Black Confederate Pension Records

A controversial resource for African American researchers
By Doris J. Posey
Special to the Epoch Times
Feb 01, 2008

ATLANTA—Census records give African-American researchers valuable family information.

Only free citizens were named on the Federal Censuses prior to 1870. Slaves were listed by sex and gender only. They were counted under the names of their owners on the Slave Schedules of 1850 and 1860.

Since African-Americans were first listed by name on the 1870 census, the period of the Civil War (1861-1865) is crucial for researching African-Americans who had been slaves.

One group of records has not been given a lot of attention but is very valuable to a genealogist. They are the Confederate Pension Records. Many of the Confederate States of America (CSA) passed laws offering pensions to indigent Confederate veterans. African-Americans were not eligible to apply for the Confederate Pensions until much later than white veterans; some became eligible for pensions as late as 1923.

Excellent Clues

To complicate learning about African-Americans during this period, many slaves changed their surnames after Emancipation in 1863. The CSA required slave owners to "loan" slaves to help defend the Confederacy, building breastworks and bridges, driving wagons, entertaining the soldiers, cooking for the troops and other "menial" tasks.

The Confederate Pension files hold the names of the slaves and the names of any Confederate the slave was sent to serve. Often the surname of the slave and his "master" were different. This gives an excellent clue to the researcher as to the surname of the possible slave owner.

The Union Army fought against the Confederate Army. Because of slavery, African-American researchers identify more easily with the Union Army; therefore, searches for Civil War ancestors are often focused on the Union troops.

Black men performed many duties for the South during the war. They earned pensions for serving as teamsters, shoemakers, breastworks builders, drummers, nurses, laborers, servants, and musicians. The most common roles were body servant and cook. There are also pension applications for "private soldier." At least three of these were filed in South Carolina by African-Americans.

Edwin P. Ford of Georgetown, S. C., was a cook and drummer with Company A, 21st Regiment, Frederick Ford of Georgetown County, S. C. was a wagon driver and cook, and James Dawkins of Union, S. C. was a shoemaker.

This information is from sworn and witnessed statements on pension applications. Applications were recorded for Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

Six Months Before a Ban

Widows also received pensions. In Appendix A of South Carolina’s African American Pensioners 1923-1925 by Alexia Jones Helsley, there is an account of Nina L. Brown who applied for a pension as the widow of S. Sebastian Brown. They married in June 1879, just six months before a South Carolina law would have made their marriage illegal. She received the pension as his widow.

James Porter’s 1924 application in Union, S. C. shows he served under "J.F. Bailey and others." He was a cook. James Porter (1845-1930,) was approved for a pension in 1924. He bought 79 ½ acres of land in Union County in 1881. Did his service for the Confederacy help give him the opportunity to purchase land?

Since the soldiers for the Confederate States were paid by the states, the records originated at the State Treasurer’s office. The State issued checks to the County Treasurer who disbursed the checks annually. Most African-American pensioners made their mark ("X") when accepting the checks. James Porter’s check was $7.00 in 1923 and $9.00 when he received his last check in 1930.

For researchers, the painful idea that some Blacks were "loyal" to the Confederacy may be a reason not to venture into these records. Did African-Americans fight in the war? The question stirs a controversy about African-American CSA pensioners. The answer is in the Confederate Pension Records.

Valuable Records

Were these African-American Confederate’s lives any less important because they were slaves who served in the Confederacy? Should we ignore their service and the valuable records related to their service? Our understanding of the slaves’ dilemma in this War Between the States comes over 130 years after that war ended.

Recently, an African-American researcher said, "I don’t have any relatives that were Confederates." The question is "How do you know?" The Confederate Pension Records for African-Americans are worth a closer look.

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