The Civil War Pension File of John Boorem

by Jeffrey L. Thomas

The following documents are taken from the Civil War pension file of my great-great grandfather, John Boorem (1832-1916). The records contained in this remarkable file span over 80 years, from the time of John's enlistment in 1861, to 1944, when the estate affairs of his wife Emma were settled. Since the pension was still active well into the 20th century the file is currently held by the Veteran's Administration rather then the National Archives in Washington D.C., and was somewhat difficult to obtain. The file has only been declassified since 1955, so it is likely that it had never been examined in its entirety by a family member. Like many Civil War pension files, John Booremís file contains valuable information regarding his military service, his family, and his personal life, and some of this information allows us to arrive at new perspectives about our ancestor and his family.

In December of 1861, John Boorem enlisted in Company H of the 90th PA Volunteer Regiment in Philadelphia, and after a few weeks of initial drilling, he and his regiment traveled to Baltimore, MD, where they received their arms at Fort Patterson Park. The 90th PA took part in many memorable battled, including Antietam and Gettysburg. At the battle of Antietam in September 1862, John and his regiment saw some of the earliest fighting on day one, after which the 90th withdrew from the field in order to guard one of the roads leading from the battlefield. Several years ago I discovered the diary of Lt. Samuel Moore a soldier of the 90th Pa., who was wounded at Antietam. His account of the first day of fighting provides a vivid description of what John Boorem faced on that fateful day.

September 17th, 1862 -- Wednesday

Directly after daylight sharp (the sharpest of the war probably) cannonading took place on both sides right in our front; our Division was pushed forward with its Batteries. After reaching the edge of the woods our Battery opened upon the enemy with great severity, but soon ceased firing after which we were pushed forward into the woods with Grape and Canister and Shell of every description flying around like hail, cutting down trees or anything in its way. Three or 4 of our men were wounded here. When again receiving orders to move forward, we moved obliquely to the right until we cleared the woods when we again moved straight to the front. The firing by this time was becoming terrific and the men were beginning to go down very rapidly but stood their ground manfully being led on by the gallant Capt. Williams of Rickets staff. Col. Christian, Commanding Brigade could not be found. The men stood up to the work as long as possible expecting reinforcements but in vain. We had to fall back (but in good order) a short distance and hold them at bay until the reinforcements arrived. At this time the destruction of life was the greatest as the shot and shell literally mowed them down, but by all appearances the enemy lost two to our one, but what was remarkable was that their men were mostly killed and ours mostly shot in the limbs somewhere, our Regt. losing but 8 on the field killed and 90 shot in the arms or legs with few exceptions. I was shot through the right forearm near the elbow about this time by (I suppose) a Minnie Ball. After reinforcements came up the Brigade fell back behind the woods we occupied the previous night, where they were again drawn up in line of Battle. It was found that upon getting the 88th in line that the highest Rank Officer they had was a 1st Lieut. Maj. Guile being shot through the leg -- our officers injured are as follows - Capt. Maguire, shot through the leg - Lt. A. Morin, shot through both cheeks between the jaws injuring the tongue - Lt. J.M. Moore (confused or concussed), shell wound to the left side. Removed to the hospital at Keedysville in a new house containing by night 270 wounded -- passed a restless night but good nursing.

Family tradition had claimed that John was wounded at the Battle of Antietam and was discharged later that year as a result of the wound. However, Johnís official military record on file at the National Archives in Washington D.C., states that he was discharged in late 1862 due to an inoperable hernia suffered while carrying railroad ties near Fredericksburg Virginia. Regardless, by December 1862 John Boorem had been discharged from the army by a surgeonís certificate stating that he was unfit for further military service.

The file contains affidavits from John, his family, and his neighbors, and it is in these documents that we find a wealth of valuable information about the Boorem family. In fact, the pension file is the only known source for some of this information. One of the things we learn is that John and his first wife Jane had a previously unknown daughter named Ida Catherine who was born in 1866 and apparently died before 1870. The affidavits also provide the date of death for Johnís first wife Jane, who died in 1874 after giving birth to their daughter Laura. The identity of Janeís father is unknown at this point in time, and the pension file does little to clear up this particular family mystery. While several sources claim that Jane, or Sarah Jane, was the daughter of Joseph and Mary Van Horn Starner, other documents make it clear that, while Mary Van Horn was Janeís mother, Joseph Starner was not Janeís natural father. Different sources suggest different names for Jane, including Simons, Simonds, and Simeson. The two names mentioned in the pension file are Simonds and Simason. While Janeís maiden remains in doubt, what is clear from the file and from other sources, is that she was not a Starner.

