Slavery and Emancipation
Slavery is a persistent theme in Civil War pension files. The testimony of Civil War veterans, their survivors, and their witnesses contain frequent references to the “peculiar institution,” since it touched on so many issues of pension eligibility: identity, age, disability origins, and others as well. It was hard for former slaves to prove their worthiness for a pension without revealing information about their prewar lives, and that fact made the subject of slavery unavoidable. For ex-slaves, to testify about the period before the Civil War was to talk about slavery.
Civil War pension files are not the first source on slavery from the slaves' perspective. As discussed in the introduction, historians have long had access to published slave narratives and the 1930s interviews of the WPA's Federal Writers Project. However, the firsthand testimony of exslaves in pension files is particularly strong in documenting two particular areas of slave life: slave communities and slave identity.
First, even decades later the contours of prewar slave communities are apparent in the affidavits submitted by would-be pensioners and solicited by the U.S. Pension Bureau during special examinations. After all, in determining factual information about a black applicant in the prewar period, who better to ask than other former slaves who had once been and often still were closely associated with that same person in the postwar period? Although special examiners preferred the testimony of former slaveholders and other whites, believing that their testimony was more comprehensible and therefore presumably more reliable, testimony from former slave owners often was unavailable because slaveholders had died or were inaccessible. In the hundreds of thousands of pages documenting black applicants' lives, readers of Civil War pension files can find important insight into the structure and experiences of slave communities.