Civil War Veterans and Pensions: Corruption and Prejudice

When people speak of the Civil War, it is often in terms of the loss of life that was experienced during it. The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American History, with both death and casualty rates reaching staggering percentages. One thing that is often forgotten, is that even the Veterans that were lucky enough to make it home faced enormous hardships. With the economic devastation that plagued most of the nation, many soldiers returned home to find that their land had been forfeited in their absence, or that their families were close to starvation. Due to the great need of many veterans, especially those that were disabled, the government began to give out pensions for soldiers in need. More importantly, the government also gave out a great deal of pensions to widows and orphans, who lost their main source of income as their provider died during the war. While the pensions were at times tremendous help to those in need , the pension system itself was very poorly managed, as pension fraud and race discrimination gave unworthy men large sums of money, and deprived many families of much needed funds.REUNION

According to an article by Francis E Leupp in Forum Magazine, there were two aspects of fraud that plagued the American Pension system in the years following the Civil War (4). The first aspect of the Pension System that was flawed and allowed for fraud to occur is that once agents of the Pension Bureau saw that there was more money available to claims agents, many swiftly left their jobs to make an easy fortune. This would not be a dire issue if all men that did this were upstanding and moral, and chose to use their knowledge of the Pension System to benefit veterans in need. It turns out, however, that many men did not show this nobility in their work, and devoted much of their time to winning pensions for men that had never seen the battlefield. The former Bureau Agents knew the ins and outs of filing the claims, and had seen which strategies were most effective.They used their knowledge of the system to formulate claims with diction that could invoke pathos in even the most stone-hearted Bureau Chiefs (Leupp 5).  Another disadvantage of Claim agents being former Bureau Agents not mentioned by Leupp is that undoubtedly, some claim agents had formed relationships with Bureau agents during the time they worked together. While it would be wrong to unjustly accuse these Bureau Agents of actively participating in fraudulent behaviors, it cannot be doubted that a personal relationship with a Claims Agent would give at least slight advantage to any client that they represent. This includes clients that were had either not been enrolled in the army, or were not as injured as they attempted to portray themselves. A final advantage that many claim agents had over the Pension Bureau was that prima facie was very easy to establish in a court. Prima facie is a legal term that means “a fact that is deemed to be true and valid until a contradicting evidence is presented” (The Law Dictionary). In other words, a” veteran” had to be taken at their word unless there was substantial evidence that proved that they were lying. As the years passed, veterans died and the Civil War faded into the backdrop of history, it became increasingly difficult to prove that a man had not served. If a man were to claim that he was at a particular battle, and were to name a company and a general idea of what the company had done during the battle, it was harder to find anyone that could confirm or deny that he had served. Due to all three of these issues that stemmed from Bureau Agents turning into claim agents, many men that deserved little or no pension received large checks from the federal government.

Despite fraudulent claims being a large part of the problem that faced the Pension Bureau, another type of fraud threatened the system’s integrity. Fraudulent medical examinations were also a major issue. To begin with, the process of selecting the examiners is described by Leupp as “slipshod”, as Senators and Representatives recommended candidates to a Commissioner that often knew little to nothing of the examiners capabilities (6). Needless to say, there were examiners appointed to these positions that did not merit them. In fact, there were instances where claims agents helped the examiners become elected. When this happened, corruption often followed. These examiners felt indebted to the agents, and would help their clients promptly pass their examinations. There were even cases of “specialists” that diagnosed all patients that went to see them with the exact same disorder. One such instance occurred as a board determined that all thirty-two patients that visited them during a weak had heart murmurs. When another board examined the twelve of the patients, it was determined that not a single one had heart problems (Leupp 7).  Not all instances of the medical examiner were due to corruption on their part, however. Leupp states that one problem many examiners had is that they allowed their emotions to be “unduly moved by cases that appear pitiful” (7). This also ties back to claim agents, and their relationship to pension frauds. Claim agents knew how to evoke pity in the medical examiners, as the did the commissioners. It is human nature to be empathize with the plight of others, and this could be taken advantage of to validate fradulent claims. They were able to tell their clients the right words to use in order to sway examiners, and pass their medical exams. Whether fraud was intentionally committed by the medical examiners, or that they were simply duped into believing that a veteran was injured when he was not, the end result was that many undeserving men received pensions.  injured veterans

