"I Do Not Suppose That Uncle Sam Looks at the Skin": African Americans and the Civil War Pension System, 1865-1934

By Shaffer, Donald R. | Civil War History, June 2000 | Go to article overview

"I Do Not Suppose That Uncle Sam Looks at the Skin": African Americans and the Civil War Pension System, 1865-1934


Shaffer, Donald R., Civil War History


IN 1876, WILLIAM F. Mifflin, a Union veteran living near Liberty, Ohio, applied for a federal pension based on his Civil War service. There was nothing especially remarkable about Mifflin's application except that he was black. Mifflin was a veteran of the 27th U.S. Colored Infantry, one of approximately 178,000 African Americans who served in the Union army in the Civil War. The primary basis for his claim was the loss of sight in his right eye caused by a musket ball while charging the Confederate lines in front of Petersburg, Virginia, in July 1864. In an affidavit supporting his claim, Mifflin stated, "I would have felt like never saying or asking for a pension. But there are those in my neighborhood that had almost nothing the matter [compared] to what my disabilities are. They have got pensions." Mifflin added in the next sentence, "Of course they were white men, and I am pretty near white, but I do not suppose that Uncle Sam looks at the skin."(1)

As his affidavit shows, William F. Mifflin approached the issue of race and the Civil War pension system optimistically. Mifflin not only exhibited a feeling of entitlement to a pension but also hoped that his application would receive the same consideration from the federal government as those of the former white soldiers in his neighborhood. His expectation was not unfounded. The pension laws passed by Congress, unlike many statutes in the late nineteenth century, did not discriminate on racial grounds. In fact, federal military pension laws were neutral on the issue of race. This meant that black and white Union veterans and their families theoretically enjoyed the same eligibility for Civil War pensions--an important fact itself.

Still, a significantly smaller percentage of African Americans than white veterans and their survivors, ranging from 17 to 34 percent (depending on the type of applicant), won Civil War pension claims. The disparity between the racially neutral nature of Civil War pension legislation and the unequal results for African Americans needs to be explained. Certainly racial discrimination against black people in the United States was common in the late nineteenth century. However, Civil War pensions were not an example of statutory racial discrimination, such as separate railroad cars or segregated schools. Instead, inequality in pensions stemmed from the special disadvantages African Americans experienced in the application process and the racism and misbehavior of important players in the adjudication of their claims. In other words, racial discrimination in the Civil War pension system was de facto rather than de jure in nature.

Understanding racial discrimination against African Americans in Civil War pensions is important because it was a program of enormous significance in the late nineteenth century. In fact, pensions for Union veterans and their survivors were the largest single federal expenditure of that period, consuming more than 40 percent of the budget in the 1890s.(2) Access to Civil War pensions--which were administered by the U.S. Pension Bureau, a part of the Department of the Interior--grew significantly during the late nineteenth century. Initially created in 1862 to compensate veterans disabled by their service and the survivors of Union soldiers killed during the war, the Dependent Pension Act of 1890 expanded the system greatly by opening pension eligibility to all disabled Union veterans, regardless of the cause of the disability, as well as the survivors of men with Union service. With the expanded disability provision generously interpreted by the Pension Bureau, the number of pensioners soared. By 1910, Theda Skocpol estimates, "about 28 percent of all American men aged 65 or more, more than half a million of them, received federal benefits averaging about $189 a year. Over three-hundred thousand widows, orphans, and other dependents were also receiving payments from the federal treasury."(3)

While African Americans shared in the generosity of the federal government to Union veterans and families, they received an unequal portion of the pension money. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"I Do Not Suppose That Uncle Sam Looks at the Skin": African Americans and the Civil War Pension System, 1865-1934
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.