Monday, March 5, 2012

Dissecting a Civil War Pension File - John L. McSweeney

When the 120-page Civil War Pension file arrived for John L. and Eliza McSweeney, it was for a client and I was not too concerned about plowing through its contents. Then I reconsidered when it became apparent that the information could not really be made useful unless we could place it into document order according to the dates. The file actually contains information from two different pension files: #145.979 the soldier's file applied for 19 July 1869 with certificate #118.505, and #349.650 the widow's file applied for 16 April 1891 with certificate #349.650. The file we received had gone through many inspections and had not been kept in any particular order. It is kind of like playing 52-card pickup and the disorganization that often is the result.

The first step was to go through it as it was, numbering each document, with some information in abstract form and some actually transcribed. The affidavits, testimonies and personal letters were for the most part transcribed. They are personal writings of the person, but may have been coaxed by the attorney involved. The content went from the 120 pages, to 47 pages of handwritten notes, to 27 pages of typed notes. These are the groupings of the types of documents involved:

John L. McSweeney Pension testimony or letters - 14
Eliza McSweeney Widow's Pension testimony or letters - 12
Mexican War Records - 13
Relative's testimony - 5
Affidavits in General- 20
Medical Affidavits - 3
Pension Board - 4
War Department Surgeon's Office 1
Surgeon's Certificate - 4
Drawings of body demonstrating wounds - 5
Physicians Affidavits - 2
Medical Examiners Affidavits - 2
Surgeon General's Report - 6
Adjutant General's Office - 5
Letters of Testimony - 3
Pension Documents - 21

The most interesting pieces are those where his age is listed. In the two records for Owen L. McSweeny (which name he alludes to have used prior to his marriage in 1851 and he appears to be in the 1850 Census) his age indicates being born about 1820. This is also the age indicated in the early pension file records in 1869 and 1870. After that there are fifteen other records that suggest being born between 1809 and 1812, with one for the year 1801. These records date from 1882 to 1890. Even the Mexican War enlistment record under Owen S. McSweeney lists his age as 27, indicating a birth in 1820. This record notes that he was discharged with a disability.

Even more curious are the different disabilities he declares under the pension applications for an increase in the amount being paid.
January 1868 - disability resulting from kick of a horse he was shoeing, examining surgeon, with a very graphic description of the injury, which resulted in continual ongoing medical complications through out his life, including epilepsy. When he was injured he was sent between three medical facilities over several months, it appears he was never really able to serve again before being discharged. He claimed that at Mount Sterling, KY there were two Rebel Drs. attending the wounded Rebels, who also attended him.
November 1884 - kicked by horse and wounded by Gun Shot on two occasions, indicating place on body of wounds. No evidence of any G.S.W
January 1888 - wounded by the strike of a gun by the enemy or as a witness stated he was struck in the back and between shoulders with the butt of a gun.
April 1888 - Discharged at Julapa, Mexico May 13, 1848 on Surgeon’s certificate of disability, not stating the actual disability.

Pensioned from Dec. 31st, 1864, $4 for Injury of Right Side. Increased to $6 in 1884, and increased to $8 in 1887, until he died in May 1890. At the time of his death he was seeking another increase and endured another examination in January 1890. The final comments of the Pension Board follow:
This old man is very feeble and nearly blind and deaf. Has a Denili Cataract in right eye and can’t hear a watch tick at all with neither ear, also has Paralysis agitaus (We had to help him put off and on his coat.) He is in my opinion entitled to a 10/18 rating for the disability caused by Injury to right shoulder, 2nd grade, for that caused by senility and results.
January 1900 - Approved for rejection of widow's claim as death resulted from pneumonia due to cause, which has been legally accepted.
Eliza received a pension of $12 per month to Nov. 4, 1910, death Nov. 29, 1910.

There are several documents that are not dated, but can be placed relative to the information within them. There are several affidavits for the marriage of this couple, but often there are no exact dates or different months or years. The family was able to locate the actual record in Carter County, Kentucky, dated 10 November 1851. These records were created in times when communication was limited and the people's memories faded over time.

In the later summaries of the medical examiners they often refer to him as a feeble old man, who is clearly disabled. One wonders if with his medical infirmities if it was worth submitting these applications and enduring the medical examinations required for a few added dollars a month. As the laws and requirements for pensions changed over time, I believe the Pension Attorney's at times took advantage of the situations to maintain their income, but they were paid very little to file these claims.

I cannot begin to detail all the information included in the documents, there is some very unique information. Through family and personal witnesses, one can get a feel for the life of these individuals. There is included a list of the places where they lived, providing clues for future research. The place of birth for both  John and Owen is given as Mayo County, Ireland, suggesting further research for a more definitive place there. Are they the same man or could they be brothers? There is John F. McSweeney in the 1850 Census, but he appears to be a R.C. Clergy and there are records for him as performing marriages. John L. and Owen L. are both noted to be Blacksmiths. Did they learn Blacksmithing in the Ireland?

Don't you just love these puzzles? While dissecting the pension file helps to clarify the information, it takes some real analyzing of the information to capture the clues held within. With the process of digitizing of pension files at the National Archives more of these records will be available for further research. Have you found any of these files online for your ancestors? Will you take on the challenge of really understanding the content to enhance your family history research?


  1. I have been going through this very process with my gggrandfather's pension file. I'm grateful to have it but there's such a lot of paperwork to scan, transcribe, and analyze. It's interesting to learn my grandfather's condition and imagine what his life must have been like.

    Thanks for another example of how to post about a pension file.

  2. Thanks for this post, Susan. I have two pension files that I'm working with. I've transcribed some key bits and pieces, but I still need to dissect them and put the pages into some sort of logical order. It helps to know how others have tackled this somewhat formidable task (one of the files is 174 pages). I agree they really do give you a lot of insight into the veteran's life.

  3. Hi Sue,

    I have downloaded this file but have not gone through it yet. John and Eliza are my great great great grandparents, how do they relate to you?

  4. Kelli this was work I was doing in helping someone with their research. You may already know her. She is working to place him in Mayo County, Ireland.