Thousands of Revolutionary War stories are waiting to be told. A new project asks the public to help uncover them

Jul 31, 2023, 3:23 PM

Minutemen face British soldiers on Lexington Common, Massachusetts, in the first battle in the War ...

Minutemen face British soldiers on Lexington Common, Massachusetts, in the first battle in the War of Independence, April 19, 1775, in this painting by William Barnes Wollen. Mandatory Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

(CNN) — The National Park Service and US National Archives and Records Administration are calling on Americans to help reveal the untold stories of the United States’ first veterans to commemorate the upcoming 250th anniversary of American independence.

The Revolutionary War Pension Files Transcription Project aims to transcribe approximately 2.3 million original documents that correspond with more than 83,000 individual soldiers. The information spans 150 years, from wartime records to 20th century inquiries made by veterans’ descendants.

The goal of the project is to unearth personal stories from the battlefield and home front, using information included in federal pension applications from Revolutionary War veterans and their widows, according to the National Park Service. And they need the public’s help to do it.

“We’re asking the public in the next three years, as we lead up to the 250th anniversary of the United States, to help us transcribe the pension files to be able to unlock these stories of our first veterans,” Suzanne Isaacs, community manager for the National Archives Catalog, said.

While the Continental Army issued signed discharge papers, veterans who served in the militia had to give oral testimonies and provide witnesses to corroborate their stories. As a result, thousands of court records have yet to be digitally transcribed in the National Archives Catalog.

These verbal attestations were an opportunity for veterans to tell their stories in vivid detail. When pension acts were put in place in the early 19th century, many veterans were elderly and illiterate, so they gave detailed accounts in hopes of recording their life stories.

However, relying on oral testimonies also allowed for embellished tales that were difficult to disprove.

For example, William Shoemaker testified that he spent 18 months as a prisoner of war to receive pension pay. Historian Todd Braisted discovered, more than two centuries later, that Shoemaker joined a loyalist unit and was captive for only two months.

When requirements for pension pay loosened in the 1830s, widows who were married before the conclusion of the war became eligible to apply. To receive funds, widows had to give oral testimonies about their husbands’ service and provide proof of their marriage.

That means the National Archives files also include documents such as marriage licenses, wartime letters and soldiers’ diaries.

Judith Lines applied for widow’s pension in 1837 using one of the rarest kinds of documents – a correspondence from her husband written during his service under Gen. George Washington. John Lines’ 1781 note is the only known preserved letter penned by a Black Continental soldier.

With the help of volunteer archivists, these rare, firsthand stories from the Revolutionary War will be more accessible to the public and archived in the National Archives. Volunteers can register for a free account with the National Archives Catalog. No prior experience is required.

“This project is a way to help make accessible the records of our first veterans, the veterans of the Revolutionary War,” Isaacs said.

The veterans and their families might never have imagined that their accounts of the war and its effects on their lives could be so readily available to the nation. The documents included in this project offer a personal perspective that, before now, was largely unknown.

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Thousands of Revolutionary War stories are waiting to be told. A new project asks the public to help uncover them