Military Pensions



Since time immemorial there have been warriors. In the beginning they protected their own families, later they banded together to protect the tribe, and even later—as mankind became more civilized—they were part of raiding parties that pillaged neighboring villages, killing all who resisted, and many who did not.

As societies matured the warrior class evolved. The primary reason was the need for protection from marauders, but when this need was satisfied there was an almost inevitable urge to conquer one’s neighbors. From Attila the Hun, to the Romans, the British, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Hitler and Saddam Hussein, world domination has been a driving force, and soldiers were the tools.

In the colonial era, as in primitive times, our citizen soldiers protected their families, their farms, and the villages where they lived. Later, in the Revolutionary War, they banded together to break away from England, which allowed our founding fathers to form the basis for a new and free nation. 

In modern times the United States has been involved in several wars, none of which were for the purpose of colonizing others. We fought the British again in 1812, the Mexicans a little later, all the while making the frontier safe for our pioneers. The Civil War ended slavery, but it could have meant the end of the United States...but it didn’t. We went to the aid of France and England in WW1, and again in the 1940s. Thousands of our military men and women lost their lives. The British appreciated our coming to their aid; the French, apparently, did not.

When the feeling of safety returns the exuberance of victory dies away, as does the sense of gratitude to those who fought and died.  When the flags stop waving and the crowds diminish, there is inevitable debris left behind. The major flotsam, however, has often been the soldiers that fought the battles, now no longer needed.  Most of us—at one time or other—have seen a scruffy-looking individual (usually a man) on a street corner or highway intersection with a sign reading, “Veteran needs help.” Some of us—especially the veterans—feel compassion for a fellow warrior who is down on his luck, and  often hand him a dollar or two. Others, feeling uncomfortable, look the other way.

There is much in the news these days about the hardships of the dependents of our men and women in uniform. Cherie Olson, one of our cousins who lives in Kent, Washington, was bothered by the plight of our new breed of veterans. She was concerned about how they would get along after the flags were furled, but she also wondered how their predecessors were treated. So...she did some research into how our veterans fared after some of our early wars. The following is the result of her research.                       -Ed.                                                                                                                                                                                

Military Pensions—For more than a century before the beginning of the Revolutionary War, British colonies in North America provided pensions for disabled soldiers and sailors. During and after the Revolutionary War, three principal types of pensions were provided by the U.S. Government for servicemen and their dependents. They were: (1) Disability pensions awarded to servicemen for physical disabilities incurred in the line of duty. (2) Service pensions  to veterans who served for specified periods of time. (3) Widows' pensions to women whose husbands had been killed in battle.

On August 26, 1776, the first pension legislation for the American colonies as a group was enacted. A resolution of the Continental Congress provided half pay for officers and enlisted men, including those on warships and armed vessels, who were disabled in the service of the United States and who were incapable of earning a living. The half pay was to continue for the duration of the disability.

On May 15, 1778, another resolution provided half pay for seven years after the conclusion of the war to all military officers who remained in Continental service to the end of the war. Enlisted men who continued to serve for the duration of the conflict were each to receive a gratuity of $80 after the war under the terms of the same enactment. The first national pension legislation for widows was enacted by the Continental Congress on August 24, 1780. It offered the prospect of half pay for seven years to widows and orphans of officers who met the requirements included in the terms of the resolution of May 15, 1778. On October 21, 1780, the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778 was amended to provide half pay for life to officers after the war; but on March 22, 1783 the half-pay-for-life provision was changed to five years full pay.

On Sept. 29, 1789, the First Congress of the United States passed an act which provided the pensions previously paid by the States, pursuant to resolutions of the Continental Congress, should be continued and paid for one year by the newly established Federal Government. Subsequent legislation often extended the time limit. An act of Congress approved March 23, 1792, permitted veterans, not already receiving pensions under resolutions of the Continental Congress, to apply for them directly to the Federal Government. On April 10, 1806, the scope of earlier pension laws pertaining to Revolutionary War servicemen was extended to make veterans of the State troops and militia service eligible for Federal pensions. The act superseded all previous Revolutionary War invalid-pension legislation.

