My Gr-gr-great grandfather, William Taylor, served briefly in the Union cavalry at the outbreak of the Civil War before a fall from a horse rendered him unfit for service. He died from complications of his disability in 1864. In 1922, his destitute widow was still without a pension. The extraordinary file I discovered in the National Archives on her survivor's claim has been a boon for me as a family historian, but it is also the record of an illiterate and impoverished widow struggling unsuccessfully with government bureaucracy unmoved by her plight.
This colorized tintype was among my Grandmother Clara Livingston Abbott's effects and identified by her as Great Grandfather Taylor. The shell jacket and early war pattern Hardee Hat with crossed sabers identifies him as a cavalryman, and my grandmother's people were from Newburgh, New York. Determining that his name was William Taylor ,and a search of Civil War Muster Rolls from New York while on a trip to Washington in 2000, produced his brief service record.
Private William Taylor was mustered into Company A, 1st NY "Lincoln" Cavalry on July 27th, 1861 in New York City. This was the first volunteer cavalry regiment accepted into US service during the Civil War. He was 32 years old, a recent immigrant from England and a weaver by trade with a wife and three small children. Like many volunteers in the Union cavalry, he may not have known how to ride.
In September, while riding at Camp Meigs in Washington, Pvt. Taylor was thrown from his mount and landed hard on stony ground, causing internal injuries. After what must have been three weeks of agony in hospital, he was discharged for disability in early October, 1861. The examining surgeon certified that he was incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of "spinal irritation, produced by an injury of the spine" and thought "probably several months must elapse before his recovery, though his injuries are not likely to prove permanent."
Despite the surgeon's assessment, Pvt. Taylor's wife Eliza Carter Taylor's 1905 affidavit in the pension files describes more severe and lasting disabilities:
"When he was in the service,he was thrown from a horse and injured his back and kidneys so as to cause bleeding from the rectum. Being in a very weakened state, he contracted Typhoid fever from which he died. He left four small children."
The family had by then moved to Roxbury, now a part of Boston, Massachusetts, and the City Registrar provided a record of his death, November 26, 1864, with "bleeding from the bowels" listed as the cause. His injuries apparently did not prevent his siring a fourth child born the year before, but typhoid could easily have been aggravated by a weakened constitution and the rectal bleeding is consistent with the internal damage he had previously sustained. As will be seen, however, this evidence was deemed far from conclusive by the examining authorities considering Eliza Taylor's pension applications.
The General Pension Act of 1862 provided Union veterans and their surviving Dependants benefits based on rank, degree of disability, and term of service. This act and its subsequent renewals placed a high burden of proof on applicants to show proof of enlistment, that their injuries or disabilities were related to wartime service, that they were of sober habits and, if widowed, had neither remarried nor been living in notorious cohabitation. With nearly 2 million Union veterans added to the rolls during the Civil War, the amount of paperwork and documentation involved was extraordinary and a great bureaucracy arose around pensions which included a new building for the Bureau of Pensions (completed in 1887), lawyers who specialized in veterans' claims, and organizations like the Grand Army of the Republic which advocated for increased veterans benefits.
As the decades passed, veterans benefits did expand. Those whose disabilities prevented them from performing manual labor were deemed eligible for veterans pension under the Dependant Pension Act of 1890, and many new applicants filed (a Gr-gr-great Uncle, Theodore Abbott of the 9th NY "Hawkins Zouaves" among them). Term of service remained a key limitation, and Pvt. Taylor's less than 90 days in the "Lincoln" Cavalry prevented his wife and children from applying for a pension during the rest of the 19th century.
Eliza Taylor lived with her son, William, for the rest of her life. She moved with him to New Windsor, now part of Newburgh, then followed him back to Boston for another seven years before returning to Newburgh where her daughter Clara (standing next to her mother at right) met and married my Great-gr-grandfather Walter Livingston - the bearer of an ancient name but not of fortune. These were struggling, working class people but well thought of in the Newburgh community, which as it turned out was a critically important to Eliza Taylor when seeking testimonials as to her moral character from neighbors in her pension application.
Her 1905 pension application was rejected on grounds that she could not provide testimony from the doctor who attended her husband on his deathbed that he died of causes directly attributable to his wartime disability. The doctor was by that time also deceased. Nor did she have an example of her husband's signature (and she herself signed her affidavits with an "X"). She secured letters from her sister-in-law in Philadelphia. Finally - and it took more than ten years for the Pension Bureaucracy to confirm this - she was without title even under the most recent Pension act because her husband was discharged two weeks shy of the required 90 days service.
These is a sense of pathos and desperation in these pension files. There is an undated letter in a thick and shaky hand from Eliza Taylor's son, William, to the Commissioner of Pensions that stands out in bold relief amid the piles of official correspondence and cool, typewritten responses:
Hon Mr Saltzgaber
Dear Sir - My Mother has Got a honorable Discharge Paper for Physical Disability of Farthers he Enlisted in the Lincoln Calvery New Yourk to serve 3 years but he only served 70 days i Would like to know if he is entitled to a Pension under the Law his Name Was Wm Taylor We Was told to Write you and find out Please let me know...
This letter by itself had no impact, but the family started to enlist the help of area legislators. Thomas W Bradley of the 20th NY district in 1911, Edmund Platt of the 26th District in 1916, and then Hamilton Fish in 1921 all used their influence. Congressman Bradley notes in his letter to the Commissioner of Pensions that "This old lady is now in frail health and destitute financially, and has the sympathetic interest of leading people of Newburgh." Nothing could be done, however, until the Pension laws were again changed in 1920, finally allowing claims by Dependants of Union soldiers with less than 90 days in service.
But here a new complication arose. Eliza Taylor was now 90 years old and there was no one living besides her children who had known her for the full period following her husband's death in Boston. Her marriage status was questioned, and there is even - I can only assume misfiled since there is nothing else in the record to support it - a scrap of paper contained in her pension record rejecting a claim for pension application made in 1921 by the widow of a soldier named Elliott D. Stone on the grounds that both before and since his death the woman had been living in "notorious and adulterous cohabitation" and the first marriage had not been dissolved by divorce! Whether this red herring fouled Eliza Taylor's application I cannot say, but a special inquiry was called at Conressman Fish's insistance to review her application and determine whether she had at any time remarried since 1864. Some of the previous material in her file had not been notarized and these also were required to be put in order before the claim could proceed.
The investigator took her affidavits once more and stated that he found all the testimony from her and her supporters to be of the highest order and that they were people of the first-class. Nonetheless, while he could find no evidence that she had ever remarried in New York, he felt compelled to refer the matter to Boston to account for the years spent there and there the record ends. There is no evidence that my Gr-gr-great Grandmother ever received a pension.
This family photograph, taken in Newburgh in 1908, shows Eliza Taylor holding her great granddaughter Clara Leanor (Livingston) Abbott, flanked by daughter Clara (Taylor) Livingston and grandson William Edward Livingston. Clara Abbott was my grandmother. She almost never looked back at the past, and only in her final years and because it was clearly of interest to her family did she set down her reminiscences of what was a difficult and lonely childhood. Still, there was a box of old tintypes and turn of the century photographs that she helped me identify, including the brown eyed cavalryman William Taylor and his aged widow Eliza. Their story, housed in the vaults of an impersonal bureaucracy that failed to acknowledge a widow's pension claim, is nonetheless priceless to me.