Thursday, February 10, 2011

Civil War Pension Files at NARA

Vanessa Williams’ journey to find her ancestors on the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?  took her to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to see the Civil War pension file of her great-great-grandfather where in addition to the written pension records, she found a tintype of her great-great-grandfather.

But did you know that you don’t have to travel to Washington, D.C. to see your ancestor’s Civil War pension file?  You can order a copy of your ancestor’s complete pension application file from the National Archives and have it mailed to you.

Before you order a Civil War pension or military file from NARA (the National Archives), you need to do some research on your soldier. NARA says:
"NARA cannot do substantive research for you. Reading several files to see if any of the match meager identification is substantive research. If you request a specific file, we can search for that file and provide you with copies. Our success is based entirely on the work that you do before you send the request to us. If there are too many soldiers in a unit with the same name, we will return the request to you for additional information. Using the Civil War Pension Index is one way to ensure that the file you want is the file that you get."
First, you must determine if you have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War.  Like any genealogy project, to find out if you have a Civil War ancestor, start with what you know and take your research back generation by generation. Start your FREE family tree online to enter what you already know about yourself, your parents, your grandparents, and as far back as you know.  Find your family in the 1930 census and continue to trace your family back through the earlier census. 

There are two US Census years that show if a family member was a Civil War veteran:
  • 1910 Census lists if a person was a veteran and a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy.  If your ancestor was a Confederate soldier, order his pension file from the state repository.
  • 1890 Special Veterans’ Census lists the veteran's name or widow's name, rank, year of enlistment, and year of discharge.

Union Soldiers
If you have found you have an ancestor who fought as a Union soldier in the Civil War, you can check the Civil War Pension Index to see if he filed an application for a pension.  Not every Civil War soldier did.   But all soldiers should have a service file.  Check the:
  • Civil War Pension Index
    The index from is used to order Civil War Pension records from NARA.  The index also can provide clues such as wife’s name, to help narrow down the correct soldier.  It also lists the regiment which you can verify against the 1890 Special Veterans’ Census
  • Civil War Pension Index
    The index from Fold3 (formerly often includes soldier's death date and place.  This can also help narrow down the correct soldier;i.e. if the index file states that the soldier died in 1902 but the soldier you are looking for was alive and listed in the 1910 census, you know you have the wrong soldier.
Union soldier pensions are ordered from National Archives. In addition to the pension index file, has a huge database of Civil War soldiers .

If you want the pension file for a Union soldier ancestor, make a copy of the Civil War Pension Index card to send with your request to NARA.  NARA wants as much info as possible so they can pull the correct file to copy.

Order the Civil War pension file online from the National Archives (NARA) and include the name, state, regiment, and especially the application number and the certificate number from the index card. Click on Order Reproductions, then click Military Service and Pension Records, then Federal Military Pension Application - Civil War and Later Complete File (NATF 85D).  There is a fee which includes up to 100 copied pages.  The amount of genealogy information generally included in a pension file is pretty amazing – an  incredible amount of genealogy info. They typically have birth dates, addresses of next of kin, medical information, proof of marriage, proof of children's births, a summary of military service, neighbor interviews, and sometimes death certificates.  I personally have never found a tintype or a photo.

If you live anywhere near D.C., take the time for a visit the National Archives to see the files in person.  It’s a special experience.

Fold3 (formerly has started to digitize the actual pension files, not just the index cards.  It is a monumental task, and they have completed about 3% of the Civil War Widows' Pensions files.  It is worth it to check to see if your ancestor is included in the completed online files.

Confederate Soldiers
Confederate soldiers pensions are ordered from the state repository. They are held in the state where the soldier lived at the time of the pension, not the state where he served.

Some of the Confederate states pension records are online:

Fold3 (formerly has placed online digitized copies of the Compiled Service Records for the Confederate State soldiers. When you look at these records, don’t stop at the first image.  Compiled Service records sometimes are many pages long.  Union and Confederate Soldiers has a large database of  Civil War Records, both Union and Confederate.  It has records of  more than 6 million names of servicemen — Union and Confederate — who fought in the U.S. Civil War plus POW records.  is a subscription website, but you can use the 2 week Free Trial for quick access to find your family in the different census years and Civil War Pension index so that you can then order Pension file from NARA. Fold3 (formerly also has a Free Trial for quick access to the Civil War Pension index and Confederate Compiled Service Records


Steven said...

Great information. Although I did not have any direct ancestors who served in the Civil War, I have conducted service and pension records research of individual soldiers at NARA. I am always amazed at the number of tourists who enter the Archives with simply the name of their great-grandfather (i.e. Bob Jones of Illinois) and expect to instantly be able to pull up information online. You posting really helps flesh out the steps that they need to take (i.e. working backwards through census records, etc.) to ensure that they find their relative.

Jim (Hidden Genealogy Nuggets Blog) said...


The pension files can have a great deal amount of information about your ancestors as mine did. However, they can be very expensive at $75 a pop for each pension file. However, you could contact a genealogist in the NARA area to have them copy the records for you. I was able to do this for three pension files I needed. It cost me less than 1/2 the cost it would have if I ordered it from the NARA. I also recieved the records much sooner.

For details, check out my blog:
Hidden Genealogy Nuggets

Regards, Jim