Before 1818, national pension laws concerning veterans of the Revolution (with the exception of the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, granting half pay to officers for service alone) specified disability or death of a serviceman as the basis for a pension award. Not until March 18, 1818, did the U.S. Congress grant pensions to Revolutionary War veterans for service from which no disabilities resulted. Officers and enlisted men in need of assistance were eligible under the terms of the 1818 act if they had served in any unit of the Continental Army, or in the U.S. Naval Service (which included the Marines) for nine months, or until the end of the war. Pensions granted under this act were to continue for life.

The service-pension act of 1818 resulted in a great number of applications, many of which were approved. Congress was appropriating greater sums than ever before for the Revolutionary War pension payments. Federal Government financial difficulties, and charges that applicants were feigning poverty to obtain benefits under the terms of the act, caused Congress to enact remedial legislation on May 1, 1820. The new law required every would-be pensioner to submit a certified schedule of his estate and income to the Secretary of War. The Secretary was authorized to remove from the pension list the names of those pensioners who, in his opinion, were not in need of assistance. Within a few years, the total of Revolutionary War service pensioners was reduced by several thousand. An act of Congress approved March 1, 1823, resulted in the restoration of pensions to many whose names had been removed under the terms of the 1820 legislation, but who subsequently proved their need for aid.

Congress passed another service-pension act on May 15, 1828, which granted full pay for life to surviving officers and enlisted men of the Revolutionary War who were eligible for benefits under the terms of the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, as amended. The last and most liberal of the service-pension acts benefiting Revolutionary War veterans was passed on June 7, 1832, and extended to more persons than had the provisions of the law of May 15, 1828. This act provided that every officer or enlisted man who had served at least two years in the Continental Line or State troops, volunteers or militia, was eligible for a pension of full pay for life. Navy and Marine Corps officers and enlisted men were also included. Veterans, who had served less than two years, but not less than six months, were eligible for pensions of less than full pay. Neither the act of 1832, nor the one of 1828, required applicants to demonstrate need. Under the act of 1832, money due from the last payment until the date of death of a pensioner could be collected by his widow or children.

The time limit for making claims under the Continental Congress resolutions of August 24, 1780, which promised half-pay pensions to widows and orphans of some officers, expired in 1794. For many years thereafter, unless a private act of Congress was introduced on her behalf, a widow of a veteran was limited to receiving only that part of a pension that remained unpaid at the time of her husband’s death. By an act of Congress approved July 4, 1836, some widows of Revolutionary War veterans were again permitted, as a class under public law, to apply for pensions. The act provided that the widow of any veteran who had performed service as specified in the pension act of June 7, 1832, was eligible to receive the pension that might have been allowed the veteran under the terms of that act, if the widow had married the veteran before the expiration of his last period of service. An act of July 7, 1838, granted five-year pensions to widows whose marriages had taken place before January 1, 1794. These pensions were continued by acts of March 3, 1843, June 17, 1844, and February 2, 1848.

On July 29, 1848, Congress provided life pensions for widows of veterans who were married before January 2, 1800. All restrictions pertaining to the date of marriage were removed by acts of February 3, 1853, and February 28, 1855. On March 9, 1878, widows of Revolutionary War soldiers who had served for as few as 14 days, or were in any engagement, were declared eligible for life pensions.