Though it angers many people to think of impostors posing as veterans and receiving financial benefits that they do not deserve, it is a far greater travesty when a deserving veteran was rejected by the system. In a country still reeling from the effects of slavery that had plagued the nation since its very existence, race was still a major barrier that prevented the citizens of the nation from coming together as one. This is reflected clearly in the case of Clay Ballard. Clay served in the 116th colored infantry during the war, but did not apply for a pension until after 1890. In the year 1890, the pension laws expanded, allowing veterans that were not injured on the battlefield, but were currently ill, to apply for pensions. As his health was begining to decline, Clay jumped on the opportunity to help support his family, and applied for a pension in Lexington, Kentucky. In Lexington, he was declared perfectly healthy, and did not receive a pension. Clay claimed that he was discriminated against because he was in the state of Kentucky and tried to have his examination moved into Ohio. Instead, he got another attempt at the exam in Frankfurt Kentucky. This time he was determined to be partially disabled by illness, yet still had his pension denied by the board. It was not until after his death that his wife had a third exam on him done, and it was determined that Mr. Ballard was almost completely paralyzed, and received compensation for her husband’s service (Logue and Blanck 378-379). This was a common theme for African Americans in the years following the Civil War. Whether because of outright racial discrimination, or mistrust between the races, the number of African Americans that received pensions was far less than the number of white Americans. Before the change of law in 1890, 75.1% of whites that applied were recommended for pension, while only 67.9% of black applicants were recommended for pension. There was a far greater gap between percentages of each race receiving pensions. 77.9% of the whites recommended for pensions received pensions, while just 39.4% of black applicants received pensions (Logue and Blanck 391). The numbers after the law change in 1890 that made it easier to obtain pension were a little closer, but not much. (90.4% of white applicants were recommended while 78.4% of black citizens were. The percentage of African Americans that got pensions raised tp 45.7%, while white applicants dropped to 72.5% success rate of being awarded pension (Logue and Blanck). Any way one looks at these numbers, it is evident that prejudice played a large roll in the pension system. This is not especially surprising with the animosities that many of the Southern States still showed towards blacks. It is saddening to know, however, that some African Americans could do nothing to earn the trust of whites. Not even fighting in the army and risking their life was enough for some.

Though the pension system was very beneficial for many of the families in poverty, it did have its limitations. Newly freed African Americans that had fought for their freedom were often denied pensions that they rightfully deserved. Claims agents and fake veterans were able to make a quick fortune by duping the government, as fradulant medical examiners enabled them to do so. The pension system took up large proportions of the budget, as military spending skyrocketed. The years after the Civil War were very tumultuous for all Americans, as the loss of life and destruction of property took its tolls on all citizens, Union and Confederate. As one reflects on the era, however, Civil War pensions were a necessity, and despite the fortunes made by claim agents, the incompotent or corrupt medical examiners, and the discrimination felt by many African Americans. The government was proactive in helping the people that had fought to perserve the union, and in helping the widows and orphans of those that lost their life. Civil War pensions were a good place for the federal government to work out how to help its citizens, without being taken advantage of. In this way, the federal government began ta slight shift away from its Laissez-Fair policies, and became more involved in the life of its citizens, ultimately, for the better.

“Benefit of the Doubt”: African-American Civil War Veterans and Pensions Larry M. Logue, Peter Blanck
The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Winter, 2008), pp. 377-399

Leupp, Francis E. “DEFECTS IN OUR PENSION SYSTEM.” Forum (1886-1930) 08 1901: 670. ProQuest. Web. 26 Feb. 2014 .

“What is PRIMA FACIE?” The Law Dictionary. 26 Feb. 2014 <;.


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