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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 8/11/2004

A Complete Civil War Pension File

Records of a military pension are an excellent genealogical source. This week we take a look at a complete set of pension papers from a Civil War Union Pension. In a previous column, “Before the Pension,” we discussed how these papers can be obtained and what information is needed to in order to make a request for pension papers from the National Archives.

James Rampley's complete pension file can be viewed here:

Start in the Beginning
As with any record that consists of a series of loose papers, organizing the material chronologically is the first task. This allows the researcher to at least see the flow of paperwork and frequently makes certain things somewhat easier to understand. When you receive a set of pension papers from the National Archives, they will not be in chronological order, and all copies will be one-sided. The originals were not all one sided. Try and pair the front and back of documents as best you can. I found it helpful to go to my local copy store and have a duplicate copy of the file made. I can then highlight and make notations on my duplicate copy and not the set of papers I received from the National Archives.

Pension Declaration
There are two declarations for a pension in James's file, one filed under the Pension Act of 1907 and the other filed under the Pension Act of 1912. The genealogical information they contain is similar and will be summarized here. From these two declarations were learned quite a bit about James:

James was born on 22 October 1844 in Ohio. He enlisted at Quincy, Illinois, in March of 1865 as a private in Company G of the 58th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and was honorably discharged at Springfield, Illinois, on 21 November 1865. At the time of his enlistment, he was 5 feet 9.5 inches tall, of light complexion with blue eyes and light hair. The farmer had lived in Walker Township, Hancock County, Illinois, until 1906 when he moved to St. Albans Township.

Anyone Can Fill Out an Application
James would not receive a pension simply because he completed an application. His service would have to be documented. James was one of the Civil War veterans for whom this documentation was relatively simple.

The Bureau of the Pensions sent a request to the War Department so that the Adjutant General's Office could verify James's service claims. In this case there were no discrepancies regarding his military service, and he was not listed as having been absent without leave or having deserted. This made qualifying for a pension easier. James's pension was approved.

Survey Says?
Veterans on the pension roll in 1907 were sent a two-page letter requesting information about the soldier, his service, and his family. In some cases, these pages alone may be worth the cost of the pension file. In some cases, it may not. You will not know until you receive the papers.

The 1907 questionnaire consisted of two pages, including the following questions about the soldier:
Date and place of birth
Date and place of enlistment
Residence before enlistment
Address at enlistment
Occupation at enlistment
Date and place of discharge
Residences since discharge
Present occupation
Physical characteristics
Marital status
Name of present wife
Date and place of marriage
Location of marriage record
Previous marriages
Names and dates of birth for children

Not every soldier answered every question, but most did complete the bulk of the form. James Rampley fortunately answered every query. There are cases where many of the questions are unanswered, even a “can't remember” for the names and birth dates of all children may be all that is given.

Show Us Your Birth
James applied for a pension under the Act of May 11, 1912, which required verification of age. A request from the commissioner in 1913 indicated James needed to submit proof of birth to complete his application. Like many pensioners of his generation, James did not have a birth or baptismal certificate. Even if he had such a record, in 1913 photocopies and faxes were not options. In his pension file is an affidavit from a notary public who indicates he has viewed the Rampley family bible and noted that in the record of births there was an entry for “James Rampley son of James and Elizabeth Rampley [who] was born the 22 of Oct. 1844” and that the entries are all in the same handwriting and show no evidence of alteration. The notary additionally indicates that the Bible was published in New York in 1855. If I had not known the names of James' parents, there they were in his pension file. Wow!

Wait a Minute Mr. Postman
The “Pensioner Dropped” card for James indicated that the West Point, Illinois, postmaster reported the death of James to the pension agency in the spring of 1913. This was to bring about even more paperwork as James' widow, Lizzie, would apply for a pension based upon his service.

He Must Be Dead for You To Be a Widow
Lizzie had to show that James was actually deceased in order to qualify for a pension. In this case, there are two copies of James's death certificate in the pension file. Usually one was adequate. These transcriptions of the actual record were done a few months apart, and one main difference is that one is typed and the other one is handwritten. Fortunately they agree on the important details, except that the handwritten copy does not indicate how long James had suffered from his last illness. The death certificate provided date and place of death and burial, all excellent genealogical clues. Lizzie certainly proved that James was dead.

Are You the Widow?
Not only did Lizzie have to show that James was dead, she also had to show that she was his widow. Included in the pension file was a certified copy of the marriage record for James Rampley and Elizabeth Newman from 1872. A marriage record alone was usually not sufficient. An affidavit from Nancy J. Rampley and another witness indicated that they had known James and Nancy E. Newman before their marriage and that the veteran and his widow had lived together as man and wife since the time of the marriage in 1872. Not stated in the affidavit was the fact that Nancy was a sister-in-law of Lizzie Rampley.

Just What is Your Name?
Astute Ancestry Daily News readers will note the differences in the name of the widow. The pension office noticed the discrepancy as well. The marriage license indicated James was married to Elizabeth, the witnesses said James was married to Nancy E., and the widowed applicant signed as Lizzie Rampley. A letter from the pension office to Lizzie Rampley dated 23 October 1913 states:
“ signed your name as Lizzie Rampley...this discrepancy should be explained under oath and your correct name in full furnished.”

An affidavit dated October 28th 1913 and signed by Lizzie states in part:
“ in full [at birth] was Nancy Elizabeth...when [I] married James Rampley [I] was known and named as Lizzie Rampley because one of James Rampley's brothers was married to a woman whose first name was also Nancy...”

This other Nancy, actually Nancy J. Rampley, signed a second affidavit vouching that Lizzie Rampley, widow of James, was the same person as Nancy Elizabeth Newman Rampley and Elizabeth Newman Rampley. Nancy J. Rampley was an ideal witness. Not only were she and Lizzie Rampley sisters-in-law (their husbands were brothers), but they were first cousins as well.

Lizzie continued to receive her pension until her death in 1941, at which time the pension office indicated she had been dropped from the rolls.

Government paperwork is not a late-twentieth-century innovation, and records of pensions may provide the family historian with significant genealogical clues. The pension file for James and Lizzie Rampley consisted of forty some pages, not an unusual number. Next time we will look at the pension file for Nancy J. Rampley, Lizzie's sister-in-law and first cousin. The pension file for Nancy (and her husband Riley) contained over two hundred pages of information, somewhat more than the usual file.

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.

Copyright 2004,

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