How Black Women Fought for Civil War Pensions and Benefits

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Over two million soldiers enlisted in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. When it ended, the United States had many more veterans and surviving dependents than it had ever had before. In the decades that followed, military pensions became a major part of the federal budget, accounting for 37 percent of the budget by 1894. 

Despite the enormous growth in payments to veterans and their relatives after the Civil War, securing compensation could be an arduous process that required significant time and resources. The legacy of slavery made that process especially challenging for Black women applying for benefits. 

READ MORE: Pensions for Veterans Were Once Viewed as Government Handouts

Marriages of Enslaved Couples Initially Not Recognized

Widows of Civil War soldiers could begin applying to the Bureau of Pensions during the war, and one of the first major obstacles for Black women who had survived slavery was the bureau’s marriage requirement. Women needed to prove they had been married to their deceased husbands to receive survivor benefits. However, because enslaved men and women hadn’t been legally able to marry, the Bureau of Pensions didn’t initially recognize their unions.



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