Postwar, Pensions and “Children of No One” 

   The 56th United States Colored Infantry mustered out in St. Louis on September 15, 1866. For the survivors of the cholera epidemic, this was no doubt an exhilarating event. The former slaves were freed by operation of law when the enlisted, but they were still subject to someone else’s orders for three years. Now, for the first time in their lives they were truly free to direct their own lives.[1]
   But their new freedom brought new problems. Where do they go to live? What do they do for work? Should they return to the farms where they were slaves and work there as employees?
   Newly returned veterans had to compete for jobs with the men left behind. Although nearly 40% of the eligible African American men in Missouri joined the army, as early as the spring of 1864, enlistments in the United States Colored Troops in Missouri lagged. Farm owners dangled alluring economic incentives to hire out at wages better than a private’s $16.00 per month because they needed hands to plant and harvest the crops.[2]
   Many men did not return home. Up to 30% of all slaves in Missouri left the state during the war. After the war, the black population in the counties of Little Dixie along the Missouri River plunged. The 1870 Census showed that Clay County lost 47% of its black population; Boone County lost 21%, Callaway County lost 25%. St. Louis, on the other hand saw an increase of 325% in its black population.[3]
   One of the results of the success of the United States Colored Troops in the war was the creation of regular United States Army colored regiments in 1866. The military needed manpower for its Reconstruction duty and for protection of civilians on the western frontier. Congress authorized four infantry and two cavalry regiments. Recruiters urged USCT veterans to re-enlist, but only about 3,000 chose to do so – about half of the men needed to fill the new units. And after the first wave of enlistments began to expire in 1869, the four regiments of infantry were consolidated into two.[4]
   A national census of Union veterans taken in 1890 showed that about half of the African Americans were employed as laborers or in agriculture as owners, sharecroppers or hired hands. A little less than 10% worked as skilled artisans such as carpenters, masons or blacksmiths. About one-third of black veterans were business owners. But many veterans, black and white, had a pension from the federal government to help them out.[5]
The first soldier’s pension law, passed in 1862, covered men who suffered a disability while in the service, the amount varied according to rank. Later, Congress established a schedule of increased payments for certain catastrophic injuries. In 1890, the law was amended to cover veterans who suffered from any disability, whether service-connected or not. The percentage of veterans receiving a pension jumped from 17% in 1885 to 63% in 1895. Ultimately, all Union veterans were entitled to a pension simply by virtue of their age, and by 1915 93% of surviving veterans were enrolled. The leading cause of disability pensions was, as might be expected, gunshot and shell wounds. The second leading cause was chronic diarrhea.[6]
   The pension laws did not legally discriminate between black and white soldiers. Any soldier who qualified for a pension, whether black or white, was entitled to the same amount. However, black applicants were significantly less successful in obtaining pensions. Donald R. Shaffer analyzed pension application success and concluded that while white soldiers were awarded as pension 92% of the time, black veterans were successful only 75% of the time. Applications for pension payments for blacks were subject to greater scrutiny than those filed by whites, most likely a reflection not only of their greater complexity due to several factors but also to general societal attitudes of the times.[7]
   Shaffer identified several reasons contributing to this disparity: Although pension agents and attorneys were paid on a contingent basis, there were still upfront costs of notary fees and often travel (applicants for disability payments had to be examined by government-approved doctors). Because slaves were not legally permitted to be educated in antebellum America, almost all black applicants were illiterate and needed assistance in filling out the required forms. In addition to the notorious misspellings of names in 19th century records, many soldiers changed their names when they gained their freedom. When the government checked the name of the applicant against the muster rolls of the regiment to make sure he had actually been a soldier as claimed, a discrepancy in the name required further explanation and sometimes a field investigation to preclude fraud.
   Children and wives encountered added hurdles. A child’s benefits due for a father who died in the war extended only to his or her 16th birthday. Therefore, it was important to know the child’s exact date of birth. Such records were simply not kept for slaves and applicants had to rely upon the affidavits and testimony of other family members, neighbors, and sometimes former owners. Likewise, slave marriages were not legally sanctioned in antebellum slave states. Special provisions of the pension laws provided that for “widows and children of colored and Indian soldiers and sailors there need be no other evidence of marriage than satisfactory proof that the parties were joined in marriage by some ceremony deemed by them obligatory, or habitually recognized each other as man and wife, and were so recognized by their neighbors, and lived together as such up to the date of enlistment.” Such proof was also sufficient to show their children were legitimate.[8]
   A widow was entitled to one-half of her husband’s monthly pay – for a private’s widow, $8.00 per month. She was also entitled to an additional $2.00 per month for each child under the age of sixteen. If a child was an orphan, he or she was entitled to the same amount as a widow.  
   The available records for pensions awarded to widows of men of the 56th USCI who died during the war illustrate all these issues. Some records also show that the help of a powerful white person or the persistence of a strong-willed African American could make a difference.
   The case of Lucinda Williams Yaw falls in the first category. Lucinda Yaw was the widow of First Sergeant John Yaw of Company F, who was killed at the Battle of Wallace’s Ferry. She married Yaw in Jefferson City, Missouri on April 24, 1862. Lucinda accompanied her husband to Helena and was a cook for the regimental officers. N. C. Burch, the Clerk of the Missouri Supreme Court wrote to his friend and earlier employer Joseph Barrett, the United States Pension Commissioner, on her behalf urging prompt action on her claim. Lucinda is a “poor colored woman,” Burch said, “in very distressed circumstances.” He asked Barrett to make her pension “official” and to “oblige your former clerk.” Her pension approval was issued May 24, 1866. She received $8.00 per month commencing on the date of John’s death.[9]
   Sally Gunn Allen married Richard Allen in 1851 in Jefferson City “according to the Custom then governing the marriage of slaves in Slave states.” Richard was the slave of United States District Judge Robert W. Wells.[10] Sally asked and received the permission of her owners to marry Richard. She was manumitted in 1859 (probably on the death of her owner), but Richard remained a slave until he entered Company E, 56th USCI, at age 38. He served as a baker and teamster for the regiment. Richard died of cholera on August 13, 1866, while on the steamboat Continental. The son of Sally’s former owners, Benjamin Gunn, provided an affidavit with the details of her marriage, and she received pension approval in May 1868. Sally died on November 20, 1879. In her last illness, she was cared for by Harrison Ramsey. (Ramsey’s relation to Sally Gunn is not found in the pension records.) Ramsey filed a detailed claim for payment of the expenses of her last illness and funeral. It was returned with a blank form that the pension authorities required to be used. Ramsey – apparently assisted by a sympathetic white (for he was illiterate) – sent a note back with another completed form. Ramsey said he had sent the first request on the proper form.[11]

