The Civil War
Since military service justified the government's pension system, the Civil War is a central topic in the files, especially prior to 1890, when every pension was premised on war-related death or disability. Yet even after the passage of the 1890 law, veterans' Civil War experience remained central to their claims; former soldiers were often required to provide sworn testimony about their military service or the service of comrades through private affidavits or depositions given to special examiners of the U.S. Pension Bureau.
In either case, this testimony is particularly valuable for African Americans because of the dearth of accounts of Civil War service in their own words. Their relative silence is understandable. Whereas the vast majority of white troops on both sides were literate, many black soldiers could not read and write, especially in regiments recruited among slaves. Further, the writings of white soldiers were more likely to survive and become available to scholars, which has resulted in the creation of an immense body of work on their Civil War experiences. White Americans more often put their thoughts to paper than did African Americans, particularly illiterate slaves, and archives and historical societies more often preserved the letters, diaries, and other documents of whites than of African Americans.
Nevertheless, historians have recovered the letters of African American soldiers published in newspapers during the Civil War, mined government papers relevant to black military service, and uncovered the handful of memoirs written by black men who served the Union.1
Pension files add both breadth and depth to our understanding of the black military experience in the words of the soldiers themselves. Whereas special examiners, lawyers, pension agents, and other third parties involved in the application process had their own agendas in the testimony concerning the war, veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops were able to comment on a wide variety of subjects related to African Ameri