An Overview of Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Legislation
and the Southern Campaigns Pension Transcription Project
By Will Graves
(revised March 28, 2017)
Beginning as early at 1776, the Continental Congress recognized the benefit of extending pension and bounty land benefits to the men who fought for America’s independence from Great Britain. Initially aimed at creating enticements to recruit and retain the services of the men serving in the Continental Army and Navy, over time the scope of these acts was expanded to extend benefits to more of the veterans of the Revolution including men whose served in the state militias and privateers and, eventually, to their widows.
To avail themselves of the benefits of these acts, the veterans and their widows were required to file applications detailing their services and other information about themselves and their families. These applications tell the compelling stories of the men and women who risked their lives and property to lay the foundation of the United States of America. Unfortunately, most of the documentation relating to the earliest of these acts (those pre-dating 1818) was destroyed by fires in Washington D. C. in the early part of the Nineteenth Century. The documentation that survives and the documentation from the later acts, however, provide a wealth of information of interest to both historians and genealogists.
The applications are housed in the National Archives in Washington. For a fee, the Archives will provide photocopies of the contents of the files of individual veterans. For specifics on getting photocopies of the files housed at the National Archives, see its website at http://www.archives.gov/.
Some public and institutional libraries have microfilm copies of the pension files contained at the Archives. Additionally, online services HeritageQuest.com, Ancestry.com and Fold3.com offer access to these files. HeritageQuest is available only through public and institutional libraries; individuals cannot subscribe to it. For a membership fee, Ancestry.com and Fold3.com offer individuals access to digital images of the entire pension file. For current subscription information for Fold3.com, see its website at http://www.fold3.com/. Ancestry.com’s website is https://www.ancestry.com/ . The quality of the images posted on Fold3 and Ancestry varies from file to file, though as a general rule the images on Ancestry.com are more legible than those posted on Fold3.com. Ancestry.com owns both HeritageQuest.com and Fold3.com.
The following is an abbreviated summary of each of the significant federal pension and bounty land acts given in chronological order of enactment:
On August 26, 1776, the Continental Congress enacted the first pension law under which half pay for life or during disability was extended to every officer, soldier or sailor losing a limb in any engagement, or being so disabled in the service of the United States as to render him incapable of earning a living. The resolution allowed for proportionate relief to those who were partially disabled from earning a living. Without the power to raise money to fund the law, however, Congress was dependent on each State to execute the law.
As a direct response to an appeal by General George Washington who was desperate to retain officers in the Continental service, on May 15, 1778, Congress unanimously voted to provide for half pay for 7 years after the conclusion of the war for all officers in the Continental Line who remained in the service until the conclusion of the war. Enlisted men who remained in the Continental Line until the conclusion of the war were to receive a gratuity of $80 each.
On August 24, 1780, Congress extended the benefits of the 1778 act to provide for half pay for 7 years for the widows and orphans of officers who died in service.
Again in response to a plea from General Washington whose officer corps was being depleted by the resignation of men unable to support their families on their meager pay, on October 21, 1780, Congress amended the May 15, 1778 Act to provide for half pay for life to all officers who continued in service to the end of the war, to commence immediately upon their leaving the service at the conclusion of the war.
A resolution passed on April 23, 1782, allowed soldiers, who were sick or wounded, and were reported unfit for duty either in the field or in garrison to receive a discharge and to be pensioned at $5 per month.
Once more at the urging of General Washington who was moved by the complaints of his officers in their “Newburgh Addresses,” on March 22, 1783, the May 15, 1778 Act again was amended to change the half pay for life to full pay for 5 years for officers who had served to the war’s conclusion, with payment to be made in money, or securities bearing interest at the rate of six percent per annum. This legislation became known as the Commutation Act. The Paymaster General reported to Congress that there were 2,480 officers entitled to half pay or commutation.
On June 7, 1785, a resolution was passed recommending to the States that they adopt a uniform method of providing for invalid pensioners. Commissioned officers wholly disabled from earning a living were to be allowed a half pay pension for life. Non-commissioned officers or privates wholly disabled were to be paid full pensions of $5 per month for life. Proportionate allowance was to be made for partial disabilities. Each State was to administer these pensions. No officer who had accepted his commutation under the 1783 Act was to be entered on the list of invalids.
An Act passed September 29, 1789, provided for the Federal government to provide for 1 year pensions previously paid by the States to their disabled veterans. The 1-year limitation was extended by various acts thereafter.
An Act passed March 23, 1792, permitted Continental Line disabled veterans, not already receiving pensions, to apply directly to the Federal government for a pension. In the 1792 report to Congress, the War Department reported that there were 1,358 non-commissioned officers and privates on the invalid list, none of whom received more than $5 per month. The Department noted that there were then a total of 1,472 invalid pensioners on the rolls.
An Act passed April 10, 1806, superseded all previous laws relating to pensions by disabled soldiers and expanded the scope of the March 23, 1792 legislation to benefit disabled veterans who served in State troops and militia units as well as disabled Continental Line veterans. By 1816, the War Department reported that the federal government was expanding $120,000 annually and that there were a total of 2,200 pensioners on the rolls, including 185 officers, 1,572 non-commissioned officers and privates disabled (or partially so) during the war, plus 52 officers and 391 soldiers who had become disabled (or partially so) since the war. In 1816, the rate of a private’s full pension was increased from $5 to $8 per month.
