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.
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.
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. The fresh-faced New Yorkers were quickly given an education in the horrific toll Civil War-era artillery could take on the human form. While lying down to take cover from incoming shells, one of their comrades was “nearly cut in two by a shell and was still living as two of his companions bore him away; one holding his head and shoulders and the other his heels…”. Not long afterwards they were struck in front and flank by a gray tide of advancing Rebel infantry. 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. Instead he was one of the 186 casualties the regiment suffered, left lying where he had fallen when a minie shattered into his right leg. Michael’s time as a Confederate POW was brief; his wound was severe enough that he was marked out for quick exchange. Back in U.S. lines, the Cork immigrant’s leg was amputated six-inches below the knee.
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. She and Michael were married in the Roman Catholic Church of Youghal, Co. Cork on 25th October 1878. The couple settled near the village of Castlemartyr, where their surname was most commonly rendered as “Batt”. Four children followed and were baptised there- William (b. 1879), 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.
Despite managing to get on with his life, Michael’s health was severely compromised by his wound. 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 well-worn Certificate pictured below was granted to her as a result.
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 pension certificate that Nora Beaty received was used by her to collect an American pension for the remainder of her life. As such, it bears all the marks of a heavily used document, which is unsurprising given that it represented her primary income source. She must have kept it carefully folded away (as the heavy fold lines indicate) in a safe place within her home. Every three-months or so as she would have brought it out, as she made her way to the local Post Office to claim her payment.
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. Among the words that can be made out are things like “bread”, “debts”, “shoes”, “chairs”, “trunk”,”rent of a house” and “all expenses.” 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. They may well have been crossed out when the Certificate was being returned to the United States. What we do know is when Nora died. She passed away in Killeagh on 7th September 1921- only a few short weeks after a Truce had been declared in the War of Independence that had been raging in Ireland, and Cork in particular. On her passing, Nora’s daughter Minnie requested a final payment of the pension (could some of the scribbled notes on the Certificate be Minnie’s?), enlisting the aid of another notable local, William Arthur Ryall of nearby Ballyglassin House. The letter he wrote on her behalf is pictured below. Minnie’s efforts do not appear to have been successful.
Among other things, the file relating to Nora and Michael Beaty offers insight into the wealth of documents relating to life in Ireland that exist within the American Civil War pension files. But few present us with the instant visual story that is told by the Pension Certificate which helped Nora to survive through her later years, years in which the county she called home experienced major turmoil of its own, in the shape of both the First World War and War of Independence. News of those conflicts dominated the thoughts and conversations of everyone in the locality, but this Certificate conjures other images from that time; the home of a poor American Civil War veteran’s widow; a carefully folded American Certificate secreted away in the home’s safest corner; preparations for the regular journey to the Post Office; the interaction between widow and postal staff, and conversations along the way. The Pension Certificate’s battered form also served as a reminder of the cost and the consequences of the American Civil War for the people of East Cork and its diaspora.