When researching our ancestors who served in the military, one of the most popular places we look is for pension files. The thing to remember is that not only were those who served eligible for pensions, but in some instances the spouse, children, or even the parents of those who served also might have received pensions.
The Revolutionary War ended in 1783. The first Federal law regarding pensions was enacted 29 September 1789, when the United States government took over from the states payments made to soldiers who served during the Revolutionary War. In 1836, Congress finally allowed for unmarried widows to receive a pension based on her husband’s service.
November 11, 1906 dawned chilly and clear in Plymouth, Vermont. Esther (Sumner) Damon was a ninety-two-year-old widow who had suffered fro years from “senile debility.” She had recently developed bronchitis which took her life that day. More than 130 years after the start of the war, Esther was the last surviving Revolutionary War widow, and the last to be receiving a widow’s pension. Her husband, Noah Damon, was 75 years old when they married in 1835, and she only 21. He, himself, died at the age of 92 in 1858. She was 38 years old at his death, and remained his widow for 48 years. At the end of her life, she was not only receiving a pension from the state of Vermont, but also receiving support from chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Pensions continued to be paid for a service in a variety of conflicts. Those who served during the War of 1812, and their widows, were also given pensions. (The Federation of Genealogical Societies is currently spearheading a campaign to have these files digitized and made available online for free) But others received pensions also. Those who served in the Indian Wars (Black Hawk War, Creek War, Florida War, etc.) and the War with Mexico also received pensions.
1861 is the dividing line. Those who served prior to the Civil War were treated in one category and those who served from the Civil War onward were in another. One major change was that pensions were granted to those dependent on the one who was serving. Children might receive pensions, as well as parents who were depending on the soldier for support.
Pension laws were amended from time to time, and it is important to understand the laws to understand whether or not your ancestor was qualified to receive a pension. Conversely, if you know that your ancestor was receiving a pension, knowing the laws in place at the time that they were receiving pensions can help you extrapolate additional information.
As for the Civil War, when was the last pension payment made to a survivor? It has not yet been made. 84-year-old Irene Triplett of North Carolina still receives a monthly payment based on the service of her father, Private Moses Triplett, in the Union Army during the Civil War. More than a century and a half after the start of the conflict, the government is still paying benefits. (The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story on Veteran’s Benefits that you might find very interesting.)