   This childish way of doing [business], looks very strange to me, who am a plain, unlettered man of the Neg[r]o Race, but I can see through a Gate Post, about as well as the next man.
   It looks as though you were trying to bluff me off, and in that way, keep from paying me the money lawfully due me.
   If you can’t pay me, without any more fooling, I will carry my claim to a higher officer.[12]

   Although the records are ambiguous, it appears the Mr. Ramsey’s claim was ultimately paid.
   The case of Mary Marshall Ellis shows how difficult it could be to document a pension application. Her husband, Henry Ellis, was born in Alabama and a slave living in Coahoma County, Mississippi, when he enlisted in the 56th USCI in December 1864. He died on the Continental on August 12, 1866 on the way to be mustered out and to be paid his $100.00 enlistment bounty. Mary and Henry were married on July4, 1861, while still slaves in Mississippi on Sam Dixon’s plantation. There was, of course, no record because the legal “marriage of slaves [was] not allowed in Mississippi at that time.” They had three or four children (the documents vary), but all of them died shortly after Henry’s death. Mary received a pension of $8.00 per month (one-half of a private’s monthly pay) beginning in 1869. She married Charles Fremont in 1870 and lost her pension because widows who remarried were no longer eligible for payments. One witness swore to the date of her remarriage because Fremont was saving up money for their marriage and that was the first year of ginning cotton in the county. When Fremont died in 1890, she successfully sought a restoration of her pension. Her attorney was Samuel J. Clark, formerly the adjutant of the 56th USCI who returned to Helena.[13]
   Some pension applications were tainted by fraud, sometimes by the applicant, sometimes by the attorney or agent, and sometimes by a third party.
   The case of America Williams falls into the latter category. She was the second wife of Reuben Williams, a private in Company G, 56th USCI. Reuben Williams had been a slave owned by Joseph McIntosh of Lincoln County. He married before the war “according to slave custom,” but his first wife was sold and sent south, never to be heard from again. He married America Magruder, a slave woman owned by Lloyd Magruder, who lived about a mile and a half south of the McIntosh place. McIntosh was apparently a fairly lenient master, for he allowed Reuben to go home to America every night.[14]
   But lenient or not, the lure of freedom was too much. Reuben escaped to St. Charles and signed up with Company G. Reuben suffered from chronic diarrhea and died on Island No. 63 on September 2, 1864. America married Sergeant James Holliday, of Company C, 56th USCI, in September 1866. Despite her remarriage, America applied for a widow’s pension – to which she was not entitled by law – claiming that she lived in Helena. It was approved retroactive to the date of Reuben’s death. She drew monthly payments until 1867. Holliday received his own disability pension because he suffered from piles caused by chronic diarrhea. Thus, the Holliday family received three years’ worth of pensions paid to America for the death of Reuben Williams, and a pension paid to Holliday himself for disability.
   The fraud came to light many years later after Holliday died. America applied for a widow’s pension for his death. Someone in the Pension Bureau smelled a rat. Richard Barrington was appointed as a special investigator to look into the matter. He wrote an extensive report detailing what he believed happened.
   Holliday apparently was married before he joined the army to an unnamed woman who was characterized by one of his neighbors as his “slave wife.” He and America lived in Hannibal for until his death in 1896. Holliday could read and write and was characterized by Barrington many years later as “unusually intelligent for his race.” The investigator speculated that Holliday worked a fraud on the government in his wife’s name. But by the time any potential funny business was uncovered – 1905 – Holliday had been dead for nine years and America was destitute and deemed incapable of pulling off any scam. The Pension Bureau apparently let the matter go without further action.[15]
