One type of federal record that's most useful to genealogists is the application by a veteran or his heirs for a pension.
The system of rewarding military service with pensions dates back to the early days of the Revolution. In 1776 the Continental Congress passed a pension act providing that all officers who served for the duration of the war would earn half pay for seven years after its conclusion. In time, a succession of additional Revolutionary pension laws were passed, each extending pensions to a larger number of veterans and their heirs.
In 1790, under advice by Congress, the states began providing for invalid veterans, and in 1808 the federal government assumed responsibility for these pensions. In 1818, Congress granted pensions to all veterans who had served nine months or more in the Revolution and could demonstrate need. However, it reduced the required period of service to six months in 1832.
With the passage of the Widows Act in 1836, the U.S. Government made pensions available to widows of Revolutionary soldiers who were married before the end of the war. Later laws granted pensions to widows who had married later, so that by 1868, although there were no Revolutionary veterans living, there were 888 widows receiving pensions. And as late as 1893, there were still 13 widows receiving pensions.
The pension records of the Revolution are most often cited for their genealogical worth, probably because they're often part of the proof submitted by people seeking to join the Daughters or Sons of the American Revolution, for which the requirement for membership is descent from a soldier or patriot of the Revolutionary period. However, the National Archives houses a total of seven series of valuable pension records. In addition to those for Revolutionary invalids and Revolutionary veterans, there are records for soldiers who fought the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Indian Wars and on the Union side in the Civil War.
The Revolutionary veteran seeking a pension had to submit proof of his military service and his need. After 1820, when the federal government required veterans to submit schedules of their estates, veterans often presented deeds to show that they had disposed of their property.
Many pension applications include statements about the veterans birth and parentage, marriage and movements. Affidavits prepared by fellow soldiers or friends supporting the veterans claim may provide still more information.
Because the federal government required widows claiming pensions to prove their relationship to deceased veterans, they had to list the children they had together. This makes a widow's application more valuable genealogically than that of her husband's. She also may have included marriage certificates and transcripts of family Bible records. And from the widows pension application, a researcher should also learn the date and place of her husband's death.
In order to make positive identification of an ancestor within pension records, genealogists need to know the year of a veteran's birth or death and where he lived at the time of enlistment and during the period when he claimed a pension.
Most pension records are arranged or indexed alphabetically by the veterans surname. If an ancestor served in the Revolution, a researcher can determine whether he filed a pension application by consulting the National Genealogical Societys An Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications, which is available in most genealogical libraries. Indexes for pension records of other wars are on microfilm in the National Archives, as are the records themselves. Sometimes, letters and other personal effects of soldiers who died may be among the papers in their pension files.
After the Civil War, Congress granted pensions only to those who fought on the Union side. Some Confederate veterans did apply, so it's possible to find a Southern ancestors application on file. Some of the states in the South granted their own pensions to Confederate veterans. These are housed in the archives of the states in which veterans lived. Other military records of the Confederacy have been deposited in the National Archives.