A Pension Act for Civil War Union soldiers and sailors was adopted in February 1862. Beneficiaries were entitled to a monthly payment for those disabled during military service or, if killed, for their survivors. The amount depended upon rank. If judged disabled for manual labor, those ranked Lieutenant Colonel or above received $30 monthly whereas Privates got $8. A couple of years later the Act was amended to provide benefits specified by an itemized disabilities schedule.
Payments commenced once an application was approved. There was no pension for merely becoming aged. About 2.2 million men served in the Union military during the war. About 365,000 died and 280,000 survived wounds, meaning that less than 650,000 participants qualified for pensions. Ultimately, however, the active recipient list would peak at about one million, which means that the accumulated number of recipients was even larger.
Only eight years after the end of the war the number of beneficiaries reached an apparent peak at around 110,000 in 1873. They numbered less than 25% of all eligible veterans and survivors, including the survivors of soldiers who died of wounds after the war. The Commissioner of Pensions, James Baker, predicted that expenditures would soon stop growing when he said in 1872, “We have reached the apex of the mountain.”
Apparently, there were three reasons why only a minority of qualified veterans applied for pensions. First, most were youthful men who chose to focus on building independent livelihoods after the war. Second, some were unfamiliar with the paperwork, although lawyers were permitted to collect application fees to help. Third, others considered pensions as charity and were too proud to take handouts.
Despite Commissioner Baker’s prediction, the “apex of the mountain” was only a foothill. Disbursements for Union veterans pensions would not top-out until 1921, which was sixty years after the war started. Moreover, as indicted in the chart below, for thirty years between 1880 and 1910 Union veterans pensions would average more than 25% of the federal budget. They would peak at more than 40% in 1893 and only start dropping as a percent of the total after the Spanish American War triggered a steady expansion of federal spending. By 1917 the accumulated pensions totaled over $5 billion, which was more than twice the amount spent by the federal and Northern state governments to fight the war.
Union veterans pensions grew for more than fifty years because they became a bribe to create a Republican-loyal voter constituency. The strategy was particularly fruitful in Midwestern farm states where the Party’s high tariff and deflationary monetary policies were unpopular.
My Civil War Books
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated