Research Memories – Genealogical or Historical or Both
Reading a Revolutionary Pension Application File can be an exercise in futility or an exquisite treasure trove treat or both. The applicant can’t remember exactly when he served or how long, but was pretty sure it was a 30 day enlistment probably in the fall, of eiither 1780 or 1781, or maybe the winter. Do the math and cut him some slack. If your ancestor was born around 1757, he was somewhere in the vicinity of 22 to 25 during 1780 or 1781. If he applied for a pension after the 7 June 1832 Pension Act, he was in his seventies remembering things that happened fifty years prior. If he applied after 1840 he was in his eighties remembering or trying to remember events sixth years prior. He may not have the month or year right, but the men and the battles will probably be spot on. Review every battle, march or skirmish mentioned and get outside corroboration for dates. List every man and unit he mentions in his application. He remembered a Lieutenant or a Captain (spelling of surnames is always suspect, think McNeil, MacNeal, M’Neill, etc.), and aggravatingly never mentions the first names of either man. This can also be checked. The men with whom he served closely may not still be alive or in the vicinity, so the men he mentions may not be those he knew well, just those who were available to corroborate his service. Those facts can be supplied by other sources, possibly pension applications of other men listed in the application or pension applications by others in the units mentioned in his application or applications of others in the vicinity.
Start Revolutionary War research with the National Archives (NARA), as it was federal money that paid their salaries, bonuses and pensions, except for militia. Howard H. Wehmann wrote the pamphlet describing Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrnat Application Files M804 for the National Archives and his explanation is thorough and succinct. The amount of information available for the military and for the Revolutionary War that has not yet been microfilmed or digitized is immense. All the soldiers in the war have not been identified. Those who died before the need based portion of the pension legislation was changed or those who were not destitute didn’t apply. Descendants in the DAR or NSSAR have proved many lines for many patriots, but not all of them, just the easy ones. Until all those files in the Veterans Affairs, War Department, House of Representatives, Senate, or Executive branch that had to do with the war are digitized, there are still places to look for your ancestor. Some estimates are that 75% of the young men of the time served one way or another.
FamilySearch, fold3, Heritage Quest and Ancestry all have Revolutionary War files available for research. FamilySearch is a free service online as is HeritageQuest, through your local library. fold3 is a subscription service but there is a free 7 day trial. Ancestry is a subscription service however, the military records are free this weekend. The digitized records are also available at each NARA facility for free, but they are NOT open on Memorial Day or other federal holidays.
Numbering was set by each clerk in each office. The official file number of the Revolutionary War Pension Application File is the number on the index card. John King from Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then the Holston Valley of North Carolina (later to become Tennessee), was one of three brothers who had pensions from the war in Sullivan Co., Tennessee. (Hmmn, a true three brothers story, you say? Well, there were really seven brothers, a sister and the parents who moved from Pennsylvania to the Holston Valley.) John’s claim was labeled on the index card file as S2701, however on the document below there is clearly an additional number, a different clerk’s numbering system – 3503. The whole file is referred to within the series as S2701, but… don’t fight the system, Nathan Rice, the clerk recorded this document in Book D, Vol. 9, Page 104 and perhaps it was the 3503rd file from East Tennessee. Perhaps it was the 3503rd line in Rice’s book, perhaps it was his superior’s 3503rd file. There may be more information in the book that assigned that number.
Memory is a tricky thing. This past week I unearthed a 42 year old photograph taken very probably in September of 1971 at William Annin Jr. High in Bernards Township, Somerset Co., New Jersey. It is unlikely I would recognize these men on the street today. I was surprised I came up with 28 out of 44 names: Mr. McKibben, Brad Slocum, Mark, Rich Plunkett, John Morrin, Seldon Staples, Jim Milne, Dave King, Jack M., Mike McCormick, Howie Baker, John Rogers, John Ballinger, Kevin Brown, Bill Talpey, Ken Houtz, Mike Antoniotti, Bob Whitelaw, Jim, Bob Ritter, Pat Eastin, Chip Childs, Tom Cook, Jeff Pagliuca, Mike C., Pete Renzi, Jim McC., and Jeff Turner. For some of them I don’t remember surnames, but still more than half came to mind.
Soldiers and team members have an advantage in the memory game over classmates and office employees, I think it is the adrenalin raging at the time which improves overall memory.
Nothing has triggered the full names of the coaches. One of the men was the algebra teacher, Mr. McKibben. Like soldiers in the war and their officers, I did not call him by his first name unless it was Mister. Some of these boys rode the same bus as I did, some I knew from Millridge, some were in classes at Cedar Hill, Annin or Ridge, some were from the neighborhood in West Millington, some closer to Finley Ave. and some helped build floats for Homecoming. It wasn’t a big place.
Pull out a class photo from your childhood and see how many names you come up with. There is a boy in the back row whose name I can not remember but I do know him, not quite the class clown, but definitely a cut up, goof off who was always laughing.
Revolutionary War soldiers were asked from 18 March 1818 (3 Stat. 410) forward to remember and prove their war service. (Before 1818 pension were granted for disability and death, not necessarily for service.) Few men still had their discharge papers thirty to sixty years after the fact. They did however remember the war. Montel Williams played a Lt. Curtis Rivers in “Real Deal Seal” a 2000 episode of JAG in which he confronts a politician faking military honors and service. Paraphrasing because I don’t remember exactly (that’s ironic), Lt. Rivers says
“Tell me the names of the men in your platoon, what they looked like, what they were like. I remember the names of every soldier in my platoons, their stories, their hometowns. I won’t ever forget them.”
People have been lying and/or exaggerating about mililtary service for as long as there have been wars, sometimes for money and sometimes for reflected hero worship. Just as there are records of pensions denied for lack of proof of service or proof of marriage in the case of the widows, there is a web site especially for debunking false Navy SEAL imposters – Scourge of Navy Seal Imposters. The missions may have been all on a Classified or “need to know” basis, but there are records somewhere. The federal goverment keeps track of tons of data. Look for it. It’s what researchers do.