Black Women and Civil War Pensions

tags: Civil War, African American history, pensions

By the late-nineteenth-century, Civil War pensions not only comprised a quarter of the federal budget, but they also provided a privileged status to a select group of people with direct connections to Civil War soldiers. As I previously noted, applying for and potentially receiving a pension had the ability to demonstrate how the federal government, through the Bureau of Pensions, refuted the Lost Cause narrative by documenting the lives of United States Colored Troops (USCT) and their kin. At the same time, Black families continually fought with pension agents to have their family units recognized as “legitimate.” Black women, unfortunately, faced their own hardships throughout the pension process as white society, through pension agents, attempted to impose their racialized notions of gender upon them. Their unwillingness to adhere to, or at least present themselves as doing so, had the potential to not only harm them financially, but also thrust their personal lives into the line of fire with the federal government. In doing so, Black women and the Bureau of Pension engaged in a battle over the competing notions of race and gender. To be clear, the fight between Black women and the federal government began during the Civil War era and continued well into the twentieth century.

In 1879, Patience Buck, the widow of George H. Buck (a USCT veteran) filed her Widow’s Pension application. Her application came nearly eight years after George accidentally drowned while working as a ferryman. Over the next eleven years, Patience submitted four more applications. In every application Patience submitted, she noted that a cannon shell, from his time in service, made him permanently disabled. Multiple people, including a USCT veteran, corroborated her claim and confirmed that the cannon shell occurred during his regiment’s siege at Morris Island, South Carolina. For instance, Joshua James believed that George’s accidental drowning occurred because of the “spells” connected to his military-related head injury.

Each time Patience submitted an application, pension agents did not approve them. Pension agents chose to either not render a decision (a de facto rejection) or stated that George’s drowning had nothing to do with the cannon shell in his cranium. True to her name, Patience never quit in her pursuit and she finally had her 1890 application approved, most likely due to the passage of a U.S. Congressional law that expanded the pension-eligibility of USCT veterans and their dependents. The 1890 pension law, pushed through by U.S. Army veteran organizations (such as the Grand Army of Republic), sought to extend pension benefits to many individuals previously denied due to the stringent and bureaucratic pension application process. 

Becoming a pensioner did not necessarily stop whites from injecting themselves into, or negatively assessing, the private lives of Black women. Patience learned this, in 1891, when she received a Special Examiner over rumors that local whites in her community claimed she was a sex worker. The Special Examiner had grounds to possibly remove Patience as a pension since the U.S. Congress passed numerous federal laws denying “lewd” or “notorious” women from becoming or remaining a pensioner because male politicians used policies to control the intimate lives of women.  

The Bureau of Pensions only caught wind of Patience’s suspected sex worker after multiple locals reported the issues. One example came from a local white man, John Wright, who testified, “She is a terrible character[.] She is often in jail….She is a public whore.” Patience’s housemate and fictive kin, Susie Battle, refuted the claims as baseless. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives