The Clara Barton Museum Blog

The Pension Crisis of 1893

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Increasingly, the American Civil War is being viewed in a global context. The conflict of 1861-65 and its aftermath had repercussions that were felt by thousands across the world. One of the ways this manifested was in pension payments to the widows and dependents of Civil War soldiers living outside the United States. Although not resident in America, these individuals were nonetheless entitled to claim the benefits that their husbands’, sons’ or fathers’ service had earned them. But all that changed in 1893, when the future of these payments was threatened– creating a major crisis for hundreds of the Civil War’s international dependents.

On 16 August 1893, an elderly woman living in the remote west coast Irish village of Shraigh, Co. Mayo dictated a letter to the United States. Although Ellen Walsh lived in Ireland, she had been an American pensioner. ‘Had’ was the operative word. Despite the fact monies had been sent to Ellen across the Atlantic for more than 24 years, in 1893 the Bureau of Pensions told her those payments had been suspended. The reason was an Act of Congress that made the following provision:

“That from and after July 1st, 1893, no pension shall be paid to a non-resident, who is not a citizen of the United States, except for actual disabilities incurred in the service.”[1]

Ellen Walsh received this official notification that the Pension Office would be cutting her off.

Ellen Walsh received this official notification that the Pension Office would be cutting her off.

Ellen had received a pension because her husband Patrick had served during the Civil War. Patrick had been with Ulysses S. Grant when the future President steamed down the Mississippi to get his first taste of combat at Belmont, Missouri in 1861. When the regiment steamed back up the Mississippi, Patrick was still with them, although by then he had received a mortal wound. He died soon afterwards. Now, more than three decades later, his widow was expected to produce evidence of his citizenship. In her letter, Ellen pleaded with the authorities:

“I hope in my old age (80 years) the generous American Government will kindly continue my pension and not allow me to become an inmate of the Workhouse. My days at most cannot be long as I am old, weak and feeble…”[2]

Ellen was far from alone. All across Ireland in 1893, widows and dependents were receiving similar news. They were often extremely poor and illiterate. Even in cases where they or the servicemen had become American citizens (many had not), the prospects of being able to prove it were slim. Writing pleading letters was the only recourse for many. In Dublin, Maria Ridgway, whose husband George had died of disease while serving in 1863, wrote that she was “sure so good a Government would not leave the widows of their soldiers dying in a Workhouse…grant me for the short time I expect to be in the world what would keep me from the Workhouse.”[3]

Some women went straight to the top; Catherine Galvin of Athlone, Co. Westmeath appealed directly to President Cleveland’s “kind consideration” to reinstate the pension she had received since the death of her son during an army cholera outbreak in 1866.[4]

While some implored, others got angry. Mary Horan of Killorglin, Co. Kerry, had also lost her son to the 1866 US Army cholera outbreak. She raged: “I am sure my papers and affidavits must have been lost or burned…or this government would not have interfered with me more than others…[my son] sacrificed his life…by volunteering to nurse his comrades in an outbreak of cholera…my husband or myself were never in America.”[5]

The chaos that the 1893 provision caused was not restricted to Ireland alone. In Stockholm, Sweden, Julia Molin, whose husband Charles Gustaf had died of disease in 1862, added her voice to the growing chorus, complaining that “this has put me in circumstances almost so bad to describe as the pension was my only means of living”.[6] Across Europe, widows sought to explain their husband’s intentions to become citizens, even if they had no paperwork.

Eugenia Richard of Sellières, France (living in Le Havre) wrote that her husband Francois, who had died in 1865, had got citizenship, “as he wanted to establish himself on American soil with myself and son.”[7] Maria Henriette Jordan, a native of Berne, Switzerland, admitted that she “did not know if my husband had been [a] naturalized American” but what she certainly did know was that Albrecht had gone to the United States at the age of 18, served with the Garibaldi Guard (39th New York) and given his life for the Union at Cross Keys.[8] Similarly, Louisa Bender of Mattstall in Alsace travelled to Kehl, BadenWürttemberg in order to explain to the American Consul that her husband “has been killed by the bursting of a shell (bomb) in one of the biggest battles” and felt that this, together with her old age and needy circumstances should be enough to see her pension reinstated.[9]

The idea that service and death were no longer enough for a pension was a surprise to many. Caroline Lane, of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England, had lost her husband at Cedar Mountain. She was advised to tell the Bureau that “the fact of my husband having enlisted into the United States Army and sworn allegiance to the Federal Government constitutes him- so I am informed- a citizen of the United States.”[10]

Newspapers across America covered the plight of pension widows abroad. This article appeared in the New York Irish World in 1894.

