Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reassessing Estimates with Pension Applications

This blog is devoted to exploring battles of the American Revolution. One of the most vexing problems in examining a given battle is determining exactly who were the participants and in what numbers they were present. Precise counts were not always made or preserved, and the estimates made by commanders or other participants may have been subject to any number of errors and biases. For this reason I am interested in the possibility that some other, more "objective" means of estimating troop totals might be possible. I read with great interest the methods described by Lawrence Babits in his history of Cowpens (Devil of a Whipping), in which he relied upon, among other things, the number of pension applications filed by survivors as a means of estimating the numbers of American militia that were present. However, I ended up strongly criticizing the estimates produced by these methods for Cowpens, as well for a second battle, Williamson's Plantation.

To reiterate a point I've made before, the logic behind the methods is sound. Babits reasoned that something like 1 in every 3 or 4 survivors of the battle would have lived long enough to file a pension application. Thus, the number of pension applications filed for a given unit multiplied by 3.5 should provide a reasonably good estimate of the number of participants in that unit. The problem, however, is that the resulting estimates seem to be too high. For example, in the case of Williamson's Plantation, this method yields an estimate that is approximately 50% greater than the likely historical total.

My feeling is that there are two basic reasons why estimates derived from pension applications are too high: 1) some pension applications contain intentionally false information about participation in a given battle, and 2) some pension applications contain inadvertently false information about participation in a given battle.

In regards to the first possibility, it can be noted that every era has its "bad apples," and it would be surprising if some false claims were not filed. Indeed, the incentives to file a false claim were likely considerable during the first part of the 19th Century (a relative dearth of social support for older and disabled adults), while the likelihood that a false statement would be detected was low (claims were often filed far from the place of original service; records for some forms of service were not well preserved).

Even today, when the incentives for making false claims presumably are less and the odds of discovery are better, false claims about military service nevertheless are not uncommon. Consider the following excerpt from a New York Times article published earlier this year:

August 2, 2009
In Ranks of Heroes, Finding the Fakes
By Ian Urbina

Last August, the Texas Department of Transportation started asking applicants for more documentation after discovering that at least 11 of the 67 Legion of Merit license plates on the roads had been issued to people who never earned the medal.

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a bill naming a post office in Las Vegas after a World War II veteran who, it later turned out, had lied when he claimed he had been awarded a Silver Star. The legislation was rescinded.

In May, one of the most prominent veterans’ advocates in Colorado was detained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation after it was discovered that his story about heroic service in Iraq and severe injuries from a roadside bomb was an elaborate hoax.

Military imposters are nothing new. But the problem has grown or at least become more obvious as charlatans are easily able to find fake military documents, medals and uniforms on auction Web sites.

At the same time, the Internet has also stepped up the cat-and-mouse game, allowing watchdogs to uncover fraudulent claims much faster and mobilize a more effective response.

“Public opinion of the military went up after the Sept. 11 attacks,” said Thomas A. Cottone Jr., who from 1995 to 2007 ran the F.B.I. unit that investigates cases of military service fraud, “and as more people joined the military and were being publicized winning medals, more phonies were getting ideas.”

Mr. Cottone said that in 2007 he received about 40 to 50 tips per week, roughly triple the number before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Nonetheless, verifying claims of military service and awards remains difficult because no official and comprehensive database exists. The problem has recently led to a number of embarrassing and potentially costly blunders by organizations with much at stake in policing the issue.

In April, The Associated Press found that the Department of Veterans Affairs was paying disability benefits to 286 supposed prisoners of war from the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and to 966 supposed prisoners of the Vietnam War. But Defense Department records show that only 21 prisoners of war returned from the gulf war, and that fewer than 600 are alive from the Vietnam War.

Last month, The Marine Corps Times found 40 erroneous profiles in this year’s Marine Corps Association Directory, including false claims of 16 Medals of Honor, 16 Navy Crosses and 8 Silver Stars.

In response, some members of Congress are calling for an investigation of the veterans department. Katie Roberts, a spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs, said the agency was working with the Defense Department “to analyze and verify the accuracy of the data.”

In regards to the second possibility, it can be noted that pension applications were often filed 50 years or more after the war. A lot can happen to memory in that time. Even memories that seem to be remembered vividly can change over time.

For example, consider the application filed by Anthony Shoto, who claimed to have been present at the battle of Rocky Mount, South Carolina (July 30, 1780):

"One Captain Middleton Asbel then took command of the company of Capt Land a few days after they made an attack, one Sunday morning on Rocky Mount about sunrise, and after a warm contest compelled the enemy to retreat and took the fort. Not many killed or wounded. the enemy retired to Camden and the Americans followed on to the Big Wateree creek, where they halted and remained a short time."

In this case, it's possible to detect a problem, because the applicant didn't simply claim to have been in the battle, but he also provided a few details. The battle of Rocky Mount was fought on a Sunday, and the attack did occur at sunrise, but the fort was not taken. It sounds instead like he conflated the action at Rocky Mount with Sumter's capture of Carey’s Fort in mid-August. So what does this mean – was Shoto actually at Rocky Mount? Possibly yes – it could be that his memory for the action at Rocky Mount became intermixed with his memory for the action at Carey’s Fort, with the result that the two memories became blurred into one.

Alternatively, maybe Shoto was only at Carey’s Fort, but he misremembered the details because of information he was exposed to in later years. Imagine, for a moment, that long after the war he is reminiscing with another old timer and he asks “What was the name of that fort General Sumter attacked?” “Why that was Rocky Mount,” his companion declares. “And when did that occur?” “I don’t reckon I know the exact date, but I do know it was on a Sunday morning.” And so when the time came to submit a pension application, the veteran provided this muddle of information.

I don't know of course which pension applications (beyond individual exceptions) are accurate descriptions of service during the war and which are not. I believe that most pension applications are basically correct and for this reason I cite them often. However, that some proportion of applications may be unreliable certainly complicates efforts to use pension applications to determine troop totals.


Lawrence Babits. (1998). A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens.

C. Leon Harris transcribed and annotated the pension application of Anthony Shoto. (.pdf file).

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