Redefining Reconciliation: Confederate Veterans and the Southern Responses to Federal Civil War Pensions

Article excerpt

When eighty-year-old Minnie Cave of Olar, South Carolina, learned that she was at last eligible to receive a federal pension, she politely remarked to a Newsweek reporter, "My, isn't nice of them to think of me?" Like hundreds of thousands of widows before and after her, Cave was the beneficiary of the U.S. government's attempts to care for the families of those who fought in its defense. But Cave differed from most other widows pensioned by the federal government in an important way, for Cave's husband did not fight in defense of the U.S. government. Even though the government granted Minnie Cave a pension in 1958, her husband was not a veteran of World War II or the Korean War. In fact, her husband was in all likelihood not even alive during those wars. Cave's husband, who was at least thirty years older than his wife, was a Confederate veteran, and the U.S. government pensioned Minnie Cave for marrying a man who fought against the government. (1)

The bill granting Minnie Cave and other surviving Confederate widows federal pensions represents the last chapter in the lengthy legislative history of federal Civil War pensions. From 1862 to 1958, the U.S. government gradually expanded its provision of federal Civil War pensions--both by increasing their value and relaxing the eligibility requirements necessary to obtain them. While the addition of the two remaining Confederate veterans and more than one thousand Confederate widows to the federal Civil War pension rolls in 1958 was perhaps more symbolic than substantive, Civil War pensions were once central to American politics. Indeed, by the early 1890s, Civil War pensions constituted over 40 percent of the federal government's annual budget. (2) Because they made up such a significant portion of the federal budget, pensions were inextricably linked to other important political issues of the late nineteenth century, including the tariff, civil service reform, and free silver. (3) Moreover, although both Republicans and Democrats sometimes showed a willingness to support pension legislation, the politics of pensions were highly partisan: as Republicans waved the "bloody shirt" with one hand, they stuffed money into veterans' pockets with the other. (4)

In the last two decades, scholars have paid increasing attention to Civil War pensions, and have acknowledged their significance in a variety of ways. (5) Some scholars have examined the politics of pensions in the late nineteenth century and have emphasized both the centrality of pensions in late-nineteenth-century politics and the role of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) as a "pension lobby." (6) Other scholars have examined the federal government's provision of Civil War pensions as a social, rather than political, phenomenon. For example, some scholars have suggested that Civil War pensions were an early form of federal welfare and constituted a means to confine welfare benefits to the "deserving" poor. (7) Similarly, one historian recently explored the relationship between African Americans and Civil War pensions and concluded that, while pension laws themselves did not discriminate on the grounds of race, "practically speaking, black veterans and their families had a greater burden of proof than white persons." (8)

No scholar, however, has examined the Southern responses to federal Civil War pensions. (9) Such pensions presented a challenging dilemma for Southerners. On one hand, Southerners had good reasons to support federal Civil War pensions. Given the growing reconciliationist sentiment in both the North and South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some Southerners were disinclined to challenge pensions that many Northerners perceived as just compensation for military service. Moreover, as eligibility requirements for veterans' pensions eased in the late nineteenth century, an increasing number of Southerners found themselves on the federal pension rolls, and many more remained hopeful that they too would soon be added. …