Pension AdministrationDuring the Revolution and in the period between the conclusion of the war and the establishment of the Federal Government, administration of the pension laws enacted by the Continental Congress was left largely to the individual States. The act of Congress approved September 29, 1789, which provided for the continuance of such pensions by the newly established Federal Government, stipulated only that they should be paid “…under such regulations as the President may direct.” The act of Congress approved March 23, 1792, which permitted the additions of new names to the existing list of Revolutionary War pensioners, specified that the Secretary of War was to administer its provisions. For most of the period between 1793 and 1819, Congress reserved to itself the power of final decision with respect to the allowance of claims. Thus an act of February 28, 1793 required the Secretary of War to send lists of claims to the Congress for action. The service-pension act of March 18, 1800 gave the Secretary of War the authority to approve applications submitted under that law, and by an act of March 3, 1819 he was similarly empowered to place invalids on the pension list without prior Congressional approval.

Within the Offices of the Secretary of War, pension matters were handled as early as 1800 by a man called the Officer of Military Bounty Lands and Pensions. Between 1810 and 1815, the unit was also referred to as the Section (or Branch) of Military Bounty Lands and Pensions. In 1815, the Branch was divided into two units, a Pension Bureau and a Land Warrant Bureau; after 1816, the Pension Bureau was generally referred to as the Pension Office. Not until March 2, 1833, did Congress formally provide for the appointment of a Commissioner of Pensions to execute pension laws under the general direction of the Secretary of War. When an act of Congress provided for the establishment of the Department of the Interior on March 3, 1849, the Pension Office was transferred to it. On July 21, 1930 by Executive Order 5398, the Bureau of Pensions (formally called the Pension Office) was consolidated with other agencies also serving veterans, and the Veterans Administration, an independent executive agency, was established.

Two pension acts pertaining to Revolutionary War servicemen were not initially administered by the Pension Office. Responsibility for executing the provisions of the act of May 15, 1828, was vested in the Secretary of the Treasury until authority was transferred to the War Department on March 3, 1835. The Secretary of the Treasury was also named to administer the act of June 7, 1832, but a Congressional resolution on June 28, 1832, relieved him of that function and transferred it to the Secretary of War.

Application procedures followed by would-be pensioners varied according to the acts under which benefits were sought. Generally the process required an applicant to appear before a court of record in the State of his or her residence to describe under oath the service for which a pension was claimed. A widow of a veteran was required to provide information concerning the date and place of her marriage. The application statement, or declaration as it was usually called, with such supporting papers as property schedules, marriage records, and affidavits of witnesses, were certified by the court and forwarded to the official, usually the Secretary of War or the Commissioner of Pensions, responsible for administering the specific act under which the claim was being made. An applicant was subsequently notified that his application had been approved, rejected, or put aside pending the submission of additional proof of eligibility. If an applicant was eligible, his name was placed on the pension list. Payments were usually made semiannually through pension agents of the Federal Government in the States. An applicant rejected under the terms of an earlier pension act often reapplied for benefits under later, more liberal laws.

Bounty-Land Warrant LegislationBounty-land warrant-rights to free land in the public domain were granted under the acts of the Continental Congress and of the Federal Government to veterans and to the heirs of veterans for Revolutionary War service of a specified period of time. The promise of bounty-land during the Revolutionary War was another inducement to enter and remain in service. After the war bounty-land grants became a form of reward. Most warrants were issued to servicemen or

their heirs who met common eligibility standards established by the public acts period between 1776 and 1856. Other warrants were issued to individuals as a result of private acts passed by Congress. States also issued bounty-land to Revolutionary War veterans.

 On September 16, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that provided for granting land to officers and soldiers who engaged in military service and continued to serve to the end of the war. Representatives of officers and soldiers who might be slain by the enemy were also entitled to land. The resolution specified that each noncommissioned officer and soldier should be entitled to 100 acres, an ensign to 150 acres, each lieutenant to 200 acres, and other officers to the proportionate amounts of land up to 500 acres for a colonel. By a resolution of August 12, 1780, the provision was extended to include generals, and the grant was to be 850 acres for brigadier general and 1,100 acres for a major general. The resolution of September 16, 1776 was the basic law under which Revolutionary War veterans were granted bounty-land warrants by the Federal Government until 1855, although numerous acts were passed in the interval providing claimants with additional time in which to apply for or to locate warrants.

