Marriage and Family
Former slaves' pension claims resonate with stories of family life both under slavery and after emancipation. Some scholars have argued that the pension system was America's first national system of social provision, one rooted in a vision of family as a constellation of dependents circling around a male head of household, or a male wage earner.1 As a consequence, pension officials were often interested in claimants' familial relationships. The Pension Bureau expected widows and other relatives eligible for pension—children under sixteen years of age, mothers, fathers, or siblings—to be able to verify that they were indeed related to the soldier in some legitimate capacity. Recognizing that slaves' family relationships existed outside legal sanction, pension legislation was flexible in not requiring former slaves to prove that their relationships had been “legal,” but it did hold them to proving them as binding.2 As previously discussed, a lack of documentary evidence of such relationships often meant that pension officials relied on the testimony of claimants and corroborating witnesses to verify family relationships. In such testimony—a widow describing how she met her husband as a young slave, a former fellow slave recalling the events of a marriage ceremony, a former owner recounting the birth of one of his slaves—lies a rich history of family life among slaves and ex-slaves.
The marriage relation is especially prominent in the pension files because widows constituted the second-largest group of pension claimants after the soldiers themselves. As pension officials strove to determine which were legal marriages, they probed the intimate details of claimants' personal lives, often going beyond the bounds of their own concept of propriety to gather their information. In the case of widows' claims, in particular, pension officials often used their own sense of morality as the measure by which to determine the legitimacy of many relationships. Conversely, rooted as they were in white, middle-class Victorian culture,