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Reconstructing the Post-War World

By Daniel Hubbard | April 25, 2011

This is the last of a three part look at the Civil War 150 years after it began. The first part was The Census Goes to War the second part can be found at Seven Score and Ten.

The aftermath of the war brought a wealth of genealogical information in the form of pension applications. Disabled soldiers’ pension files and widows’ pension files stored at the National Archives and their equivalents in the state archives of former Confederate states are perhaps the most important postwar records for genealogists. What about other records? What other traces did the aftermath of the war leave in documents that a genealogist might use? Here are some.

The “Freedman’s Bank”

The records of The Freedman’s Saving and Trust Company are fascinating. The bank was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in March of 1865 and functioned from 1866 until 1874. The idea was to foster economic improvement by creating a place where newly freed African-Americans could deposit their savings.

The records of the depositors have details in them that one might not expect. There were blanks on the form for many bits of data. Often only a subset of the information was entered but there are many interesting possibilities. The names of relatives may be listed. If the depositor was a veteran, his unit might appear. Birthplace could have been noted. So might occupation and physical characteristics. Height and complexion could have been filled in.

Then there is the area of the form that reads “Remarks.” This can be the most interesting bit of history on these forms. There is one sort of remark that implies why so much information was recorded. That remark is “Can write own name.” Because it had been illegal for slaves to learn to read and write, an important bit of information was that the depositor could actually sign his name. It was a powerful identifying characteristic and it explains why so many other details were noted. How else could the depositors identities be confirmed? For the majority who could not sign, the remarks area can contain something else to identify the person. One bank office in Kentucky carefully noted identifying marks for that purpose, usually a mark on the more easily visible parts of the body.  “Scar from blow under left eye.” “Scar from bite of dog near chin.” “Scar on right temple from blow of shoe.” “Shot in left arm.” “Pieces out of right ear.” “Scar on left leg from cut of axe.” “Scar on forehead from bite of dog.” “Scar on face from kick.” “Has been shot through body near shoulder.” “Scar over right eye from bite of horse.” “Left leg burned.” “Third finger left hand amputated.” Whether these “identifying marks” were from a slave’s working conditions, violent punishment or army life is impossible to say but that these men could normally be identified by facial scars alone is not a pleasant thought. What the marks on the normally covered parts of the body were usually cannot be said. Life was not easy no matter what made it that way.

These records don’t just record former slaves. Some entries state “Born Free.” The name of the former master and mistress and their plantation can be listed for former slaves. Some depositors were European immigrants. I can only assume that in some cases the bank’s ability to deal with the problems caused by illiteracy attracted people who knew little or no English. On the other hand, some immigrant depositors were Irish. Not surprisingly many of these immigrant records are from the New York branch of the bank but immigrants can be found elsewhere as well. In Washington, D.C. a Charles Smith stands out—Complexion: “Fair,” Place of Birth: “Kingdom of Wurttemberg.”

The 1870 Census

A man who ought to have the right to vote, by Thomas Nast

The 1870 census was the one federal census enumerated during Reconstruction. It was the closest the census had yet come to the ideal of recording full information about everyone living in the United States. Now, at least in principle, the population that was formerly unnamed on the slave schedules was documented by name. It also contains an interesting column. At the far right is the column which is meant to record all males over the age of 21 who were prevented from voting for some reason other than “rebellion or other crime.”

The basic amnesty requirements for former Confederates laid down by Lincoln in 1863 and President Johnson in 1865 was the taking of an oath to defend the Constitution and the Union. Some though, required special pardons. People who had graduated from West Point and Annapolis who became Confederate officers, former Confederate governors and members of Congress who resigned to aid the rebellion were a few of the dozen or so categories of people who required a presidential pardon. Gradually, the requirements were relaxed. On Christmas Day 1868, Johnson issued a blanket pardon. Yet, the wording of this question hints that not all former Confederates had regained their voting rights by 1870. It was not until 1872 that Congress returned voting rights to virtually all former Confederates. Nevertheless, this question explicitly focuses on other peoples’ voting rights. The instructions to the enumerators make it clear that what was being addressed were violations of the 15th Amendment, which prohibited the use of race or former condition of servitude to prevent the exercise of the right to vote. This is the only time that this question appeared in the census.

Another interesting observation about the 1870 census is that it records the drop in wealth of the big slaveholders. If you find a large slaveholder in the 1860 slave schedules, you can check his personal estate in 1860 and compare that to 1870. In some cases the drop you will find is due in part to destruction of property during the war but the disappearance of slaves from the personal property estimate will be there even in areas where armies did not move.

Presidential Pardons

Famous Pardon Seekers at the feet of Columbia by Thomas Nast

Because many former Confederates were required to apply for presidential pardons, there are pardon records. Most Confederates did not need to apply for pardons, so it is not the average man or woman that is most likely to be found here. Confederate Secretary of State and General, Robert Toombs has a file, though he apparently never accepted a pardon. His file simply states that he had vanished and was probably in England or France. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and General John Bell Hood are other people I’ve found in those files.

1890 Veterans’ Schedules

The news about the 1890 Federal Census is mostly bad. The little that survives of the population schedules is minimal indeed. The good news comes in the form of the 1890 Veterans’ Schedules. The bad news returns because if your ancestor was a Confederate veteran, he probably isn’t listed. This census was meant to help the Federal government keep track of Union veterans for whom there were or might be pension obligations. The other bit of bad news has to do with places of residence. What remains suggests that the schedules were stored alphabetically by state and that something bad happened to the schedules for states early in the alphabet. Up to Kentucky, no state schedules remain (the District of Columbia schedules have been preserved). In Kentucky, only schedules for eastern counties remain. For the places that do remain, the schedules can give you not just the soldiers unit and disability but also the veteran’s residence. With the loss of virtually all of the 1890 populations schedules, the veterans’ schedule can be a way of finding a person’s place of residence.

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