“United States Pension Office, New York, NY,” Courtesy of House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/45047.
By Moyra Schauffler
In the November 1863 inaugural issue of the Sanitary Commission Bulletin, the narrator of the “Introduction” identified a key intention of the bimonthly publication. After a detailed, self-congratulatory prelude that noted the critical role of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) in assisting the federal army in organizing and providing donated goods for men serving the Union in the Civil War, the narrator explained how the Bulletin was going to assist both soldiers in the field and their families on the home front:
“We purpose to make the BULLETIN the place where all information necessary to soldiers or to soldiers’ families is to be found. Who are entitled to bounties and pensions, and how to procure them at the least expense; how our prisoners of war in the enemies’ hands may be communicated with; how to get convalescents or sick men home; everything about the burial of the dead; these and similar questions will be carefully and reliably answered in our columns.”
According to the USSC writers, the Bulletin was going to be a widely-circulated publication that included highly practical information for its readers. This section of the introduction clearly stated that soldiers and their dependents at home could use the newspaper to learn how to navigate the complex, ever-changing pension system, as well as constructive tips on communicating with imprisoned loved ones, transporting injured soldiers home, and finding and burying the dead.
The most striking aspect of this paragraph is the USSC’s recognition that soldiers and family members were going to need assistance in understanding and maneuvering the pension system. Developed during the Civil War and throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, this system represented an early opportunity for Americans of diverse backgrounds to engage with the federal legal system. Given that this engagement was unfamiliar, nineteenth-century print culture offered a point of access to understanding a system that regularly changed and was discriminatory towards people of color, women, and those of lower socioeconomic status.
One strategy for distilling pension law employed by both the New York Times and the Sanitary Commission Bulletin was to condense the long, convoluted text of the original law into a clear, easily digestible list. This was a particularly useful format for communicating the major changes to pension law created by An Act to grant Pensions, which Congress passed on July 14, 1862. Broadly, this law stated that any soldier or officer in the Union army who had suffered an injury or contracted a disease while serving was eligible for a federal pension at a rate correspondent to his rank. Additionally, if the soldier or officer died as a result of his injury or disease, the law permitted compensation for unmarried widows, legitimate children, dependent mothers, and orphaned sisters. While the rest of the law covered important topics such as when pensions were awarded, the process for accessing pensions, and definitions of and penalties for pension fraud, eligibility was the core of the 1862 law.
The first section of An Act to grant Pensions illustrates why publications transformed the information into a list rather than simply publish the text of the law. The original text read:
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That if any officer, non-commissioned officer, musician, or private of the army, including regulars, volunteers, and militia, or any officer, warrant, or petty officer, musician, seaman, ordinary seaman, flotilla-man, marine, clerk, landsman, pilot, or other person in the navy or marine corps, has been, since the fourth day of March, eighteen hundred and sixty-one, or shall hereafter be, disabled by reason of any wound received or disease contracted while in the service of the United States, and in the line of duty, he shall, upon making due proof of the fact according to such forms and regulations as are or may be provided by or in pursuance of law, be placed upon the list of invalid pensions of the United States, and be entitled to receive, for the highest rate of disability, such pension as is hereinafter provided in such cases, and for an inferior disability an amount proportionate to the highest disability, to commence as hereinafter provided, and continue during the existence of such disability.”
The very structure of this paragraph, one long sentence that communicates multiple ideas, would have been unfriendly to many readers. Additionally, words such as “pursuance” and “commence” among others used in the first portion of this law likely fell outside of mid-nineteenth vernacular. When many of the laws passed by Congress had little impact on Americans of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, this language would have been of little importance. However, as the law clearly pertained to wounded or diseased Union soldiers from the lowliest private or musician to the highest-ranking officer, the accessibility of language was imperative.
Although the New York Times and the Sanitary Commission Bulletin differed in many ways, their coverage of An Act to grant Pensions included a list of eligible pensioners at the beginning of their articles and in a similar order to how they appear in the law. In an August 12, 1862 article entitled “Army Pensions: Instructions and Forms to be Observed in Applying for Them, Under the Act of July 14, 1862,” the New York Times used this strategy. The beginning of the article read: “Under the act of Congress approved July 14, 1862, pensions are granted to the following classes of persons: “I. Invalids, disabled since March 4, 1861, in the military or naval service of the United States, in the line of duty.” The simplicity of this statement is striking when placed alongside the original text of the law. In one short line, the Times successfully summarized the large portion of the Union army affected by this legislation. The article then included a list of the information found in sections two through four of the Act, all of which outlined the tiered eligibility of widows, children, mothers, and sisters. For example, the section on children’s eligibility read: “III. Children, under sixteen years of age, of such deceased persons, if there is no widow surviving, or from the time of the widow’s remarriage.” Interestingly, while the widow’s and children’s eligibilities were combined in the original text of the law, the Times divided them into separate sections, thus making the list even more explicit.
Like the New York Times, the Sanitary Commission Bulletin also listed each group that could collect a pension. In an article in the December 15, 1863 issue entitled “Pensions, Furloughs, and Backpay,” brief descriptions of soldiers, widows, children, mothers, and sisters appeared after Roman numerals. In fact, the list in the Bulletin appears to be an exact copy of the list in the Times. Both included the same introduction and identical descriptions of lawful pensioners. Additionally, like the Times, the third description in the list pertained to children of deceased soldiers: “III. CHILDREN, under sixteen years of age, of such deceased persons, if there is no widow surviving, or from the time of the widow’s remarriage.” The Bulletin even split the description of widow’s and children’s eligibility in the same way as the Times. Although knowing why the Bulletin published an identical version of the Times’s list of eligible pensioners is impossible, the two publications were produced in the same city, meaning a USSC member likely saw the preceding Times article and thought it was an effective distillation of An Act to grant Pensions.
By listing eligibility in the order in which an individual could claim it, the Times and the Bulletin streamlined the process of comprehending the law. One can imagine each article being read by a range of readers, from wealthy, highly literate officers and their families, to poor, barely literate privates and their dependents. Furthermore, the list would have also been friendly to those reading the text aloud to illiterate audiences. One does not get lost in complex words and long legalistic sentences. Overall, the language is simple, the structure is clear, and each communicates the same information found in the law’s original text. Thus, while employing slightly different information in addition to the same text in some places, the writers at the New York Times and the Sanitary Commission Bulletin increased the accessibility to An Act to grant Pensions in the months after the law’s passage.
 “An Act to grant Pensions,” July 14, 1862, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/37th-congress/session-2/c37s2ch166.pdf.
 “An Act to grant Pensions,” July 14, 1862.
 For a useful study on nineteenth-century reading and access to print publications, see David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
 “Army Pensions: Instructions and Forms to be Observed in Applying for Them, Under the Act of July 14, 1862,” New York Times, August 12, 1862, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.