Newspapers in America covered the plight of pension widows abroad. This article appeared in the New York Irish World in 1894.

One of the reasons for the 1893 provision was apparently to cut down on fraudulent pension claims. Even before its passage, the provision had its detractors. After 1893, the barrage of correspondence coming into the Pension Bureau–and to the President–from suspended pensioners made clear its real ramifications. This was heightened by reporting from within America, particularly in ethnic publications, of the issues it was creating.

Following the outcry, in February 1895 the 1893 provision that had impacted so many was repealed. The pensions of those still alive were duly restored, including many of the women cited in this article.[11]

The 1893-95 proof of citizenship provision is one of the lesser explored aspects of the American Civil War, but it amply illustrates both the long and far-reaching consequences of a conflict whose impact was directly felt by so many beyond the shores of the United States.


References

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester) 22 February 1895.

National Archives and Records Administration. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

  •  Widow’s Certificate No. 2504. Approved Pension File for Maria Henriette Jordan, widow of Albert [Albrecht] Jordan, Company E, 39th New York Volunteer Infantry.
  • Widow’s Certificate No. 57226. Approved Pension File for Maria Ridgway, widow of George Ridgway, Company L, 1st United States Cavalry.
  • Widow’s Certificate No. 64322. Approved Pension File for Caroline Lane, widow of George Frederick Lane, Company G, 5th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.
  • Widow’s Certificate No. 106359. Approved Pension File for Julia Mathilda Molin, widow of Charles Gustaf Molin, Company F, 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
  • Widow’s Certificate No. 109566. Approved Pension File for Eugenia Richard, widow of Francois Ricard, unassigned recruit, 80th New York Volunteer Infantry.
  • Widow’s Certificate No. 121014. Approved Pension File for Catharine Galvin, mother of William Galvin, Company C, 11th United States Infantry.
  • Widow’s Certificate No. 123532. Approved Pension File for Mary Horan, mother of Dennis Horan, unassigned recruit, 8th United States Cavalry.
  • Widow’s Certificate No. 128634. Approved Pension File for Ellen Walsh, widow of Patrick Walsh, Company K, 22nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

About the Author

Damian Shiels is a conflict archaeologist and historian based in Ireland. He founded and runs the Irish in the American Civil War website which has been publishing material relating to emigrant experiences in Civil War America since 2010. He is the author of two books on the Civil War Irish, The Irish in the American Civil War (The History Press, 2014) and The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America (The History Press, 2016). The latter title has just been released in the United States and is based on pension file research.


Endnotes

[1] WC128634 of Ellen Walsh. Patrick died on 2 January 1862 in Mound City, Illinois, of the wounds he received at Belmont.

[2] Ibid.

[3] WC57226 of Maria Ridgway. Her husband George had deserted from the British Army in Canada to enlist in the 1st United States Cavalry, and died of chronic diarrhoea in Washington D.C. on 19 June 1863.

[4] WC121014 of Catharine Galvin. William enlisted in the 11th United States Infantry in 1865, and died of cholera in Richmond, Virginia on 17 September 1866.

[5] WC123532 of Mary Horan. Denis enlisted on 20 October 1866 in the 8th United States Cavalry. He died of cholera in Nicaragua on 26 December the same year.

[6] WC106359 of Julia Mathilda Molin. Charles Gustaf served in the 2nd Minnesota Infantry and succumbed to chronic diarrhoea near Corinth, Mississippi on 18 May 1862.

[7] WC109566 of Eugenia Richard. Francois served under the alias Peter Mollard in the 80th New York Infantry, and died of chronic diarrhoea near Saratoga, New York on 6 June 1865.

[8] WC2504 of Maria Henriette Jordan. Albrecht was a First Lieutenant in the 39th New York and was shot through the left lung at Cross Keys, Virginia on 8 June 1862, dying a week later.

[9] WC97564 of Louisa Bender. Daniel Bender had served in the 11th New Jersey Infantry had been killed in action at Chancellorsville, Virginia on 3 May 1863.

[10] WC64322 of Caroline Lane. Her husband George Frederick had been killed in action at Cedar Mountain, Virginia on 9 August 1862 with the 5th Connecticut Infantry.

[11] Democrat and Chronicle 22 February 1895.

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