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  • Pensions and ProtestFormer Slaves and the Reconstructed American State
  • Dale Kretz (bio)

A chilling wind tore through central Georgia in the winter of 1865. Huddled in tents near Atlanta was the 138th U.S. Colored Troops, organized nearby just months before. One of the last black regiments formed in the Civil War, it drew its numbers from the formerly enslaved populations fleeing plantations in the wake of Sherman's March. One unhappy night, the icy current ripped a tent away from its stakes, leaving exposed a man who would endure the consequences for sixty-five years.

As a slave, he had been known as Anderson Odom. Now he was Anderson Freeman. After escaping Jack Odom's plantation at age twenty, Freeman had made the one-hundred-mile journey northward through Georgia from Columbus to Atlanta, where he enlisted in the 138th USCT in July 1865. Following the winter storm, he could not walk for nearly a month. He spent that time in his quarters, treated by the regimental surgeon. He would walk again but would always be left with rheumatism, a broad nineteenth-century term for a range of arthritic symptoms. When Freeman was forty-four, he applied for a pension from the U.S. government, alleging he was "still suffering from the effects" and "cannot perform the labor of an able bodied man caused by my exposure in the service of the U.S. Army." A board of federally deputized physicians measured every part of the former slave's body, concluding rheumatism had disabled him 4/18ths for the performance of manual labor and therefore merited a pension.1

Anderson Freeman was one of hundreds of thousands of freedpeople who came into contact with the federal government in the four decades after the Civil War.2 They did so by actively pursuing military pensions through the U.S. Pension Bureau. In the past two decades, historians have used USCT pension files as an invaluable window into African American experiences of slavery, war, and freedom. Most notably, they have used them to explore social and work relations in slavery; the experiences of soldiers and veterans; and the politics of sex, family, and citizenship.3 This article attempts to situate the pension struggles of former slaves within [End Page 425] the larger project of state building embodied by the U.S. Pension Bureau.4 Indeed, the pension files of former slaves allow us to reconceptualize fundamental assumptions about the federal government and the aftermath of emancipation in America. The post-Reconstruction era is conventionally narrated in terms of exclusion. The federal government, betraying the revolutionary promise of wartime abolition, soon abandoned the cause of freedpeople, essentially leaving them to their own devices in the sharecropping South without meaningful access to or support from the federal state. Widespread disenfranchisement, Black Codes, and the rise of Jim Crow all negated the constitutional rights of African Americans. And so, though not without good reason, even as scholars uncover extraordinary grassroots movements in the rural South, African Americans are still largely painted as outsiders to the state building projects of postwar America.

This article challenges the conventional narrative by detailing the extensive interactions that formerly enslaved veterans had with federal officials of the Pension Bureau.5 Freeborn veterans of black state regiments and the USCT, as well as their widows, had always been officially included in the application process for federal pensions. For a decade, however, formerly enslaved veterans of the USCT faced legal prohibition. Yet on March 3, 1873, Congress passed a vitally important act consolidating procedures and increasing pension rates. One provision of that bill stipulated that every pensioner listed as a slave on his regiment's rolls "shall be on the same footing as to bounty and pension as though they had not been slaves at the date of their enlistment."6

On the surface, the Consolidation Act of 1873 was one of great generosity, finally securing the extension of justly earned benefits to the most dispossessed of veterans and widows. In the words of the bill's spokesman in Congress, "if any one class of our soldiers deserve more at our hands than any other, it is that class which...