Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Could Someone Still Be Collecting a Civil War Widow's Pension? A Possibility Proof

In 1865, a 14-year-old boy becomes a Union soldier in the U.S. Civil War. In 1931, at age 90, he marries an 18-year-old woman, who continues to collect his Civil War pension after he dies. Today, in early 2024, she is one hundred and ten years old, still collecting that pension.

I was inspired to this thought by reflecting about some long-dead people my father knew, who survive in my memory through his stories. How far back might such second-hand memories go? Farther than one might initially suppose -- in principle, back to the 1860s. An elderly philosopher, alive today, might easily have second-hand memories of William James (d. 1910) or Nietzsche (d. 1900), maybe even Karl Marx (d. 1883) or John Stuart Mill (d. 1873).

Second-hand memories have a quality to them that third-hand memories and historical accounts lack. Through my father's and uncle's stories, I feel a kind of personal connection to Timothy Leary (d. 1996), B.F. Skinner (d. 1990), and Abraham Maslow (d. 1970), even though I never met them, in a way I don't to other scholars of the era. It hasn't been so long since their heyday in the 1950s - 1960s, when my father and his brother knew them -- but I might still have several decades in me. My son David, currently a Cognitive Science PhD student at Institut Jean Nicod at ENS in Paris, has also heard such stories, and he could potentially live to see the 22nd century. (My daughter Kate was too young when my father died to have made much of his academic stories.)

The idea that the U.S. might still be paying a Civil War widow's pension is not as ridiculous as it seems. According to this website, the last pension-recieving Union widow died in 2003. According to this website, it was 2008. The last recipient of a Civil War children's benefit died from a hip injury in 2020.

GPT-4 representation of an elderly civil war widow in a cityscape in 2020:


Howard said...

Don't certain families naturally tell stories about themselves?
Here are three possible impediments: first, change in background assumptions derail the vividness and intelligibility of stories; second, there is a kind of regression towards the mean; and also, I think storytelling may be a dying art.
Were you to shift your conversation to Revolutionary War Widows and discuss stories about Kant and Hume and Franklin, perhaps the results would come out better

Howard said...

Now I come armed with more concrete examples: first Rabbinic dynasties, such as Hasidic Rabbis, where vivid stories hark back generations veering to the realm of folktales- or do they?
And I have a link with Aaron Beck, who said something cutting about Bruno Bettelheim passing in an elevator (on my way to an appointment with his daughter also a CBT therapist) plus his proteges who have helped me, sprinkle their sessions with anecdotes- it seems like social network theory- certain figures are remembered by cohorts and crowds, enough to warrant histories and so on

Jim Cross said...

"Second-hand memories have a quality to them"

That quality might be inaccuracy.

It's already filtered and partial in the first-hand memory. It becomes even more partial and filtered in the second.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Many of us have interesting stories about persons, places and things. I recently related one as part of a comment: the tale of my encounter with ghost crabs. I know but little of my family's history. It was told that my paternal great grandfather came to the Midwest with horse traders in the mid 1800s. True? I don't know. It was also said he had married a native American woman---giving me a tie to that lineage. That seems credible enough. Some relatives had darker skin, NA features and knew terms and phrases foreign to others. So, this qualifies more as folklore than bona fide history.
Still, it makes for charming speculation. Great grandfather's name was Joseph. Great grandmother's name? Mary.

Howard said...

Upon further thought: of course its nice to have contact with somebody linked to great figures- I believe the word for it is 'numinous' but do you really expect an 100 year old plus man or woman to gush anecdotes about great philosophers, without putting them under a lot of duress especially, when these people might not know philosophy themselves?
The value of memories firsthand diminishes over time and may be less reliable than print material. Am I exaggerating at all?

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

This is interesting from a historical stance. Possibly, even important, to an anthropologist---another hundred years from now. Or,not. I lived in a largely rural community in Canada in the early 1970s. It was artsy, fartsy and spawned talent. I researched the area, on line, this evening. Now, one cannot buy a home there for under a million dollars...of course,the properties advertised are primarily new builds, geared to those who have more money than they know what to do with, or,not smart enough to hang on to it. Still, I get a hundred or more spam calls, per week, trying to crook me out of my money. I wonder if things are that dire in Canada? Someone dear to me thinks so. He made decisions, as did I. His decisions, on reflection, were better than mine. Que sera, sera...

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Exaggeration? I think not. More like thoughtful contemplation...seems to me.