How did Pensions for Revolutionary War Soldiers Work?


    About the author

    Jeanette Holland Austin.
    Jeannette Holland Austin

    Jeanette Holland Austin is a distinguished genealogist and historian. She has published over 100 books in her career, and currently operates and, contributing significantly to genealogical research, particularly in the state of Georgia.


      After the Revolutionary War ended, provisions for benefits to veterans were established in 1789. Many of the first applications, however, were destroyed by fire in 1800 and again in 1814. A partial record of earlier pensioners does exist for 1792, 1794 and 1795, in Reports to Congress.

      Here is how the pensions went:

      1. Invalid pensioners who were disabled prior to 8/26/1776 (and since 4/19/1775). The Act of 1782 extending the provisions found that there were 1500 (invalid) pensioners on the rolls.
      2. Half-pay for life went to officers, and widows of those officers. This began in 1780; then in 1788 Congress granted seven years half-pay to officers who served at the end of the war.
      3. 2,480 officers received Commutation Certificates, however, delayed payments existed.
      4. The Law of 1818 provided that every indigent person who had served to the war’s close, or for nine months or longer, would receive a pensions. When the law was rewritten in 1820, many names were removed from the pension rolls because they were not indigent.
      5. In 1832 most of the benefits were stripped.

      By 1867 most of the pensioners on the rolls were dead, even though two names went on the rolls thereafter. The last old soldier to die was Daniel F. Bakeman, who died 4/15/1869, at the age of 109 years. In 1869, there were 887 widows on the rolls. And, believe it or not, in 1906, there was still one widow on the pension list. She was Esther S. Damon, who died 11/11/1906.

      Estimates are that 20,485 soldiers were granted pensions in 1818, and 1,200 in 1828, and 33,425 in 1832.

      In 1789 the Federal Government assumed responsibility of the State’s invalid pensions for soldiers on the Continental Line, and in 1804 they assumed all S. C. Invalid pensions, Continental Line.

      Pension sources at family history centers

      Family History Centers have on microfilm “Miscellaneous Numbered Records (the Manuscript File) of the Revolutionary War. This includes 35,000 documents such as letters, pay accounts, oaths of allegiance, pensions, and enlisted papers. 125 reels of microfilm. The index is on 39 reels of microfilm.

      American Prisoners of the Revolution by Dandridge, film #0844970

      Index to Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the Revolutionary War in Organizations from the State of North Carolina, A-Q, film #0821595. R-Z, film #0821596

      Index to the Names of the Braunschweig Corps Who Remained in America, 1776-1783, film #1036138

      Index to the Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, by John P. Buter, Vol. 1-3, film #1035704. Vol. 4-5, film #1035705.

      Pension books at most archives

      The Pension Index, alphabetical by surname, lists State, pension no., etc. If the soldier applied and receive a pension his pension number was prefixed by “S”. If his widow received his pension, prefix was “W”, and if the pension was rejected, prefix was “R”. It is worthwhile reading the rejected pensions, because this provides genealogical data, as well as all the applications.

      Pensions contain:

      1. Soldier’s name, rank, where enlisted, battles fought in, etc.
      2. Wife’s name (or widow), date and place of marriage.
      3. Bible records of family members, as sometimes indigent “children” took up the pension.
      4. Place of residence of soldier, when enlisting, when applying, and other family members.
      5. Date of death of soldier (widow’s pension).

      All of the Revolutionary War Pensions have been abstracted and are available at most archives. These are large books and include a number of volumes.

      Also, the Federal Archives have the original pensions on microfilm… reading these (as opposed to the abstracts) is quite interesting as they contain details of exciting battles, and personal information.

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