On March 3, 1855, the U.S. Congress went beyond merely satisfying the former pledge of the Continental Congress and authorized the issuance of bounty-land warrants for 160 acres to soldiers, irrespective of rank, who had served for as few as fourteen days in the Revolution, or who had taken part in any battle. Widows and minor children of such veterans were also eligible. An individual who had received a warrant under previous bounty-land legislation was limited by the act to receiving a second warrant for only such additional acreage as would total 160 acres. An act of May 14, 1856 extended the benefits of the 1855 act to include Revolutionary War Naval and Marine officers, enlisted men, and their widows and minor children.

Further Bounty-Land-Warrant Grants—On July 9, 1788, a supplement to a Continental Congress land ordinance of May 20, 1785, authorized the Secretary at War to issue bounty-land warrants to eligible veterans of the Revolutionary War or to their assigns or legal representatives. When the First U.S. Congress authorized the establishment of a Department of War in the newly formed Federal Government on August 7, 1789, the Secretary of War was given the responsibility of issuing bounty-land warrants. By 1810 the Office of Military Bounty Lands and Pensions had been formed within the Office of the Secretary of War to examine claims and to issue warrants. In 1815 the pension and bounty-land duties of the War Department were assigned to separate bureaus, and bounty-land matters were handled thereafter by an administrative unit known successively as the Land Warrant Bureau, the Section of Bounty Lands, and the Bounty Land Office. On November 1, 1841, the Secretary of War placed the bounty-land functions under the direction of the Commissioner of Pensions. This arrangement was formally authorized by an act of Congress and approved January 20, 1843. The laws relating to the granting of bounty-land warrants were administered by the Department of the Interior after the Pension Office was transferred to that Department in 1849.

Depending upon the period in which a claim was made, claimants for bounty-land warrants based on Revolutionary War service sent applications for adjudication to the Secretary of War, the Commissioner of Pensions, or the Secretary of the Interior. Affidavits of witnesses testifying to service performed, marriage records, and other forms of evidence, were also forwarded. Property schedules were unnecessary as indigence was not a requirement for the award of a Revolutionary War bounty-land warrant. A claimant whose application was approved was issued a warrant for a specified number of acres. He could then "locate" his warrant; that is, he could select the portion of the public domain that he wished to have in exchange for his warrant. The Treasury Department, and after 1849 the Interior Department, accepted the warrants and issued patents to the land. Many recipients of Revolutionary War bounty land warrants did not choose to locate the warrants and to settle on the public domain; instead, they remained in their old homes and sold the warrants.

The records contain both historical and genealogical information. Historical information pertaining to the organization of military units, movement of troops, details of battles and campaigns, and activities of individuals, may be obtained from application statements of veterans; from affidavits of witnesses; and from the muster roll, diary, order, or orderly book that was occasionally submitted as proof of service and was not sent by the Bureau of Pensions to another Government Department or Agency. Naval and privateer operations are documented by applications, affidavits, and orders in some files based on service at sea. A few files contain letters written to or by soldiers and sailors during the Revolutionary War, which give firsthand accounts of military, naval, and civil events and conditions. Furloughs, passes, pay receipts, enlistment papers, commissions, warrants, and other original records of the period 1775-83 are also in some of the files. Generally, the records described have not been reproduced in this microfilm publication unless they also contain genealogical information.

Genealogical information is usually available in a file containing original application papers. A veteran's pension application normally gives—in addition to his former rank, unit, and period of service—his age or date of birth, his residence, and sometimes his birthplace. Property schedules often give names and ages of a veteran's wife and children. The application of a widow seeking a pension or a bounty-land warrant may give her age, residence, maiden name, date and place of her marriage, and date and place of death of her husband. A copy of a marriage record made by a town clerk, a clergyman, or a justice of peace, often accompanied the widow's pension application. Application papers submitted by children and other heirs or dependents seeking pensions or bounty-land warrants generally contain information about their ages and residences. Family record pages from Bibles and other books submitted by pension and bounty-land-warrant applicants give the dates of birth, marriage, and death of family members. In a few pension files are final payment vouchers that sometimes contain information about the date and place of a pensioner's death and names of his heirs.

