Monday’s Disunion in the New York Times is devoted to a piece by Karenna Gore Schiff (Al Gore’s daughter) exploring one of the most famous sources on the African-American experience, the WPA Slave Narratives. Gore Schiff nicely lays out the strengths and weaknesses of these interviews with surviving ex-slaves conducted during the 1930s and early 1940. She particularly explores the fact that the mostly white WPA interviewers often steered the conversation away being critical of the peculiar institution, which was often unnecessary since former slaves in the Jim Crow South were unlikely to be candid with whites. Nonetheless, many valuable first person insights about slavery, in the words of those that endured it, are to be found in this source.
Yet the WPA Slave Narratives are not the only substantial documentary source on slavery from the slaves perspective. I try not in Civil War Emancipation to toot my own horn too often, but perhaps more than any other scholar around, I have made use in my own work another significant but less famous source that rivals the WPA Narratives in providing a firsthand African-American perspective of life before, during, and after the Civil War. To wit, I am talking about Civil War pension files.
As Elizabeth Regosin and I write in our document reader on this source, Voices of Emancipation:
Millions of Americans applied to the federal government for pensions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The U.S. Pension Bureau, a government agency, evaluated these applications or “claims” (as they were often called). In 1862, Congress assigned to the U.S. Pension Bureau the task of administering pensions for white and black men disabled in federal military service and the survivors of the Union war dead, widows, orphans, or other dependent family members. The enormous scale of Union service during the Civil War (about 2.1 million men) and its tremendous human cost (about 360,000 Union dead) meant the Pension Bureau generated a vast collection of paperwork on each pension claimant, and its volume grew as Congress steadily expanded pension eligibility over the years.
Black Union veterans and their families were among the beneficiaries of the federal pension system. Nearly two hundred thousand African American men served as soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. In the decades after, families of these soldiers who died during the war, veterans themselves, and veterans’ dependents obtained pensions from the Pension Bureau based on the service of over eighty thousand black soldiers and sailors. African American men, women, and children made tens of thousands more claims but ultimately did not succeed in acquiring a pension. In former slaves’ claims, the pension process generated a virtual treasure trove of documents—pension applications, letters from claimants and their representatives, correspondence from government officials, claimants’ and witnesses’ depositions and affidavits—all firsthand accounts that offer invaluable insight into the experiences of slavery, African American military service and civilian life during the Civil War, the experience of emancipation, and postwar experiences of former slaves.
The particular gem in the Civil War pensions files are the many depositions of African-American witnesses taken by field investigators of the U.S. Pension Bureau through the process of “special examination.” Elizabeth Regosin and I write:
A pension claim underwent special examination in cases when the Pension Bureau felt it needed stronger evidence than the affidavits and other documentation that the claimant had submitted him- or herself. It sent a “special examiner” or field investigator to take sworn depositions from the appli cant and key witnesses, examine any records outside Washington, D.C., that might be relevant, and then submit a report to headquarters summarizing the findings.
Although the special examinations were sometimes an ordeal for black pension applicants, they provide scholars with an unparalleled opportunity to explore the applicants’ lives. Special examiners usually went into the field with a list of specific issues to investigate, but they often conducted what amounted to fishing expeditions, recording any information that applicants and their witnesses revealed. In the case of African Americans, practically speaking, this meant that the depositions amounted in some cases to virtual life stories, comparable and in some ways superior to the WPA slave narratives. For instance, most of the special examinations took place from the 1880s into the 1910s, making them much more contemporaneous to the Civil War than the WPA interviews, which did not occur until the mid- to late 1930s. The timeliness of the documentation in pension files and the sheer number of applications suggests that pension files might greatly enhance and expand our knowledge of African American lives, especially when combined with the material that the WPA interviews generated.
For more information on this terrific source, please purchase a copy of our book, Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files. We also published an article on this topic in the National Archives publication, Prologue. It can be accessed online <here>.
Source: Elizabeth Regosin and Donald Shaffer, Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files (New York: NYU Press, 2008), 2-4.