"The Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Pension Project," Leon Harris
How can something as routine as a pension application for military service performed during the American Revolution solve the mystery as to whether the controversial Battle of the Waxhaws turned into a British massacre of American troops?
According to historian C. Leon Harris who spoke at the May 18, 2016 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond, the pension applications submitted by American Revolution veterans can answer many questions for today’s historians who study the American Revolution. Harris and his colleague Will Graves have so far examined over 21,000 pension records submitted by Continental and militia veterans who were from Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. He and Graves are currently working on the pension records of Pennsylvanians who served under General Anthony Wayne.
“I’ve only been at it for 10 years,” joked Harris. “This whole pension project started many years ago when my colleague Will Graves came up with this crazy idea to transcribe over 20,000 pension records of American Revolution soldiers from the South or who fought in the South.”
Harris said that on average it takes 1-1/2 hours for him to examine one page of pension records. The goal is to produce a typed copy of each handwritten pension application and to look for any newsworthy information.
“You would be amazed at how many people remember Cornwallis handing his sword to George Washington,” quipped Harris. “They didn’t know Cornwallis from his subordinate Charles O’Hara and I guess they were standing too far away to tell the difference between Washington and his subordinate Benjamin Lincoln.”
As for the Battle of the Waxhaws, rumors spread shortly after the battle that when Banastre Tarleton’s horse was shot and Tarleton went down, his troops assumed he was dead and they became enraged, and offered no quarter to the wounded and surrendered American troops under the command of Abraham Buford. Over the years historians have debated as to whether the battle rumors were true and whether some of Tarleton’s troops massacred defenseless American troops. By examining the pension records from the Waxhaws and other American Revolution battles fought in the South, Harris developed his own theory.
“Wounds to the hands and arms were typical for unarmed soldiers waving their arms to dodge an enemy soldier’s sword or bayonet,” said Harris. “Hip wounds are another sign of an unarmed man because many unarmed men will curl up into a fetal position when attacked by an enemy sword or bayonet.”
Harris and Graves examined the 134 pension records of the survivors among Buford’s troops who fought at the Waxhaws, and compared the wounds to the hands, arms and hips with similar wounds suffered by American wounded survivors of other battles fought in the South. Their statistics concluded that the survivors from the Waxhaws clearly had more hand, arm and hip wounds than what was typical at other battlefields. Therefore American soldiers who were defenseless from either wounds or surrendering were probably attacked a second time, which generally meets the definition of a “massacre” according to Harris.
In addition to shedding new information on alleged massacres the American Revolution pension records can assist today’s historians in several other ways, said Harris. The pension records allow historians to pull direct quotes from veterans on whatever issues the historian is studying in order to use the quotes in a historian’s future writings. Thanks to transcripts of pension records, historians can also search easier for details on topics which haven’t yet made it into the history books, especially those details which come directly from enlisted troops’ observations. Pension records can also produce sufficient information to allow today’s historians to ask more “what if” questions when it comes to topics they are studying.
Of course a big question which Harris says is on the minds of today’s American Revolution historians is the historical accuracy of pension records. After all, the pension applications were an attempt by veterans to get the federal government to pay them money.
“Probably the greatest pension fraud was committed by pension agents who took a large fee for handling pension applications on behalf of a veteran who was usually illiterate. “They submitted dozens and dozens of applications under the 1832 law where names didn’t need to be on a roster. They recruited people who didn’t serve in the war, filled out the applications and kept most of the pension money for themselves,” said Harris.
In 1834-1835 U.S. District Attorney Washington Singleton launched an investigation into pension fraud. He interviewed neighbors of pension applicants to see if their stories about their neighbor’s war history matched what the pension applicant claimed about his own military service. Singleton concluded that only 4% of the pension applications were either fraudulent or grossly inaccurate on such basic issues as the battle locations where the applicant fought, or the name of the applicant’s commanding officer.
The first American law that provided lifetime pensions to American Revolution veterans was passed by Congress in 1818. It provided pensions for veterans who were impoverished and served at least nine months in the Continental Army.
“It wasn’t much of a pension,” said Harris. “The veterans received only $96 per year---this at a time when a cow cost $10.”
However, the response to the 1818 Pension Act was overwhelming. This caused Congress to pass the Pension Act of 1820 which required applicants to submit a certified description of their income and assets to prove that they were impoverished. Applicants were also screened to make sure they had served the required number of months. Military payroll records and roll call rosters were used to confirm an applicant’s length of service in the Continental Army.
In 1832 Congress expanded pension benefits to American Revolution veterans by lowering the required service in the Continental Army from nine months to six months. Congress also expanded pension benefits to include all war veterans who had served at least six months in militia units. Benefits were also made payable to Continental and militia veterans regardless of financial need or disability.
“Congress was reluctant to provide pensions for militia veterans because militia records weren’t very good,” said Harris. “Therefore militia applicants often needed a plausible declaration of their militia service from several of the applicants’ neighbors or from their church.”
Only one in six American Revolution veterans ever applied for a pension. Some of them didn’t want the “stigma” of admitting that they needed the money, and others did not know about the availability of pensions because they were either illiterate or lived in remote areas. Some veterans didn’t bother to apply because the amount of pension money wasn’t considered very substantial.
In 1838 Congress passed a law which expanded pensions to the widows of American Revolution veterans. The widows were required to submit proof of their marriage to an American Revolution veteran.
Harris encouraged everyone with an interest in American Revolution pensions to visit the website which he and Will Graves established at www.revwarapps.org. Viewers can search for names of individual pension applicants, the laws which governed pension applications and the rosters of all veterans who submitted pension applications. The website also provides information as to the whereabouts throughout the war of every unit, American or British, on any given date when these troops were located in North or South Carolina.
C. Leon Harris is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh where he taught biological sciences and wrote a textbook and other scientific articles. Today he lives in Adamant, VT and Mount Pleasant, SC.
Harris has conducted extensive research on various American Revolution battlefields located in South Carolina’s Low Country, and is the author of several articles for the online journal of the Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution (SCAR). He is also a SCAR Fellow. For further information on the SCAR website and Harris’ research regarding the Waxhaws and other South Carolina battles, Internet readers can go to www.southerncampaign.org.
Prior to the speaker presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topics:
1. President Bill Welsch reported on the April 2 ARRT-Richmond bus trip, the 2014 preservation partnership project with the Library of Virginia and on the recent ARRT-Richmond donation to Campaign 1776.
2. Other ARRT-Richmond members made brief announcements concerning upcoming events and preservation needs.
3. President Welsch reminded the audience that three projects have been nominated for this year’s annual preservation partnership. He asked the audience if anyone had any additional nominations, and when no further nominations were made, he closed the nominations for 2016. In the near future each ARRT-Richmond dues-paying member will have the opportunity to vote online for one of the three nominated preservation projects.