Civil War pension files provide a revealing firsthand perspective of former slaves' lives after the war and emancipation. Their stories reveal how they experienced their new freedom of movement and some reasons that prompted them to travel and relocate. The pension files also offer readers a sense of how freed people described their work, as well as how a significant minority came to enjoy a modest degree of affluence, while the vast majority of their peers remained in desperate poverty. Finally, former slaves' Civil War pension files bring to light many important issues around marriage and family in postwar life, chief among them the preindustrial view of time common among former slaves, especially in rural areas, and how high mortality ravaged postwar black communities.
The information that freed people provide in pension files about the patterns of their postwar lives offer important insights into the aggregate data that defines the overall picture of former slaves in the decades following freedom. The statistical portrait of African Americans during this period contains a few encouraging facts in a mostly depressing picture. The postwar censuses reveal a population still overwhelmingly Southern and rural, as the Great Migration to Northern cities that began during World War I was still years away. The 1890 census, for example, counted only 7 percent of the black population in the United States residing in the Northern states.1 It also reveals a poor people still mostly engaged in manual labor but with a small but significant group beginning to accumulate wealth in the form of land, livestock, and personal possessions. For example, the 1880 census found about 20 percent of black farmers as land owners, an impressive figure given that the Civil War had ended only fifteen years before and most slaves emerged from bondage penniless.2 But the 1900 census reveals that the death rate of black Americans was significantly higher than for whites: thirty per one thousand blacks died each year, as opposed to only seventeen per one thousand whites.3