Civil War Widows’ Pension Digitization Project at the National Archives

Civil War Widows’ Pension Digitization Project at the National Archives


Some days you’re looking at them, it’s
just a file. But then another day you find a soldier who left nine children at home and
went off to war. This happened to be the first file I opened this morning and you never know
what to expect. All of a sudden there popped out in the file this wonderful tintype! Here’s
a letter from a private who survived Andersonville but reports on a private who died there. We
right now are located in just one of the stacks of the Civil War Widows’ Pension Application
files. There are a total of 1.28 million case files and so it occupies a good 2 ½ floors
here at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The digitization project is the first
time that we’re reformatting the paper to digital images for access on line. The processing
of the records is really a multi-step process. So the volunteers have a lot of things to
think about as they approach each file. And this is one that has been glued in many places.
So there’s no way to open this document. So what we do then is take a tag and flag
it and then just make sure it gets to the conservationists. The documents were originally
tri-folded and put inside these wrappers. And the wrapper is something we always have
to check because people have found documents inside there. The document is in pieces. It
will then go to conservation. And they will repair it before they send it to the photographers.
It just ensures that the bits stay together in one piece. And the pink alert alerts Earl.
When we find records that have paper clips in them we’re instructed to take them out.
But we have to be careful because if we just took it out we’d rip the paper. So we use
a piece of plastic, slip it under the paper clip and very gently we make it come out.
This is a typical box in the Widow Certificate Series, which houses within it 25 to 35, on
average, case files. Each case file has its own envelope. And it can go anywhere from
10 pages up to several hundred pages. Target sheets that we create are used to, for the
indexing. We’re looking at 19th-century handwriting. Double S’s look like a P and
an S. The S’s and the L’s look alike. We just try to make sure that we agree on
what those letters really are. In O’Sullivan, do we put the apostrophe? Yeah, right. Sometimes
when a volunteer opens a case file a face peers back at them. Sometimes it’s a soldier
in full uniform. Sometimes it’s the wife herself. Occasionally we find a document that
reflects the work of a clerk in the pension office. “These papers, having been sorted
with considerable care are now fastened together in the hope that the next man may escape the
annoyance and drudgery that would be entailed were they chucked back in the promiscuous
condition in which they were found.” I apparently was the next man! This is a mother’s pension
file based on the service of a soldier named Timothy O’Meara. O’Meara was an officer.
He was a close friend of General Grant’s. The chaplain writes, “When O’Meara’s
body was brought from where he died, on its way General Grant ordered the coffin to be
opened that he might look upon the face of the gallant hero.” We’re processing approximately
25 to 30,000 case files each year. And the volunteers log more than 700 hours each month.
Without their work, truly the National Archives would never have the resources to approach
a project that is this large and vast. For a Civil War buff it’s like the kid in the
candy store. I wanted to give back, because I have found records on line and I know somebody
worked to put them on line. The career path that I want to follow is not necessarily in
teaching, it’s doing stuff like this, working on projects for public access. My great-great-grandfather
served in the Civil War as did my wife’s great-great-grandfather. Both units fought
in the same battle, at Gettysburg. Mine served on the Union side and hers served on the Confederate
side. We’ve not yet gotten to his pension yet, but we will. Though we have 1.28 million
case files in the series and likely none of the current volunteers will be here when we
reach the end, I’d like to think that we have to just start somewhere. “We both reached
Andersonville Prison, July 9th ’64. Benjamin was healthy and well at first, but about the
middle of August following, large scurvy sores came on his left leg making him quite lame.
Benjamin F. Jenks died of the above-mentioned diseases, he being in the adjoining bunk to
me.” You run across something like this and it gets to you. That’s why we do this
stuff.

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