The really stunning piece of information contained in the file, however, concernís Johnís eldest daughter Susan "Susie" Boorem, (1863-1926), who married William Surplus and raised a family in Gouldsboro, Wayne Co., Pennsylvania. Susie in present in the Boorem family in the 1870 census for Mountainhome, where we find her living with her mother and father John and Jane Boorem, the aforementioned sister Ida, and her sister Agnes, born in 1867. Family tradition says that after Jane Booremís untimely death in 1874, it was eldest daughter Susie who stepped in and assumed many of her motherís duties before her father remarried Miss Emma Bond in 1879. John Booremís pension file contains two separate depositions, one from 1898 and the other from 1916, in which John was required to name all of his children, living and dead. The problem is that neither document names Susie as his daughter. How could this be? The answer may lie in Susieís date of birth. If Susie was born in 1863, that date would seem to conflict with Boorem family tradition that claims John returned home after his discharge from the army in December of 1862, but soon left to seek work in the lumber yards along the Lehigh river. After earning enough money, the story goes, he returned home circa 1865 and married Jane. If true, this version of events seems incompatible with Susieís date of birth of 1863. Could Susieís date of birth is wrong? The problem here is that Susieís death certificate and all census returns suggest a date of birth of 1863. Another possibility is that for some reason John was mad at his daughter at the time of the depositions, however this explanation seems improbable at best.

Perhaps Susie was an illegitimate child, and here there are two possibilities. The first is that Susie was Janeís daughter but not Johnís, and John simply raised Susie as his own daughter after he married Jane. The problem with this notion is that photographs of Susie show that she looked very much like John Boorem, as did her sisters Agnes and Laura. The other possibility is that John and Jane were Susieís parents, but she was born prior to their marriage. In this scenario, John returns home from war in late 1862, has a baby with Jane, (Susie), and then leaves to work on the river, returning home to marry Jane in 1865. The census shows that in 1860 Jane was living close to the Boorem farm in Paradise Valley, and therefore may have known John before the war. In the final analysis, however, none of these explanations seem completely satisfactory, and therefore Susieís absence in the documents remains the fileís biggest mystery.

By 1883 Congress had passed legislation making it possible for disabled Civil War veterans to obtain a pension based on their service to their country. So, in that year John Boorem, along with thousands of other Civil War veterans, applied for a pension. In stating his case John made two claims. The first was that he had suffered an inoperable hernia while carrying railroad ties from Aquia Creek to Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the second was that he had "suffered an injury to his breach (chest) by an explosion of a shell," at the Battle of Antietam. Again, while Johnís military record clearly supports the first claim, it makes no mention of the second. His original application was made on July 30, 1883, and in response the War Department ordered that John would have to undergo a complete medical examination in order to determine the merits of his claim. The examination was set for September 8, 1883, at Easton, Northampton Co., Pa. Upon learning this John petitioned the War Department, saying that a lack of money would prevent him from traveling to Easton, however a trip to Scranton "would cost nothing". His petition was granted and the examination took place in Scranton on November 28, 1883.

The examination itself was extensive, and the doctors involved commented on a variety of topics related to the health and physical fitness of the 51-year-old John Boorem. Following the exam, Johnís doctors reached two conclusions. The first was that there were no lasting serious effects from the hernia, and that there was no evidence at all of a gunshot wound to the chest. They went on to state that "the man has a good, healthy general look," and "it is our opinion that the disability (hernia) was not incurred in the service as claimed". This second statement seems odd, since Johnís discharge certificate specifically mentions the hernia as the reason for his discharge. Additional evidence was given in the form of a letter from the Adjutant Generalís office stating. "the records of this office does not show that he (John) was ruptured or injured or alleged". A second letter dated December 13, 1883 further stated that John was not on the casualty list following the Battle of Antietam. The doctorís examination combined with the two letters led to Johnís initial pension application being rejected on January 15, 1884. John was apparently in good health when he showed up for the exam, and had failed to convince his examiners that he had been wounded in the chest as alleged. In addition, his one disability that did occur during the war, (the hernia), was also questioned, perhaps due to Johnís military file being incomplete.

We can make several statements about Johnís first attempt to secure a pension. First, we know that in 1883 Civil War veterans had to prove that they had received an injury as the result of their service in the war, and that the injury had prevented them from earning living afterwards. In other words, if the injury was not serious enough to create a permanent disability, the pension was usually denied. Therefore, with this initial act, only the most severely disabled veterans, such as amputees, won pensions from the government. If John had been shot in the chest at Antietam, by 1883 he was apparently showing no ill effects from the wound, nor was a hernia considered a sufficient disability to warrant a pension at the time of the examination. Being is good health is also consistent with what we know about John following the war. He set off to become a lumberman soon after his discharge, later purchased a farm in Mountainhome and worked as a farmer. This, in addition to helping build the new Mountainhome Methodist Church in the 1880s.

A new pension act passed by Congress in 1890, gave John the opportunity to reapply, which he did on July 16, 1890. Among other things, the 1890 act relaxed the requirements for Civil War veterans to qualify for pensions. Once again, a medical examination was ordered which took place at Stroudsburg in Monroe County, on April 22, 1891. This time the results of the examination were such that the army decided to reopen Johnís case on May 28, 1891. Although, again his doctors found no evidence of a gunshot wound to the chest, by this time Johnís hernia had become a problem. His doctors also noted that "Rheumatism" had set in, and the combination of the two warranted John being granted compensation. John was examined by yet another group of doctors on June 26, 1891, and they further concluded, "we find that the aggregate permanent disability for earning a support by manual labor are due to heart disease, hernia, impaired eyesight, and an enlarged spleen". Again, the doctors found no evidence of a gunshot wound. Interestingly, the examinations of 1891 paint a far different picture of Johnís health than his diagnosis in 1883. Had John really failed that much in eight years, or is it possible that his initial examiners ignored certain obvious disabilities on purpose?

