Persons of Color
of Jubilee (1863)
"Not Due to Vicious Habits"
a Veteran’s Pension
by George F. Nagle
Newspapers during the Civil War were filled with articles about hardships endured by the troops, meritorious and valiant actions on the field of battle, and glorious victories, or terrible defeats. Veterans who returned to their farms and trades after the war earned the prestige of having served in a patriotic cause, and enjoyed an increased respect in their communities from their service. In their later years, however, they found that prestige mattered little in conquering the bureaucratic battlements of the Pension Bureau.
it had during previous wars, the Congress of the United States enacted
legislation providing pensions
for it’s veterans who were maimed and disabled in the Civil War.
The legislation, which took effect before the war had ended, fell under
the jurisdiction of the Committee on Invalid Pensions, which was established
in 1831 and which, up to the Civil War, was concerned mostly with pension
matters relating to the War of 1812.
Not quite two years after the war ended, the Committee on Invalid Pensions
became so overburdened with claims from that war, that in March 1867,
all claims relating to the War of 1812 were transferred to the Committee
on Revolutionary Pensions. Eventually the Committee on Invalid Pensions
became exclusively concerned with matters relating to the Civil War,
and remained so until 1939.
the sudden influx of claims in 1867, most veterans of the war did not
apply for a pension until nearly two decades later, when advancing
years combined with old war wounds and disease-weakened bodies to make
earning a living wage increasingly painful and difficult. The United
States Pension Bureau, by now housed in new and stylish quarters designed
and built by architect and former Army Quartermaster General Montgomery
C. Meigs, provided pre-printed forms to make the application process
more uniform, and supposedly easier. Most veterans would find, however,
that in order to win a monthly stipend, they would have to first conquer
a foe firmly ensconced behind breastworks of declarations, affidavits
Parfet was two weeks away from celebrating his 28th birthday when he
was called to service with the 173rd Drafted
K, from his home
in Wiconisco in the upper reaches of Dauphin County. A coal miner by trade
and heritage—as a child Parfet had emigrated from Wales with his family
who settled in the rich anthracite coal fields of Central Pennsylvania—he,
like many in the tightly knit Welsh community, resisted voluntary involvement
in the war, but served honorably with the regiment throughout its nine months
existence when called to do so. His regiment saw little or no fighting, and
spent most of the winter and spring in guard duty around Norfolk, Virginia.
Following the battle of Gettysburg, the 173rd was assigned to the Eleventh
Corps in the pursuit of Lee, but soon found itself again assigned to guard
duty around the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. In August of 1863 the regiment
returned to Harrisburg to be mustered out, and Parfet returned to his work
as a coal miner.
status in the community, however, improved as a result of his veteran
status. He soon caught the eye of a local girl, Henrietta
they were married in nearby Tremont. Over the course of the next seventeen
years the couple raised nine children. Mining provided the daily meat and
bread on the table for the large family, although by the time Parfet reached
late fifties, asthma, probably aggravated by the daily inhalation of coal
dust and the many noxious fumes present in mines, was making the daily
the mines nearly intolerable for the old soldier. In addition to breathing
problems, Parfet also suffered from heart problems and a partially disabled
left hand resulting from a premature dynamite explosion in 1868 at Short
Mountain Colliery. He decided to apply for an "Invalid Pension" in
June, 1892, at age 57.
Pension Act of June 27 1890 provided for between 6 and 12 dollars per month
for an honorably
discharged soldier who had served at least
ninety days, and whose "permanent physical disability [was] not
due to vicious habits." Parfet qualified under those conditions
and filed the proper forms through Wiconisco Justice of the Peace George
A. Pinkerton (his brother-in-law) with the Washington D.C. law firm of
William B. Greene and Company, paying ten dollars to have that law firm
handle his claim with the Committee on Invalid Pensions. In his initial
application, Parfet claimed disability based upon "asthma, cardiac
partially disabled left hand."
