Union Army pensioner

First in series about my Union Army ancestor Arthur Bull and his application for a Civil War pension.

When my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull had lived in New York State’s Adirondack foothills for about five years, declining health began to interfere with his work as a leather tanner and he applied for his U.S. Civil War pension — events I first wrote about in A decade in Moose River Settlement.

The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. This edifice was once the Pension Building in which U.S. Civil War pension claims, such as my ancestor’s, were processed. Photo by: National Building Museum

According to his pension file, Arthur filed a declaration for an Invalid Pension on 2 July1880 citing persistent health effects from his Union Army service during the war. He was just 46 years old.

Supporting a large family

In 1880, Arthur was working as a tannery foreman and headed a large household according to the federal census for Lyonsdale, Lewis County, New York.

In addition to his wife, Mary E. (Blakeslee) Bull, 41, there were seven children in the household: Carrie, 20; Milo, 18; my great grandmother Eva, 13; Frederick, 8; William, 6; Alice, 3 and Waples, 2.

Son Milo was helping out, working as a common laborer according to the census. But Arthur’s physically-demanding tannery job was the family’s primary source of income — and declining health may have been affecting his ability to work.

With so many family members depending on him, Arthur needed a reliable income. During the U.S. Civil War, he fought with the 6th N.Y. Heavy Artillery and was hospitalized several times for heart and lung complaints that continued to affect him after the war’s end.

So applying for an Invalid Pension was likely the only option — in the days before Social Security — to supplement declining income due to lost work time, probably caused by the lingering effects of Arthur’s wartime illness.

Proving his case

Today, Union Army veterans are regarded as heroes who put themselves in harm’s way to preserve the union and help end the brutal system of slavery. So it’s hard to imagine denying them the support of a veteran’s pension as they aged and grew infirm.

But in 1880, the pension system for U.S. Civil War veterans was still controversial. According to a brief history on the U.S. Social Security Administration website:

Such a large federal expenditure could not help but engender some criticism. The process of awarding pensions, which was administered locally, was amenable to political patronage and other forms of corruption. Also, a robust legal specialty sprung up of lawyers who specialized in helping would-be recipients secure potential pensions. Over time, these developments led to skepticism about the program and to concerns that it was rife with fraud, waste and abuse.

How did this impact my great, great grandfather Arthur Bull? It meant that — even as his health declined — his claim would take years to process, requiring many doctor visits and supporting affidavits from extended family and others to prove that he was legitimately entitled to his Civil War pension.

We will join my ancestor on this difficult journey beginning with the next post.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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6 thoughts on “Union Army pensioner”

  1. I’ve often thought about how difficult it must have been to verify everything, especially without the aid of computers. Depending on records maintained during a war and determining if their complaint was really related to the war itself or other factors in their lives must have been very difficult during that time with their limited resources. Add to that, individuals who tried to wrongfully make claims and it makes for a very slow process. I can only imagine how frustrating and hard it must have been for those men who legitimately needed the help.

    1. So true, Michelle. I am writing about this as a series because of the number and variety of documents required to qualify for a Civil War pension. Way too many to fit into one or two posts.

    1. Yes, a prolonged application process for him. The silver lining: a wealth of information about him and other ancestors as a result.

  2. Fraud and abuse of a system sadly didn’t end with the civil war pensioners, there was much of it in recent years in several kinds of insurance (medical and employment to name a couple), making it more expensive and a hassle for those in need.
    I am interested in reading how your ancestor fared.

    1. Thanks for your visit, Dianne. It’s heartbreaking to see all that he went through to collect even a partial pension. But his extended family really came through for him every step of the way, as I will discuss in the next post.

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