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Harrisburg's Civil War
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Harrisburg and the Central Pennsylvania region in the Civil War


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"Not Due to Vicious Habits"
Obtaining a Veteran’s Pension

article 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.

As 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.

Despite 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 and questionnaires.

Caleb Parfet was two weeks away from celebrating his 28th birthday when he was called to service with the 173rd Drafted Militia, Company 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.

His status in the community, however, improved as a result of his veteran status. He soon caught the eye of a local girl, Henrietta Pinkerton, and in December 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 his late fifties, asthma, probably aggravated by the daily inhalation of coal dust and the many noxious fumes present in mines, was making the daily trip into 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.

The 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 weakness and
partially disabled left hand."

It 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."

This 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.

Compared 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 district.

In 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 forward 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 thousand claims which have been pending five years and upwards, and thirty thousand which have been pending ten years. This fact alone is conclusive of the inadequacy of the present system of laws for the sacrifices they have made for the Union."

It 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. encampment 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.

Caleb 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."

Sources used

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.

Lykens 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




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