Perhaps Johnís earlier examiners had erred, because the pension he was awarded in 1891 was made retroactive to 1883, the date of his initial application. As such, he was awarded a rate of $4.00 a month for the period August 3, 1883 to July 31, 1890, and $8.00 per month beginning August 1, 1890. These sums would have brought our ancestor an immediate windfall of approximately $432.00, money that John likely used to purchase the 18-acre Cross Farm in Mountainhome in 1892. The pension file then, provides an explanation for how John managed to purchase his new farm, a property that remains in the family as of this writing (August 2003).

In 1901 John applied for an increase in his pension, and he was examined yet again. His doctors found basically the same ailments that had been noted in 1891, (nothing new), so his application for an increase was denied. That rejection didnít deter John, who applied again for an increase three years later in 1904. That increase was granted, and beginning July 5th of that year his rate was raised to $12.00 a month. A new act in 1907 allowed for yet an increase for soldiers of advanced age. By this time John Boorem was 75 years old, and the act stipulated that veterans of age 75 and older were entitled to a pension of $20.00 a month. John applied for the increase, which was granted in January of 1908 and made retroactive to February 6, 1907. Yet another pension act in 1912 raised the rate to $22.50 a month, which, again, John applied for and received. With this increase John received an official pension certificate (the only one in the file), a beautiful document dated January 11, 1913, bearing his name and the details of Civil War service.

In 1916 John received a letter from the Department of the Interior requesting updated information on John and his family, information that would help his widow file a claim in the event of his death. In this his final deposition, the 84-year-old John Boorem again provided information about his two wives and his children from both marriages (sans Susie). He signed his name to the affidavit on March 11, 1916. Less than two weeks later, John Boorem was dead.

John Boorem died on his farm in Mountainhome on March 24, 1916, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery across the street from the Mountainhome Methodist Church. On April 5, 1916 his widow Emma applied for her husbandís pension under the provisions of the Widowís Pension Act of 1908. Emma was required to provide proof that her husband had died, and that she was his lawful widow, and the resulting documentation constitute yet another series of valuable family documents. The documents include affidavits from friends and family members attesting to the facts of Emmaís marriage to John. They include a deposition from Casper Buck, the funeral director who not only buried John in 1916, but also Johnís first wife Jane in 1874, one from Johnís 80 year old brother Francis Boorem, who for many years served as justice of the Peace for Paradise Township, and one from Hester Transue, wife of the late John A. Transue who had married John and Emma in 1879. With these documents Emma was able to secure her husbandís pension, retroactive to April 7, 1916, at a rate of $12.00 a month.

There is no further information in the file until 1930, a gap of some 14 years. In 1930 Emmaís pension was increased to $40.00 by an act of congress. There is then another 12-year gap in the file until June 1942, when Emmaís daughter Mabel Price writes to the Pension Department saying that her mother had not received her monthly check. The problem was that by 1942 Emma had moved in with her daughter on the Price dairy farm in Canadensis, while her pension check was still being sent to her old address in Mountainhome. The final documents in the file are a series of letters and applications from 1943/44, concerning Emma Booremís death in 1943. After her mother died, Mabel wrote to the Pension Bureau asking what to do about a check that had arrived after her motherís death, (she sent it back), and if she could be reimbursed for Emmaís funeral expenses (only slightly). The fileís final entry is a letter from the Director of Finance telling Mabel that she was being sent a check in the amount of $37.33, representing the accrued amount due her as the payer of her motherís expenses, the "receipt of which closes this account". The pension file ends here.

The John Boorem pension file is certainly one of the most interesting collections of family records I have ever examined. The extraordinary time period covered by the file, from Johnís enlistment in the army in late 1861, to the final entry in 1944, created a series of documents that provides both unique and intimate insights into the lives of the Boorem family. John wisely used every opportunity to apply and reapply for the pension he felt he deserved, and each application created its own set of valuable records. The file answers several important questions, while raising others. We now more about the death of Johnís first wife Jane, and the source of the money John used to purchase his farm in Mountainhome in 1892. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves why John insisted he had been wounded at Antietam, (pride?), when his war record and medical examinations suggest otherwise, and why his daughter Susie was omitted from the family record. Perhaps most importantly, the file provides testimonials not only from John and Emma, but also from their friends and neighbors, people who knew the Boorem family intimately, and it is through these affidavits, in particular, that valuable pieces of Boorem family history have been recovered. It has been a privilege to be one of the first, if not the first, family member to examine and comment on these important documents.

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Text and photographs copyright © by Jeffrey L. Thomas, with all rights reserved