One of the defining events in American history, the Civil War involved millions of men who served the United States and the Confederate States. Millions of these men, or their dependents, applied for pension support from the federal government. These application cards (for Federal, not Confederate pensions) were indexed by the Pension Office and kept by the National Archives. This database is an index to nearly 2.5 million of these application cards. Each record includes the veteran's name and state in which he, or his dependents, filed the application. If a widow or a child filed the application, their name is provided. Because these pension files were for federal benefits, this collection only contains the names of Union veterans. To researchers of Civil War ancestors this database can be a useful source of detailed information. In addition, the index contains a link to a digitized image of the index card itself, which will contain additional information on the individual, such as unit of service, date of filing, and application and certificate numbers for the pension case file housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C.
Requirements for a pension varied according to congressional amendments after the original 1862 legislation. Each amendment extended the benefits by more liberal terms. Veterans, widows, parents, and minor dependents were eligible for pensions under certain conditions, and each was required to file an application. The files contain much military service and family information. Included are a declaration by the claimant, a statement of service from the War Department or the Navy Department, a personal history questionnaire, a family questionnaire, and affidavits by comrades-in-arms, relatives, and neighbors attesting to the validity of the claimant's declarations. Where disability and need were factors in the decision, medical reports of physical condition were included. Contrary to custom of several years ago, the medical documents were not withheld and are routinely part of the general file.
Taken from Chapter 9: Research in Military Records, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Johni Cerny; revised by Lloyd DeWitt Bockstruck and David Thackery; edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry Incorporated, 1997).
After locating an entry in the Civil War Pension Index, researchers may follow the Images Online link to a scanned image of the index card itself. This index card contains the name of the Civil War soldier (occasionally listed with alias) and the names of any dependents such as a widow, child, etc. Also listed in the service section of the card will be the unit or units where the soldier served, usually abbreviated ("cav" for cavalry, "inf" for infantry, "vol" for volunteer, and so on). The bottom half of the card will list dates of filing and certificate numbers, which researchers will use if they request the full case file from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Occasionally index cards will have a slightly different layout as the nature of the service dictated that different information be recorded.
After locating an ancestor in the Civil War Pension Index, researchers are urged to request a copy of the case file referred to by the index.
According to the National Archives, "...the number and type of documents in the Civil War and later series vary greatly from file to file; they are often numerous. The documents of greatest genealogical interest include the declaration of the veteran, the declaration of the widow, the statement of service from the War or Navy Department, the personal history questionnaire, and documents relating to the termination of pensions."
Photocopies of case file contents can be requested by submitting NATF Form 85 to the National Archives and Records Administration, Attn: NWCTB, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20408-0001. You can request NATF Form 85 by submitting your name and postal address, the form number (NATF Form 85), and the number of forms you require (limit 6 per request) to [email protected]. Pension case files can now be ordered online as well. Visit the National Archives’ website for details.
22 Oct 2020: Fields that were not previously keyed, were keyed and added to the collection. The newly added fields include date and place of invalid, widow and minor filing as well as company, regiment and enlistment year when available. No new records were added.