The New Press, 1992.
Berlin, Ira, Joseph P. Reidy and Leslie S. Rowland, ed., Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Cornish, Dudley Taylor, The Sable Arm: Negro Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1966.
Glatthaar, Joseph T., Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Daniel L. Schafer, “Freedom Was as Close as the River: African Americans and the Civil War in North East Florida,” in David R. Colburn and Ann L. Landers, eds., The African American Heritage of Florida (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida. 1995)
Smith, John David, ed., Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
The most nefarious killer of the Civil War donned neither a blue nor a gray uniform, nor was it identified or named until after the war had ended and scientists had discovered the germ theory of disease. The large majority of soldiers who died during the Civil War did so from diseases, not bullets, in fact soldiers often survived bullets only to die from infection.
In this web page, when viewers encounter an individual malady suffered by a black veteran, they can link to a concise historical and medical definition for clarification and further information. Below are some common diseases Soldiers contracted during the Civil War and carried with them into freedom.
Malaria was a vector-born disease transported by mosquitoes that flourishes in warm, wet areas where black soldiers were often stationed. Malaria was also a problem for troops who camped near still water for long periods of time (black soldiers on picket duty often stood in such places for long time periods). Typically, being afflicted with malaria did not mean a soldier would be discharged; many suffered the alternating bouts of chills and fever, which continued long after the war ended. The most common treatment was to have soldiers drink quinine dissolved in whiskey.
Smallpox was a very unpleasant and highly contagious disease; the afflicted is covered in small pustules and suffers a severe fever. At the time of the Civil War vaccination for smallpox was widely known but had not yet been perfected. The effect on black soldiers was widespread contagion and suffering from the disease. Many continued to suffer the effects of malaria long after the war ended, falsely convinced they had been vaccinated.
Neuralgia was a common term for muscle pain that was typically treated with morphine. Neuralgia was the label often used in association with head pain.
Rheumatism was often referred to as rheumatoid arthritis or rheumatic fever, however it was also used as broad term for aching muscles.
Sources Utilized or Recommended:
Frank R. Freemon, Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War (London: Associated University Press, 1998)
Paul E. Steiner, Disease in the Civil War: Natural Biological Warfare in 1861-1864 (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1968)
During the Civil War, the government established the Medical Department to control and organize army surgeons. In 1861 this was a very unorganized effort and surgeons often enlisted on a volunteer basis. By 1865 the Medical Department was thoroughly organized and stratified with all of the trappings of a military entity. By then it employed over 11,000 physicians.
Union Army surgeons did the best they could amidst the filth of battle field hospitals and flourishing diseases. The concepts of bacteriology and aseptic surgery would not take root in medical science for another decade or two and many medical treatments commonly used between 1861 and 1865 were still primitive.
Dr. John Milton Hawks of the 21st USCT and Dr. Seth Rogers of the 33rd USCT are unique in that there medical work was closely intertwined with their personal and political beliefs. Dr. Hawks and Dr. Rogers raised the relationship between ideology and reality to a new level when they joined the USCT to treat the former slaves and freedmen they had advocated so vociferously for in the years leading up to the war.
Dr. Esther Hawks took this dedication a step farther. Already defying convention by being a certified woman physician, Dr. Esther Hawks spent her days educating the soldiers and their families so that they would be able to participate on a more level societal plane when the war ended. To her, and end to slavery and equality and citizenship for black Americans were the anticipated outcomes of the Civil War.
Sources Utilized or Recommended:
George Worthington Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War (New York: Collier Books, 1952)
Ira M. Rutkow, Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War Surgery and the Evolution of American Medicine (New York: Random House, 2005)
Gerald Schwartz, ed., A Woman Doctor’s Civil War: Esther Hill Hawks’ Diary (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1984)
Most slave traders and many slave owners considered a slave family to consist of a mother and her children. Slave marriages were not legal institutions and therefore were somewhat more permeable than other marriages. If a husband mistreated his wife the slave woman’s options were limited to stopping her association with him. Though many slave marriages were formed out of convenience and the need for mutual support, or out of the owner’s demands, the concept and possibility of romantic love between slaves should not be discounted.
Some owners ignored the personal preferences of their chattel and placed men and women together hoping for an increase in their slave populations through natural means. Marriages were frequently dissolved when owners sold either the male or female to another owner, often through slave traders who transported the unlucky partner off to a distant location. Some families were divided when one partner escaped to the free states and left their spouses and children behind. The severe dislocations families and prolonged absences suffered during the war years, and the difficult economic and social readjustments in the postwar years led to further dissolution of marital ties between slaves and freedmen.
Abundant examples can be found in the widow’s pension section of this web page. Women whose life stories are told in these documents often were often without written and legal documentation of either marriages or divorces, and they faced the perversely negative stereotype of the era that all African American women were promiscuous or otherwise immoral. In order to establish a valid claim to a widow’s pension, widows of black soldiers were required to prove that they were legally married to the deceased, had not lived with another man since their husband’s death, and that they were not “immoral women.” On numerous occasions Special Examiners unearthed “slave marriages” that had terminated decades before; they then declared the women were bigamists and thus rejected their pension applications.
Sources Utilized or Recommended:
Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1985)
Due the high prevalence of illiteracy among poor blacks at the end of the 19th century, testimony signed with an X after hearing it read back to them to confirm accuracy was accepted as legally binding if the examiner followed the rules of procedure which called for at least one witness to the transaction.