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March 8: Civil War Pensions

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Veterans, even those who were wounded, have not always been readily supported. It’s an issue the United States has struggled with since its founding. The Continental Congress pledged money for anyone wounded in the Revolutionary War, but the new government was strapped for cash and didn’t follow through. Veterans of the Mexican American War only received pensions forty years after the war ended.

Civil War veterans also faced challenges when trying to obtain promised benefits. In the 1880s, commemorations of the war were popular, with long parades and speeches, and while the recognition was nice, veterans needed help as age and old wounds took their toll. Union veterans were covered under the Federal system beginning in 1862. No one would get rich. The usual amount was eight dollars a month. And the system was stretched thin. With more than two million veterans who could legitimately claim the benefit, help was often slow coming.

On this date in 1888, the Jamestown Weekly reported on a debate in Congress regarding veteran pensions. Senator John Ingalls of Kansas spoke on behalf of the Grand Army of the Republic. Ingalls took exception to remarks made by Democratic Senator George Vest of Missouri. Vest was a former Confederate Congressman who made disparaging comments about Union veterans, calling them “a mob of sordid plunderers.”

Ingalls, a Republican, replied that whenever anyone talked about the Union armies and the “grandeur of their achievements,” the only response of the “Confederates on the other side of the chamber” was to appeal to partisan hatred and malice. He said, “The South should be thankful it did not have to foot the entire pension bill.” He resented Confederates who attempted to minimize the meager amounts paid to “the mutilated and disabled survivors of the army of the Union.”

North Dakota was home to many Civil War veterans and this topic was of great interest in the state. North Dakotans were offended by the insults directed at the Union veterans and supported pensions for them. When Congress approved veterans’ pensions in 1888, the Bismarck Tribune lauded “the pensions long due them.” The last pension for a Civil War veteran was paid in 1956, with two dependents receiving payments until 2012.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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