May 11, 2012

A Civil War Pension File Can Reveal Family Stories

At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay the fee for the Civil War Pension File of Reuben Lake who served with the New York 127th Infantry.   Then I heard the family tale that he’d been a prisoner at Andersonville who weighed 65 pounds when released and his wife Sarah went to transport him home.  Now that sounded intriguing … BUT be wary of family tales !

I spent the money and was pleasantly surprised to see how large the file was, filled with medical reports and many letters of affidavit from towns people who had known him as a strong and fit man before his service and as a greatly debilitated man when he returned.

Turns out that the Andersonville story was not true. He was never a prisoner though he was injured by a gunshot wound to the neck that, along with the other persistent plague of incessant coughing, piles, dysentery, etc, made his life very difficult after the war.  Some of his war activities and locations were mentioned, though these files are not “war service records” but rather more descriptive of the soldier’s condition after an injury.

Several of the unexpected but very interesting tidbits found in the files include:

  • Date, place and officiant of his marriage to Sarah (certificate was lost)
  • Letters from two of his sisters who served as mid-wives for the delivery of several of his children (and their married names were  revealed or confirmed)
  • Letters from some prominent businessmen in the community who vouched for his diminished strength
  • Height, weight, blood pressure, etc from each doctor’s visit
  • Evidence that Reuben was illiterate based on affidavit from his tent-mate who wrote and read letters back and forth between Reuben and Sarah
  • Documentation that he and Sarah lived in a small log cabin out in the woods, a long walk from town, with 1 milk cow and 10 children.

If you, like me, are interested in the story of the person and how the war impacted him and his family, I suggest that these files can be helpful.  I won’t obtain many, but for the few in whom I have a stronger interest, it provides information not otherwise obtainable.

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