Over two million soldiers enlisted in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. When it ended, the United States had many more veterans and surviving dependents than it had ever had before. In the decades that followed, military pensions became a major part of the federal budget, accounting for 37 percent of the budget by 1894. 

Despite the enormous growth in payments to veterans and their relatives after the Civil War, securing compensation could be an arduous process that required significant time and resources. The legacy of slavery made that process especially challenging for Black women applying for benefits. 

Marriages of Enslaved Couples Initially Not Recognized

Widows of Civil War soldiers could begin applying to the Bureau of Pensions during the war, and one of the first major obstacles for Black women who had survived slavery was the bureau's marriage requirement. Women needed to prove they had been married to their deceased husbands to receive survivor benefits. However, because enslaved men and women hadn’t been legally able to marry, the Bureau of Pensions didn’t initially recognize their unions.

In 1864, the government began retroactively recognizing these marriages, but there were still other factors that made it difficult to start the process. Some veterans and families didn’t know they were eligible for pensions or benefits in the first place. Pensioners were required to provide multiple records, from military service documents to marriage certificates to medical exams. Access to attorneys who could help applicants navigate the complex system was a barrier for many formerly enslaved families, as was literacy, since antebellum laws had punished enslaved people for learning to read or write.

“In addition to the sort of application obstacles, [Black women were] also facing ideas about what constitutes a worthy widow,” says Brandi Clay Brimmer, a 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.

“There’s almost an immediate suspicion that formerly enslaved people’s families are not legitimate, they are not nuclear, that women are…claiming benefits for children that were not the soldiers',” she says.

Benefits Could Be Revoked

Even if Black women did succeed in receiving benefits, Brimmer says “it was equally difficult to maintain their standing on the roll.” The Bureau of Pensions could and did remove women’s benefits if they earned paid wages outside of the home, if they remarried or if the bureau suspected them of engaging in behavior it viewed as inappropriate.

This was the case with Patience Buck, whose husband, George K. Buck, suffered a severe head injury during the war that contributed to his death in 1871. Patience Buck first applied for benefits in 1879, and had to apply multiple times before the bureau approved her application in 1890 (the bureau had argued that her husband’s death was unrelated to his war injury). However, the bureau later cut off her benefits based on rumors that she was a prostitute. These rumors were false, but were enough to deprive her of her benefits.

In addition to critiquing an applicant's own actions, the Bureau of Pensions might hold her husband’s actions against her if it learned that her husband had had an affair, says Holly Pinheiro, Jr., a history professor at Furman University and author of forthcoming book The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice.

Harriet Tubman
Library of Congress
Harriet Tubman, circa late 1860s, when she would have been approximately 45 years old.

“The federal government, through the Pension Bureau, is basically going to war with Black families to make them prove that they’re legitimate, that they’re worthy of a pension,” he says.

Many of the Black women who applied to the Bureau of Pensions asked for benefits based on their husband or father’s service; but Black women also performed military service during the Civil War, and could make claims for pensions of their own. One of these women was Harriet Tubman, who applied for a pension based on her wartime service as a nurse, cook, spy, scout and first woman in U.S. history to lead a military raid.

Tubman 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 applied for survivor benefits based on his service, and began receiving $8 a month in 1892. 

In 1899, Congress passed a bill increasing the bureau’s payments to Tubman to $20 in consideration of her contributions as a nurse—though not, Congress made clear, for her service as a spy, scout and military raid leader. It was a partial recognition of her service, 34 years after the fact.

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