American Civil War As regular readers of the site will know, I have spent many (maybe too many!) years studying the Widows and Dependents’ pension files of Irish immigrants. For successful applicants, the most important document they possessed was their Pension Certificate, the piece of paper that allowed them to physically claim the money provided to them by the United States. Of the thousands of Certificates I have looked at, one stands out for me as the embodiment of a “living” document.

In its appearance it carries an impression of long, constant use, conjures images of its place in the family home, and of the very act of claiming the pension funds themselves. It is a document that has been on a major journey of its own. Originally issued in the 1880s United States, it spent decades in rural East Co. Cork before ultimately retracing its steps to Washington D.C. in the 1920s. It remains there today, safely preserved in the stacks of the U.S. National Archives. I want to share some images of it with readers, and to provide some detail as to the events that led to its creation and ultimate use.

American Civil War: The Pension Certificate in question belonged to a woman called Nora Beaty (née Leahy). The story of how Nora came to be in possession of it began with a 22-year-old emigrant labourer in Syracuse, New York by the name of Michael Beaty. On 25th August 1862 he presented himself to a recruiting officer in the city to become a U.S. Volunteer. Eventually Michael marched of to Virginia in the ranks of Company C, 149th New York Infantry. It’s first major engagement- and Michael’s last- came at Chancellorsville, Virginia in May 1863.

The men of the 149th New York Infantry in which Michael Beaty served (Battles & Images)

It was on the 3rd May 1863, during one of the most furious engagements of the Civil War, that Michael and his comrades first came face to face with Army of Northern Virginia. Overwhelmed, the regiment was soon fighting for its life, and those not killed or severely injured had little option but to tumble back in headlong retreat. Michael Beaty was not amongst them.

The Certificate of Disability for Discharge of East Cork’s Michael Leahy (Damian Shiels/NARA).
One of the entires for Michael Beaty in the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Veterans (Ancestry)

Michael Beaty spent the next 10 months in hospital before final discharge in March 1864. As a manual labourer who relied on his body for employment, the years that followed brought a reliance on his U.S. pension and the shelter and care provided by the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Veterans. By the late 1870s Michael had finally decided to return home to Ireland. It is here that Hanora (Nora) Leahy enters the story. Mary (b. 1880, and known as Minnie), John (b. 1883) and Richard (b. 1884). In subsequent years the family seem to have moved around their local area, living variously in Castlemartyr, Ballymacoda and eventually in Killeagh.

Official Marriage Certificate issued in 1887 recording the marriage of Michael Beaty and Nora Leahy in Youghal in 1878. Hidden beneath it is the endorsement of the United States Consul of Queenstown (Cobh), Co. Cork. (Damian Shiels/NARA).

Among his physical ailments were carbuncles on his amputated leg, heart disease and rheumatism. Michael finally passed away-still just in his mid-forties- on 30th August 1886, having lived with the effects of Chancellorsville for almost 25 years. It was that event which caused Nora to apply for a widow’s pension.

The Widow’s Pension Certificate of Nora Beaty issued following her husband’s death. It also records the ages at which her children would reach the age of 16. Click to Enlarge (Damian Shiels/NARA).
The Death Certificate of Michael Batt (Beaty) provided to the U.S. Government to prove his death. Note it records his as an “Army Pensioner”. (Damian Shiels/NARA).

Nora was not granted the certificate easily. The Pension Bureau sought additional information from her to validate her claim, and so she turned towards some local notables for support, men like Father O’Connell the Parish Priest of Castlemartyr, and Joseph Doherty the Rector of Killeagh. Here is what Father O’Connell wrote for her on 29 September 1887:

This is to certify that the widow of Michael Beaty with her young helpless family is living in this parish. Regarding her claims on the American Government for pension the statements put forward by her are perfectly accurate and truthful. As to what Doctor attended him or who were his companions when he received the wound which deprived him of his leg, it is utterly impossible for her to make out. Indeed, it is hardly fair of the pension Commission to require such information from a poor illiterate creature at this side of the Atlantic. It is a well known fact that her deceased husband received his pension regularly and that the wound received in the American Service so undermined his constitution as to bring on the fatal sickness which brought him to an untimely grave. Under these circumstances I have no difficulty in saying that the pension commissioner is not only bound in honour but in justice to come without further delay to the relief of the afflicted widow and helpless children.

The rear of Nora’s pension certificate, which bears numerous examples of crossed out writing, most of which appear to be accounting for money paid. It was presumably created by the Beaty family in East Cork. Click to Enlarge. (Damian Shiels/NARA)
A detail of the back of the certificate, showing some of the accounting the blank space was used for. A number of the payments can be made out, such as “debts”, “chairs” and “shoes” on the top left, and “rent of a house” on the top right. Click to Enlarge. (Damian Shiels/NARA).

Aside from the well-worn nature of the document, perhaps the most intriguing element are the accounting notes scribbled all across its back in both pen and pencil. These appear to record payments made for various items in pounds, shillings and pence. Were these created at different times during Nora’s latter years, or are they an attempt to make account at the time of her death? It is difficult to know for sure.    Minnie’s efforts do not appear to have been successful.

The letter written to the U.S. Government on headed-paper by William Arthur Ryall on behalf of Nora and Michael’s daughter Minnie in 1922. (Damian Shiels/NARA).

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