took a month for the War Department to validate Parfet’s wartime
service with the 173rd regiment, which was not an unreasonable length
of time based upon the flood of applications that were pouring into the
Commission’s offices each day. Further proof of his disability
was required, however, and in September 1892, Justice of the Peace Pinkerton
again filled out an affidavit verifying that Parfet’s barely functional
left hand was not disabled due to vicious habits. This had to be subsequently
bolstered by the testimony of John O’Leary and John Kean, two workmen
who were with Parfet when the explosion crippled his hand. In an affidavit
filed in April, 1893, O’Leary testified that he witnessed "the
premature explosion which resulted in the laceration of [Parfet’s]
entire left hand and causing the amputation of his left hand little finger." Kean
testified that he "saw his hand shortly after the accident, having
set up with him all night."
testimony necessitated another check with the War Department, who in
October, 1893, again
verified Parfet’s wartime service. Mostly
satisfied that the pen-sion applicant did indeed suffer a disabled left
hand, the Committee then challenged his disability due to asthma and
heart problems. An affidavit filed in Oc-tober from Wiconisco physician
Dr. Charles D. Christ-man stated that Parfet was "disabled from
manual labor from asthmatic trouble to the extent of one half & injury
of the left hand both troubles which are of a permanent character also
not due to vicious habits." Dr. Christman added that he had been
acquainted with Parfet for the last sixteen years and knew him to be
a man of temperate habits. More affidavits were filed that same month,
from James Fennel and George McClelland, Wiconisco and Lykens residents
who knew Parfet, and who could testify about his dis-abilities, and more
importantly, could testify that he was "a sober, honest and industrious
gentleman." John O’Leary was again called upon to supply a
handwritten copy of his testimony, and another physician, Dr. W. J. Smith
of Lykens, was called upon to add his testimony to the case. Finally,
more than fifteen months after making his initial application, Caleb
Parfet was approved for an invalid pension of 8 dollars per month.
to the experiences of many other Civil War veterans, Parfet had a comparatively
easy time in proving his qualifications for a pension.
In 1880, more than a decade before he made his initial application,
the U.S. Senate was considering changes that would speed up the adjudication
process by adding an attorney and examining surgeons in each congressional
the preamble to a supporting petition, concerned citizens complained "there
are now three hundred thousand unsettled claims for pension, on account
of disabilities or death incurred in the service. New claims are coming
at the rate of fifteen hundred per month. The unsettled claims have been
accumulating from 1862 to the present time. There are more than sixty-five
which have been pending five years and upwards, and thirty thousand which
have been pending ten years. This fact alone is conclusive of the
the present system of laws for the sacrifices they have made for the Union."
cannot be claimed that the character of the individual was cause for
suspicion in delaying claims. Parfet was well respected in his community,
to the extent
that his everyday activities were sometimes reported in the local newspaper,
the Lykens Register, as community news. One item noted "Caleb Parfet
has weatherboarded in part and given one coat of paint to his property
on the corner
of Pottsville and Spring streets." Another item noted "Caleb
Parfet was the only army man from this place, who left Monday for the G.A.R.
at Buffalo, N.Y." If character was the sole factor, men like Parfet
should have been approved nearly immediately. But delays, sometimes of
more than ten
years, were commonplace. Quite a few applicants—veterans of Antietam,
Shiloh, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor—survivors of years of bad food, disease,
intolerable sanitary conditions and harsh weather--died, impoverished,
while waiting for the government to approve their application.
Parfet applied for and received increases in his pension every few years,
always with a battery
of paperwork to back up his claim of
failing health. He died in 1906 at the age of 72, his passing noted,
appropriately enough with a standard form in his pension file, as follows: "Sir:
I have the honor to report that the above-named pensioner who was last
paid at $12, to Feb. 4, 1906, has been dropped because of death."
Federal Pension Application File, Parfet, Caleb, Co. K., 173 Pennsylvania
Infantry, file designation #SC 866-638. National Archives and Record
Administration, Washington, D.C.
Bates, Samuel P. History
of the Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-1865. Harrisburg:
B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.
Register, Lykens, PA. August – September, 1897.
Article by George F. Nagle
This article originally appeared in The Bugle, the newsletter
of the Camp Curtin Historical Society