Researching in original records often provides the researcher with surprises. Usually the surprise takes the form of an unknown letter, a reference to your topic in an unexpected place, or a lead that directs you to a new set of records to mine. Once in a great while, the surprise is something no one could have imagined.
In late 2005, an Archives staff member was pulling a file from the Civil War Widows Certificate Approved Pension Case Files for a researcher. The file seemed unusually bulky, so he opened it. Inside the folder, tucked between sheets of a letter was one of the most unusual items found in the records of the National Archives: the preserved skin of a mole.
Now, moles make appearances in archival records all the time—but they’re usually undercover spies mentioned in intelligence or diplomatic reports. This 19th-century insectivore came from the literal underground, and one ill-fated day he found himself in the tent of a Union soldier.
The soldier, James J. Van Liew, didn’t care to share his tent with this uninvited guest and captured it. As (a joke? a love token?), Van Liew sent the skin to his wife, Charity. She kept it for years but lost his original letter.
In July 1900, Charity applied to the government for a widow’s pension. In these applications, the widow had to establish her relationship with the soldier, and in an era before consistent recording of marriages, the women often had to be creative. Charity had no marriage certificate, but she did have this mole skin. She sent the Pension Bureau four testimonials from friends who had seen Van Liew’s letter—addressed to “Dear Wife”—and the surprising enclosure.
Whether the mole tipped the scales in Charity’s favor or not, she received a pension based on her late husband’s Army service. The mole remains in her application file, preserved between polyester sheets.
The Civil War Widows Certificate Approved Pension Case Files (WC Series) contains 1.28 million files. Since 2007, the National Archives has been working on a project with partners FamilySearch and Footnote.com to digitize these records and make them available online. So far, about 30,000 case files are on Fold3.com. The project manager says, “Every case file is a story,” and future issues of Prologue online and on paper will feature historical treasures that are discovered in the files.