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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 7/27/2004

Before the Pension

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) recently began allowing researchers to make online requests for copies of some records. This week we take a look at military pensions, specifically those from the Civil War era. Completion of the request requires that the researcher know something about the ancestor's service, so our discussion begins with some ideas of where to locate those details.

Your ancestor's tombstone or a military marker from the Veteran's Administration may provide specific information on your ancestor's military service. Even if specific unit information is not provided, the war in which your ancestor served or membership in a veteran's organization may be indicated. A sample military marker from the Civil War can be viewed by clicking here.

Biographies and Obituaries
Either of these sources may provide clues to your ancestor's military service. County histories may include a biography of your ancestor that mentions military service or a section listing those individuals from the county who entered the military. In some cases, the only clue may be an ancestor's membership in a veteran's organization, such as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) or United Confederate Veterans (UCV). Most biographies will delineate military service in detail, but occasionally the only mention may be a comment that the biographee is a member of the UCV or the GAR. Obviously such a membership is a significant genealogical clue.

Death Certificate
Look closely at the ancestor's death certificate. Did they die in a veteran's home? If so, records of the home may provide sufficient details to allow you to search for military service and pension records. Is the burial in a military cemetery? Also look at your ancestor's age and consider whether he would have been of a reasonable age to serve in a specific conflict.

Family Tradition
In many families, stories of an ancestor's military service have passed down to the present generation. Remember to query as many descendants of the potential soldier or sailor as possible for this information, not just those from your direct line of descent.

Mementos and Family Heirlooms
Are there any family items that indicate your ancestor had military service? Buttons from a coat, medals, and other memorabilia may be the impetus to start searching for more information about your family member's military career.

Pension Indexes
For those with Union ancestors, the National Archives has created several finding aids to federal pension records. These finding aids may be found online, on microfilm and available through the National Archives, some large genealogical libraries, and through interlibrary loan through the Family History Library. Below we have summarized these finding aids and included direct links to specific pages from the National Archives website and the Family History Library's website. The National Archives and the Family History Library do not have the indexes or the actual pension records online. These are finding aids to assist readers in locating specific film numbers when ordering film.

National Archives
“General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934.” T288. 544 rolls. This index is strictly alphabetical.

Scroll down--there is information on other microfilm publications besides T288. This index is also online at and available to subscribers.

“Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900.” T289. 765 rolls. 16mm. [rolls 1-400].
(Scroll partially down the page as there is information on other microfilm publications on this page.)

This index is not by soldier, but rather by unit. The cards are arranged alphabetically by state, then by arm of service (infantry, cavalry, artillery), then numerically by regiment, and then alphabetically by veteran's surname. The information is similar to the information contained on the General Index to Pension Files T288.

“Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933.” M850. 2,539 rolls. [rolls 1-1000].

World War I pensioners are not in this finding aid.

Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933. M850. 2,539 rolls. [rolls 1001-2100]

Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933. M850. 2,539 rolls. [rolls 2101-2539]

Family History Centers
Some of the National Archives microfilm is available on loan through your local Family History Center. The following links will take you directly to the entry for the two microfilm publications listed below. It will be necessary to either page through the results or skip ahead to a later portion of the listing as both these indexes contain a large number of rolls of microfilm.

General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934. T288. 544 rolls.

Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933. M850. 2,539 rolls. [rolls 1-1000]

NOTE: For those having difficult viewing the extra long links for the Family History Library, locating the film reference in the catalog is not difficult as long as the following steps are followed.
- Visit
- Click on Library
- Click on Family History Library Catalog
- Click on Title Search
- enter either:

General Index to Pension Files or Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards

The appropriate reference should be located. Film can then be borrowed through your local Family History Center.

Ordering the Pension
Actual Union Civil War pensions have not been microfilmed and are only available in the original paper format. Researchers able to visit the National Archives can view the files themselves. Those who live a distance can have copies of the pension papers sent to them via mail. Ordering can be done online or via U.S. mail.

Genealogists can order selected documents from the pension file by requesting the Pension Documents Packet from the National Archives. The entire file can also be ordered.

What You Need Before Ordering
Regardless of the order method, researchers will be requested to submit as much of the following information as possible: name, branch of service, state from which served, war, unit, specific arm of service (for army), rank, kind of service (volunteer, etc.), pension file number, name of soldier's home where resided (if applicable), date of birth, place of birth, date of death, place of death, name of widow or other claimant, and places veteran lived after service.

The more details you are able to provide, the easier it will be to locate the correct file. If your ancestor's name is somewhat common or you are uncertain about many of these facts, it may be to your advantage to view the appropriate roll of the General Index to Pension Files or the Pension Payment Cards (referenced above) and determine if any entries appear to be for your soldier. The cards are not the same as the entire file, but they will provide you with adequate information (particularly pension file number) with which to order the file from the National Archives.

The current fee for the selected documents packet is $14.75.
The current fee for the entire set of documents is $37.
The National Archives Order Online section has the following to say about the selected documents package:

“The pension documents packet will contain, to the extent that these documents are present in the complete file, eight documents that contain genealogical information about the pension applicant. The pension documents packet will include any of the following items that are in the file--declaration of pension, declaration of widow's pension, Adjutant General statements of service, questionnaires completed by applicants (numbered forms), "Pension Dropped" cards, marriage certificates, death certificates, and discharge certificate.”

The complete set of papers costs $37 regardless of how many pages are sent.

Ordering the Records
Online ordering can be started here: Users will have to create an account with a username and password.

Offline requests are done via form NATF 85 Military Pension Claim Files 1775-1916.

Those who wish to use the US Mail can request that form NATF85 be sent to them by following the directions on the NARA site.

Those who wish to request form NATF85 may also send a letter addressed to the National Archives and Records Administration, Attn: NWCTB, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20408-0001, indicating the number of forms (limit of 5 per order) and the address to where they are to be sent.

Next week we take a look at a complete set of papers and the genealogical information it contains.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the "Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly." He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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Michael's other  Genealogy how to articles