Pension file epiphany

Sixth and last in a series on how I found my Civil War ancestor Arthur Bull.

More than a century ago my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull applied for a Civil War pension. He later requested increases as his health and his ability to work declined. After his death, his wife Mary E. applied for widow’s benefits.

Pension Records
Some documents from the Civil War pension file of my ancestor, Union Pvt. Arthur Bull. Photo by Molly Charboneau.

Their applications, along with supporting documents, sat tucked away in a file at the National Archives for five generations. There they remained — mute testimony to Arthur’s life and his family’s — until the day I arrived and asked to see them.

Beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Research Room, I followed the procedures for accessing Arthur’s pension file. Sunlight filtered in through tall, paned windows gently illuminating the table where I waited.

When the archival folder was finally delivered, I caught my breath as I opened it. Inside were original documents my ancestors had actually touched, filled in, dictated and signed.

I carefully leafed through page after page of delicate records — medical reports, military service details, affidavits from family members, rejections and reapplications for an invalid pension, widow’s pension paperwork.

Here at last was the story of my ancestor’s Civil War years. But even more, here was the story of my own family and our direct connection to the fabric of U.S. history – a legacy once lost to us, but now restored.

What if I hadn’t searched for my ancestor? Would Arthur and Mary’s story have languished and been forgotten? And how would future generations learn about the family stories I was collecting?

I photocopied the documents to bring home with me. They were my steady companions for several years as I tracked Arthur’s movements with his military unit and fleshed out the lives of my Bull ancestors. Those precious papers provided evidence that I am still learning from and sharing on this blog.

Looking back, I realize that holding Arthur’s pension file in my hands also marked an epiphany in my genealogy research, a subtle turning point after which my quest for names, dates and evidence broadened into a search for narrative — a way of resurrecting my ancestors through story so future generations could meet and get to know them.

Now it is September. The days grow shorter, the air cooler and the leaves begin to color and fall – much as they did in 1864 when Union Pvt. Arthur Bull was sufficiently recuperated to return to active duty on the defenses of Washington, D.C.

That is where we will meet up with my  great, great grandfather again as his Civil War saga continues.

© 2014 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved. 

 

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2 thoughts on “Pension file epiphany”

  1. What an amazing story, Claudia, and so true about what treasures these files hold. Many affidavits in my ancestor’s file were prepared and signed by family members of Arthur and Mary Bull, which helped me construct their extended family. I am so glad your husband’s great grandmother was able to document her entitlement to her husband’s pension.

  2. It is interesting what you can find in the Pensions. I had searched for about two years for the date of marriage for my husband’s great grandfather Robert Stephens and his wife Olive Bowser. After reading the large file I found that they had never been legally married. She later filed for a widow’s pension; they had been together over twenty years, and with affidavits signed she was able to collect as a common law wife.

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