"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. …