On March 18, 1818, Congress enacted legislation which provided lifetime pensions to poverty-stricken Continental Line and US Navy veterans who had served at least 9 months or until the end of the war. The benefits provided for $20 per month for qualifying officers and $8 per month for non-officers. So many applications were filed under this Act that the legislation was amended on May 1, 1820 to require applicants to submit certified schedules of income and assets with their applications and empowering the Secretary of War, in his sole discretion, to remove from the pension rolls such beneficiaries as he may determine were not in need of financial assistance. On March 1, 1823, Congress passed legislation which resulted in the restoration of some of the pensions disallowed by the Secretary. As of the Department’s report to Congress in early 1823, there were 18,880 pensioners under the 1818 act, with that number being reduced to 12,331 as a result of the Secretary’s removal of claims deemed ineligible. The cost of funding the pensions rose to $1,833,936.30 in 1822.
On May 15, 1828, Congress provided for full pay to surviving officers and enlisted men who qualified under the May 15, 1778 legislation without any requirement of being disabled or in financial need.
On June 7, 1832, Congress enacted pension legislation extending benefits more universally than under any previous legislation. This act provided for full pay for life for all officers and enlisted men who served at least 2 years in the Continental Line, the state troops or militia, the navy or marines. Men who served less than 2 years but at least 6 months were granted pensions of less than full pay. Benefits were payable effective March 4, 1831, without regard to financial need or disability and widows or children were entitled to collect any unpaid benefits due the veteran at the time of his death. Everyone who claimed benefits under this act were required to relinquish their claims under any prior federal or state pension laws, but by amendment on February 19,1833, invalid pensioners were exempted from the operation of this release of their prior pension benefits. In his annual report to Congress in 1834, the Commissioner of Pensions reported that there were then 27,978 pensioners on the rolls claiming pensions under the 1832 act claiming benefits of $2,325,000 per year. The entire federal pension roll in 1834 contained about 43,000 claimants.
On July 5, 1832, Congress enacted legislation by which the US government relieved Virginia of certain pension obligations it had to (1) sailors who served in its Navy and (2) certain of its officers for half-pay. The Federal Government assumed Virginia's obligations to these claimants, their widows and heirs. [Note: Many of the file numbers assigned by the Department of the Interior to claims filed under this act were designated "R" even though the claims were not rejected. To further complicate matters, the file numbers assigned to these files for some unknown reason duplicate existing file numbers of other veterans.]
On July 4, 1836, Congress passed legislation which provided that widows of veterans who qualified for benefits under the 1832 Act could claim his benefit if she married the veteran during the term of his active service in the Revolution for so long as she remained unmarried.
On July 7, 1838, Congress passed an act which granted a 5-year pension to widows whose marriages took place prior to January 1, 1794. The benefits of this legislation were extended by acts passed March 3, 1843, June 17, 1844, and February 2, 1848.
On July 29, 1848, coverage was extended to provide lifetime pensions for widows of veterans if the marriage occurred prior to January 2, 1800. The limitations on pensions tied to the date of marriage of the widow were removed by legislation dated February 3, 1853 and February 28. 1855.
On March 9, 1878, Congress provided lifetime benefits for any widow whose husband served as little as 14 days or who participated in any engagement during the Revolution.
By June 30, 1867, all the Revolutionary pensioners had died, but during that year Congress voted two other soldiers pensions of $500 per year. The last of those men, Daniel F. Bakeman, died April 5, 1869. As of June 39, 1869, there were still 887 widows on the pension rolls. Altogether, the number of pensioned soldiers was 57,623, of whom 20,485 were pensioned under the act of 1818, 1,200 under the 1828 act; 33,425 under the act of 1832 and the others under the more limited acts summarized above. The total cost to the federal government as of 1869 when the last surviving pensioned soldier died was $46,178,000.
On September 16, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted legislation which provided land bounties to Continental Line officers and enlisted men who served for the duration of the war. Heirs and representatives of officers and men killed in action also were entitled to land under the Act. The amount of land to which claimants were entitled varied according to rank: enlisted men and noncommissioned officers were entitled to 100 acres; ensigns, 150 acres; lieutenants, 200 acres; colonels, 500 acres. By Act dated August 12, 1870, the provisions were extended to provide 850 acres for brigadier generals and 1,100 acres for major generals.
On March 3, 1855, Congress passed legislation which provided for a 160-acre grant to all veterans, regardless of rank, who served at least 14 days in the Revolution or who had participated in any engagement during the war. Widows and minor children of such veterans were eligible to claim any land not previously granted to their husband or father. Individuals who had claimed under the previous bounty laws could claim any deficiency in previously granted land up to a maximum of 160 acres. On May 14, 1856, the benefits of the 1855 law were extended to naval and marine veterans, their widows and minor children.
Southern Campaign Pension Transcription Project
Back in July 2006, Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution (SCAR) recognized the benefits that would accrue to scholars and genealogists if a fully searchable database of transcriptions of the pension applications were readily available. Realizing that creating a database containing transcripts of all the Revolutionary pensions would be a monumental task beyond the scope of its focus, SCAR decided to host on its web site a slightly less ambitious project. It was decided to transcribe and post the applications of the veterans who either fought in the Southern Campaign or who lived in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia during the Revolution. With the possible exception of a few applications which may have ‘slipped between the cracks,’ the database now includes all federal pensioners. There remain to be transcribed and posted in the database a number of pension and bounty records posted on the Library of Virginia. The project has been spearheaded by Will Graves since its inception with C. Leon Harris having shortly thereafter joined in the venture.
 There are actually two series of microfilm available. One, Series M805, contains only the “Selected Records” portion of each pension file. The other, Series M804, contains the entire contents of each pension file.
 The statistics cited in this article come from Glasson, William Henry, History of Military Pension Legislation in the United States, New York, 1900, a doctoral dissertation Columbia University, accessed 10/7/08 via the Internet at Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=p6FDAAAAIAAJ&dq=%22Military+Pension+Legislation%22&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=64NB10xJUe&sig=qkioVACgY-p2qWqod5FdgBtGCfI&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result (viewed 3/28/17).