   Nancy Howard, the alleged wife of William Howard, Company H, 56th USCI, tried to pull off the scam by herself. William enlisted at Cape Girardeau in June 1863 and died of chronic diarrhea in March 1864. He was 21 years old. Nancy claimed she married William in Poinsett County, Arkansas (north of Helena) in 1857 and had three children by him: daughter Ellen born in 1858, and twins Laura and Richard born in 1861. The Pension Bureau was alerted in 1869 that Nancy had remarried and suspended her payments pending the outcome of an investigation. The inquiry disclosed that William’s sister, Phillis Johnson, was disputing Nancy’s right to any pension at all because, she claimed, Nancy never married him. It turned out that, indeed, Nancy’s claim was “wholly fraudulent.” William Howard was never in Arkansas until stationed there in the army, let alone in 1857 when he would have been 14 years-old. When asked to describe her husband, Nancy said he was a very tall, heavy-set man with a full beard. Military records showed that he was 5-11, and several witnesses testified that he never had a beard. And her current husband, John Cash, said she to tried get a pension for the death of another soldier named Dobson but failed. Nancy didn’t give up. She applied for reinstatement of her pension, but it was denied.[16]
   By so-called “arrears” legislation, Congress provided that persons who had been entitled to a pension or a bounty but failed to apply for it in time or had never received it, could nevertheless now seek it. Two children of Nathaniel Buford, Company K, 56th USCI – or, as will be seen, were they? – sought recovery of a lump sum due them between the date of Nathaniel’s death and their sixteenth birthdays as children of a veteran who died during the Civil War.
   Nathaniel Buford volunteered at Fulton, Missouri in December 1863 as Nathaniel Craig at age 47. Although he was known among African Americans as Buford, he was required to take the name Craig because he was owned by William T. Craig, a prominent slaveholder in Callaway County. Buford married Mary Smith, a slave of neighboring slaveholder Tartan Smith, also a prominent citizen of Callaway County in the 1850’s. They had two children, Bettie born in 1853 and Ellen born in 1857. Mary died of consumption sometime in 1862 or 1863. After his enlistment, Nathaniel was sick in the hospital at St. Louis for nine months. In March 1864 he married Cynthia Buford. In October 1864, he was finally assigned to Company K in Helena. He died there of typho malaria in September 1865.
   Cynthia applied for and received a pension in 1867. She did not apply for the $2.00 per month allotted for children of a deceased soldier, possibly because she did not have custody of the children. The children of a slave mother belonged to the mother’s owner. Thus, Bettie and Ellen would likely have remained on the Smith farm, rather than accompany their father to St. Louis after his enlistment. Nevertheless, Nathaniel acknowledged them as his children even if they did not live with him.
   In 1901, Bettie and Ellen hired a lawyer to help them recover the pension payments they would otherwise have received. The lawyer argued that Nathaniel provided such care for his children “as was customary among the enslaved negroes at that time.” The Bureau, however, rejected Bettie and Ellen’s claim. It said that to be eligible under the pension laws, their mother must have been married or deemed to have been married under the special provisions applied to black soldiers at the time of his enlistment. Further, that Nathaniel may have acknowledge them as his children before his death was of no avail. He could not have been legally married or deemed married to Mary Smith because they were slaves at the time they lived together. Marriage between slaves, the Bureau held, was “absolutely null and void, the legal right to marriage being incompatible with the incident of ownership under the institution of slavery.” In these circumstances, “[i]t is not proper .  . . to call a child legitimate or illegitimate. The offspring of slaves are neither the one or the other. A child born of slave parents was nullius filius,” literally “the son of no one.” Thus, at least for purposes of pensions due children of Union soldiers who died in the war, Bettie and Ellen were “children of no one.”[17]
   The soldiers and their families who received pensions, Donald Shaffer points out, were grateful for the assistance. More than 83,000 former USCT soldiers received an average of $3,789 over twenty years, or an estimated total for all former USCT soldiers of $313,000,000 (this figure does not include payments to widows or children). Their pensions – the equal of those awarded to white soldiers and their families – were not only one of the few instances where they were treated as equals but were also substantially higher than those awarded to Confederate veterans and their families by the former states of the Confederacy.[18]
   The pension was often a matter of pride for many black veterans in a society that otherwise discriminated against them and seemed to have forgotten their important role in the Civil War. The granddaughter of one former black soldier told how she sometimes went with him to cash his check. “He seemed to walk straighter on those days. His check was the government’s recognition of honored service and of the disability he had suffered in his country’s cause.”[19]