Selection of Files and RecordsFrom envelope files containing more than ten pages of records, only the more significant genealogical documents have been selected for reproduction. From each file some of the following documents, if present, were selected in whole or in part: pension applications, jackets showing the act under which pension payments were made, bounty-land-warrant applications, jackets showing the warrant numbers of warrants granted, property schedules, family-record pages from Bibles or other books, copies of marriage records, and final payment vouchers. Occasionally some other document was selected. The pages that were not filmed generally consist of attestations or endorsements of no apparent genealogical value. All records in all files have been reproduced in their entirety in another microfilm publication, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrant Application Files (Microcopy 804).

Upon request and for a fee, the National Archives can provide reproductions of the selected genealogical records reproduced in this microfilm publication relating to a specific veteran or other claimant.

Arrangement of Files and RecordsThe names of most of the servicemen for whom there are pension or bounty-land-warrant application files reproduced in this microfilm publication are listed in Max E. Hoyt, et al., Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications (Washington, 1966). Information of a general historical nature concerning pension and bounty-land-warrant legislation and administration is available in Gustavus A. Weber, The Bureau of Pensions (Baltimore, 1923); Gustavus A. Weber and Laurence F. Schmeckebier, The Veterans' Administration, Its History, Activities and Organization (Washington, 1934); William H. Glasson, History of Military Pension Legislation in the United States (New York, 1900), and Federal Military Pensions in the United States (New York, 1918); and Payson J. Treat, The National Land System, 1785-1820 (New York, 1910). Many of the laws relating to pensions and bounty land warrants granted for Revolutionary War service, and regulations established by the Secretaries of War, the Treasury, and the Interior for administering them, are compiled in Robert Mayo and Ferdinand Moulton, Army and Navy Pension Laws, and Bounty Land Laws of the United States . . . From 1776 to 1852 (Washington, 1852).

A few names of interest:

ERWIN, A. S.   

War: American Civil War

State (resided or served): SC

Company or Division: Co. K

Unit/Regiment: H. L.

Notes: Prison: Elmira


ERWIN, Charles     

War: American Revolution

State (resided or served): KY

Rank: Pvt.

Unit/Regiment: VA line

Date of Pension (or Application): 17 Nov 1818

County: SCOTT

Notes: died  9 Mar 1820


ERWIN, George   

War: American Civil War

State (resided or served): NC

Company or Division: Co. B

Unit/Regiment: 6th North Carolina Cavalry

Notes: Listed on Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates monuments

Prison: Point Lookout (he died there on Oct. 21, 1864).


ERWIN, James     

War: American Civil War

Side: Union

State (resided or served): KY

Rank: Musician

Company or Division: D

Unit/Regiment: 35th Infantry


ERWIN, John B.   

War: American Civil War

Side: Union

State (resided or served): KY

Rank: Corp.

Company or Division: A

Unit/Regiment: 7th Veteran Infantry, also 22nd Infantry


ERWIN, Robert     

War: American Civil War

Side: Union

State (resided or served): KY

Rank: Pvt.

Company or Division: F

Unit/Regiment: 3rd Cavalry


ERWIN, William B.   

War: American Civil War

Side: Union

State (resided or served): KY

Rank: Pvt.

Company or Division: H

Unit/Regiment: 1st Infantry


ERWIN, William R.   

War: American Civil War

State (resided or served): NC

Company or Division: Co. F

Unit/Regiment: 5th Cavalry

Notes: Listed on Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates monuments

Prison: Point Lookout                                                                                             »»»