I used the pension file of my great,-great grandfather in my English III class. I wanted my students to understand what research is and to see how a primary source document sheds light on an era. The students were impressed until they asked if I paid for it. I told the class the cost of obtaining the file. They were shocked. One student remarked that he could pay two month on his IPhone contract and I was crazy to pay that much. Text messaging was more important to him than his family history. They did not realize that I had the ultimate text message.
These documents contain a wealth of information which gives the researcher a glimpse into the lives of the men who fought the civil war and the women who loved them. Family skeletons long buried are just waiting to be unearthed. Stories of devotion and government red tape will touch your heart and cause your blood to boil; all this waiting to be unwrapped. Your family history is just waiting to be rewritten.
So what did I find in my family’s pension files? Well, answers to questions and questions to be answered. For example, my great,- great grandmother Delia was not a sweet innocent young lady, a devoted wife of a soldier fighting for the Union, a wife praying for the day when her husband would come home safe and their life together could resume. In this file, I found depositions from their children stating they were raised by their maternal grandparents and they believed their mother was their older sister until one day a cruel teenage friend told them it was not true.Then there is the story of my great,-great -great Aunt Julia widowed at 30,with a ten year old son, applying for a widows pension on the same day that her brother in-law was killed in action. The file is closed out, many years later, upon her death with a request by her son Lewis for government burial benefits under her widow’s pension. Julia and George had been married ten years when he volunteered to fight for the Union in January 1864. He was killed in action 5 months later in a rear guard action during the closing days of the ill-fated Red River Expedition. She never remarried.
Pension records obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration
The story of how the men of Natick, Massachusetts stood by my great- great- great Aunt Lucinda because she stood by her husband when he came home fatally debilitated because of his service in the Union cause. Lucinda and Jesse Beal were married in February of 1861. Jesse was drafted in 1863. He died in April of 1870 from TB contracted while in the service. The last five years of his life Jesse slowly and most likely agonizingly wasted away while his wife Lucinda cared for him. Four years later she married George Sleeper which caused her to lose her widow’s pension. She states in a letter that he was immoral, cruel and abusive and that his daughter tried to murder her. But Sleeper was a prominent citizen of Natick and was able to cover up his indiscretions.
National Archives and Records Administration
National Archives and Records Administration
To The Honorable Washington Gardner
of Pension Bureau
I, the Widow of Jesse N. Beals, ask for a few minutes of your valuable time to hear some of the facts in my case –as you have rejected my claim for the Pension.
I suffered 5 years of cruel and abusive treatment from my second husband – Geo. L. Sleeper and he allowed his daughter to choke me nearly to death – then I screamed murder – he pushed her off and took me by the arm and flung me out in the hall and said for me to go to my room- but instead I went out doors, where two of my neighbors came to my rescue and took me in their home and gave me stimulants to revive me, and then took me to Sister’s home, I suffered all this because I would not live the immoral life he lived. He paid me fifteen hundred dollars to keep it out of court and then in about three years he got the divorce because I did not contest it, my friends advised me not to – on the grounds that he was so dishonest that he would cause me more trouble. In 1894 I married Easman Alexander and lived happily 17 years.
I am 84 years old – and very deaf and my eyes are failing and I am needy and beg and pray that you will deal kindly with me , and consider my claim and restore my name to the pension rolls.
May 18, 1921 Your Humble Servant
70 Hampshire St., Methuen, Mass
The layers of the onion just keep peeling away and questions are answered and new questions arise.