This concludes my series on the 56th United States Colored Infantry for Black History Month. Next week, as an extra, I will post an article about the regiment’s officers, many of whom continued to play an important part in the lives of African Americans in Arkansas and in the United States Army. It is entitled:

                                           The Teacher, the Preacher and the Prussian: Officers of the 56th USCI.


[1] Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 29.

[2] Diane Mutti Burke, On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2010), 292-297.

[3] Richard B. Sheridan, “From Slavery in Missouri to Freedom in Kansas,” Kansas History 12 (Spring 1989), No. 1, 28-47; Burke, Table 7, 312.

[4] William A. Dobak and Thomas D. Phillips, The Black Regulars, 1866-1898 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), 3, 15; Shaffer, 39.

[5] Shaffer, Table 2, 205; William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: The U. S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. 2013), 502.

[6] Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, “‘A Reasonable Degree of Promptitude’: Civil War Pension Application Processing, 1861–1885,” Prologue 42 (Spring 2010), No. 1 at (accessed February 24, 2018); Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy inthe United States (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993). Table 2, 109; William H. Glasson, Federal Military Pensions in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1918), 129, 138 (categorization of injuries as of 1888). Skocpol estimated that by 1910, about 23% of the population over 65 in Missouri was receiving a Civil War pension from the federal government. Skocpol, 135-138, 139-143, and Appendix 1.

[7] Shaffer, 120-131.

[8] Ibid.; James L. Davenport, Laws of the United States Governing the Granting of Army and Navy Pensions (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913), 66.

[9] John Yaw, Widow’s Pension Applications, WC73849-73867 (all references are to Record Group 15, National Archives and Records Administration; the microfilm reel numbers are listed as WC [frame number]), available at The widow’s application is listed by her husband’s name in the National Archives.

[10] Robert Wells was a longtime Missouri Attorney General and federal district judge. He is best known as the trial judge in the federal lawsuit that ended in the landmark decision of Dred Scott v. John Sanford in 1857. He died in 1864. For details see James W. Erwin, St. Charles: A Brief History (Charleston: History Press, 2017), 93-98.

[11] Richard Allen, Widow’s Pension Applications, 113968-113999.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Henry Ellis, Widow’s Pension Applications, WC124718-124750.

[14] It was common for slave husbands and wives to live on different farms and be owned by different persons. Usually the men would be allowed to visit their wives on Sundays and perhaps one night during the week. This arrangement, called an “abroad marriage” by scholars, was especially prevalent in Missouri because most slaveholders owned few slaves. Burke, 200-202.

[15] Reuben Williams, Widow’s Pension Applications, WC74208-74210. The file as reproduced on Fold3 is 287 pages long – far longer than any other for a 56th USCI veteran’s widow.

[16] William Howard, Widow’s Pension Applications, WC 123209-123240.

[17] Nathaniel Buford (Craig), Widow’s Pension Applications, WC091577-91953. The common law doctrine of nullius filius was not limited to slave children but applied to any child born out wedlock. Such “children of no one” had no legal rights to inherit property, nor were their fathers obligated to support them.

[18] Shaffer, 133. States also provided pensions to Union veterans. Former Confederate states paid pensions to veterans of the Confederate army. Missouri enacted a pension for Confederate veterans (but not their families) in 1910.

[19] Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 268, quoted in Shaffer, 133-134.

    A Bit of War History: The Veteran            by Thomas Waterman Wood, 1866

James W Erwin