Intriguing discoveries are made all the time in the National Archives. This tintype of a woman and child doesn’t look like the typical federal record, let alone one associated with military records. But it was found in one of the 1.28 million Civil War Widows Certificate Approved Pension Case Files. Since 2007, a team of volunteers has been working on a project to digitize these records and make them available online, and from time to time, unexpected treasures turn up.
The file of one widow, Adelia M. Fish, holds quite a story. Her first husband, Joseph Springer served as a private in Company A, Seventh Michigan Cavalry, and died at Andersonville Prison in October 1864. She had four children under the age of 16 when she applied for her pension in June 1865.
In July 1872 Adelia married Jason B. Webb, and she was dropped from the pension rolls. Webb left their home in Battle Creek, MI, in the fall of 1872, and Adelia never saw him or heard from him again. Presuming him dead, she married a third time to Washington A. Fish in 1883. Adelia had no children by either Webb or Fish.
After Fish died on August 11, 1915, Adelia, now 77, applied for restoration to the pension rolls based on her first husband Springer’s service.
Because Webb had disappeared and was not confirmed dead, the Pension Bureau ordered a special examination to investigate the legality of Adelia’s widowhood. In affidavits, Adelia and her daughter, Mrs. Elva C. Blackett, also a widow, claimed they had received a letter in 1874 notifying them of Webb’s death. Signed “A Friend,” it had enclosed a five-dollar gold piece and stated that Webb had asked that the coin be sent to Elva.
Special Examiner F. L. Churchill reported that Adelia was old and feeble and had a poor memory. She relied on her daughter and the local notary to see to her case. Churchill descried the notary as a “bungler” who drank too much and the daughter as possessing only a “fair” reputation and very anxious to get the pension.
Although Churchill could not find evidence of Webb’s death, he believed Adelia truly thought he was dead when she married Fish.
In a 1916 affidavit, Adelia’s son Charles described Webb as a “shiftless fellow.” The Pension Bureau’s Board of Review concluded in September 1916 that Webb probably deserted Adelia “for reasons which would have warranted a divorce.”
The discovery of another rejected pension claim from the widow of a Jason B. Webb led to more questions. Churchill noted that Adelia’s description of Webb closely corresponded with that of this man who had served in Company G, 14th U.S. Infantry, from 1872 to 1877, and he recommended further examination.
When Special Examiner Milford Brower interviewed Rosanna Webb, the other widow, she told him she had no reason to believe Webb had been married before. She had applied for a pension after he died in 1907, testifying that she and Jason had married in 1876 and had three children. When the examiner showed her a daguerreotype provided by Elva Blackett, she identified the man as her husband. She then produced a tintype of a woman and child that her husband had possessed and “which he prized very highly.” He had told her that it was “a picture of a friend of his mother.” The image was presumed to be of Adelia and Elva.
In May 1917, Adelia’s pension claim was rejected because she had “contracted more than one marriage since the death of the soldier” and had failed to establish that her marriage to Webb had ended legally either by death or divorce. Had she filed for divorce on grounds of desertion, she likely would have secured the restoration of her pension.
The image of mother and daughter, with blushed cheeks and jewelry picked out in gold, remains in Adelia’s pension application file, marked “Exhibit C—no request for its return.”
This post is adapted from the Spring 2011 “Pieces of History” feature in Prologue magazine.