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The Black Widows' Struggle for Civil War Pensions

This post is part of Black Perspectives' online roundtable on Holly A. Pinheiro Jr.’s The Families’ Civil War.

From enlistment to the pension, the working-class Black Civil War experience was a struggle for race, citizenship, and family. Building on recent works by Brandi Brimmer and James G. Mendez, Holly Pinheiro’s The Families’ Civil War explores the lived experiences of Black Philadelphian soldiers and their families before, during, and after the Civil War. The struggles of the selected soldiers of the Third, Sixth, and Eighth USCT and their families “reveals both the specific ways that the Civil War compounded this racial oppression as well as how northern African American families persevered in their lifelong battle against racism”(12). The pension process represented another phase of their ongoing Civil War. Pinheiro reveals past, present, and future struggles over access to familial information and their struggle for recognition in the national public consciousness while deepening scholarly understanding.

In short, Pinheiro’s deeply researched work has implications for twenty-first century descendants of USCT soldiers and their surviving kin, including myself. His work sheds light on the most common experience for veterans and their families seeking a pension – rejection.

After a five-year Freedom of Information Act struggle, I received a copy of my Civil War ancestor’s pension file from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in early 2022. The process was not an easy one. The National Archives did not have the pension file of Joseph Lane, a Twenty-Second USCT veteran, as it did for other Civil War soldiers. After relocating his family from Chambersburg to Shippensburg, PA, Lane’s file became one of the few located at Veterans Affairs. As a result, the process required a FOIA and an elaborate justification of why the request should be granted. COVID-19 eased some of the bureaucratic red tape. So, I, as well as my mother, aunts, and cousins, were elated by my persistence.1

As I opened the file, one word listed on the widow’s pension stopped me in my tracks. Rejected.

I learned that the actions of nineteenth-century white pension agents threw the entire Lane household into chaos. Lane’s widow, Irene Lane, simply wanted to place a headstone for her husband. Yet, her request for the headstone caused her to lose financial guardianship over her children to a white woman in Shippensburg, and her claims to her husband’s service were denied. She would never live to see her husband’s headstone placed as she and her infant child died shortly after the request. The eligible children received dependent pensions until they aged out. And I, a twenty-first-century descendant of Lane, experienced similar reactions and processes described by Holly Pinheiro. Lane and his family needed the pension. They subjected themselves to the intrusive, racialized, and gendered process because their family’s survival depended on it.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives