National Archives News recently posted a two-part story on the Civil War pension file of Hugh Thompson, the “Lost Soldier of Chickamauga.” Today’s post, from Dena Lombardo, an intern in the Public and Media Communications office, tells more of the story.
Recently, National Archives staff uncovered the largest Civil War pension file in our holdings. In contrast to the average pension file, which is roughly 150 pages, this one has more than 2,000. The entire file has been scanned and is now available online in the National Archives Catalog.
This record-setting file was filed under the name of Jane Thompson, widow of Private Hugh Thompson of Company H, 15th Ohio Infantry Regiment. Private Thompson was struck on the head on September 19, 1863, during the Battle of Chickamauga, identified as missing in action, and presumed dead.
The voluminous file details Thompson’s father’s attempt to secure his son’s pension, the surprise discovery many years later of a man claiming to be Thompson, the question of verifying the man’s identity, and the fight between Thompson and his wife over the pension.
After Thompson was injured during the Battle of Chickamauga, he suffered from amnesia and other mental problems. After years of wandering from state to state, he ended up in Kansas.
An article, “A Nameless Soldier,” that ran in Springfield Ohio’s Champion City Times on May 23, 1887, was the catalyst for Thompson finding his identity. The story describes a “Henry Tomson,” now living on a farm in Pearlette, Kansas, who served in the Ohio regiment and was injured during the war. The veteran was seeking information on his history, comrades, and memory.
The soldier remembered only that he had served during the Civil War in Kansas. Through letters from those who knew Thompson, the story unfolded, piece by piece—Henry Tomson turned out to be the lost and presumed dead Hugh Thompson. Photographs laid side by side as well as an extremely long investigation solidified the proof. It took decades for him to learn, which the investigation confirmed, that he was Hugh Thompson, the soldier who was nicknamed “Shorty” and ”Old Reliable.”
However, skepticism surrounded the story. Many believed he was a fraud because of his uncertainty of events, varying stories of who his children were, his numerous marriages and secrecy, and the fact that Thompson’s father had unsuccessfully filed for the pension. Skeptics believed it was just a ploy to get the pension funds.
One of the reports in the file suggested that Tomson was an “inoffensive lunatic” who may have been living in an insane asylum, or that he had intentionally hid from the government given his fraudulent pension claims.
An examiner interviewed Thompson’s friends, acquaintances, and family in Ohio. One person viewed a photograph of Private Thompson and identified him as Hugh’s son, Tracy. But, after the examiner personally interviewed Henry Tomson at length, he confirmed that this was not a hoax; the man in question was indeed Private Hugh Thompson. He concluded: “The theory of there being something in his past life which urged him to the subterfuge of concealing his whereabouts for a long period of years, must be abandoned.”
The investigation ended in 1890 when letters written by Thompson during his military service to his father, using his nickname “Old Reliable,” were compared with Tomson’s handwriting. The uniformity of the handwriting and the persons referenced in the letters served as “conclusive proof.”
With solid verification, in 1890 the Bureau of Pensions awarded Thompson a pension of $6 a month due to his head wound. They later increased it to $12 on account of his inability to support himself due to both his head wound and his mental impairment.
On May 23, 1900, the House of Representatives referred Thompson’s case to the Committee of Invalid Pensions and requested that his monthly pension be increased from $12 to $36. Congress passed a private bill granting an increase to $24 per month in 1901.
One large folder (no. 3) outlines an extensive legal battle over the pension. It includes dozens of letters between Jane Thompson and Hugh Thompson’s attorneys. Jane Thompson was Hugh’s wife from 1887 until 1910. After they separated, the two split the pension, but Hugh later filed suit to receive his full monthly pension.
Jane’s attorney claimed that she suffered financial hardship, had no income, owned no property, and was entitled to half the pension. Hugh’s attorney countered that Jane had kept the house, was healthy, and had ample food and clothing while Hugh was old, in poor health, blind, unable to work, and thus needed his full pension.
The file includes Hugh’s complaint that with only half his pension he couldn’t afford housing, other than the soldier’s home. He also noted that the pension office was not providing assistance, possibly because they still believed his case to be fraudulent.
After years of legal battle, Hugh Thompson’s identity was again affirmed, and he was awarded his full pension, which was increased to $35 a month in 1918. The rate more than doubled two years later, to $72 beginning in May of 1920, through his death on April 13, 1921. After his death, the payments then went to his widow Jane.
Considering the drama, the missing identity and spousal discord, Hugh Thompson’s rediscovered life reads like a historical fiction novel. The pension file is housed at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and the digitized version is available to anyone interested in learning more about the Lost Soldier of Chickamauga.