The majority of the collection consists of claims for pensions by blacks who served in the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy during the Civil War. The claims request compensation for wounds and injuries received or diseases contracted by the applicants. Claims were submitted either by the veterans themselves or by their survivors. While the majority of claimants appear to have lived in the vicinity of New Bern and James City, North Carolina, many resided throughout the central portion of eastern North Carolina. The ledgers were once the property of Frederick Douglass, a black lawyer, minister, and teacher of New Bern who handled the claims.
Most of the ledgers contain indexes that are arranged non-alphabetically or by letter groups only. This arrangement necessitates a detailed search for each name and a check for multiple entries. Claims and additional affidavits were often taken over a period of years, resulting in a series of entries in several different ledgers.
Much of the handwriting is difficult to read. Also, spelling and grammar often are atrocious. Names are spelled in a variety of ways, even in a single affidavit; the researcher must consider all possibilities. (Examples: Koonts, Koontz, Koonce and Counts; Moore, Moor, Moar, Moare, Maur, Maure, etc.) Clerks and recruiters sometimes understood the phonetics of a name, but not the spelling; thus a name such as "Andrews" might be written as "Anders" or "Andress." Index entries are sometimes confusing. For example, "Martha Pool alias Banks sister Alfred," denotes a claim filed by Martha Pool (nee Banks), a sister of the deceased veteran, Alfred Banks. Other difficulties include fathers' names that differ from those of their sons (#248.3.a, p. 106), a legacy from slave days. In the later ledgers, names changed as daughters married and widows remarried. Affidavits occasionally skip several pages, as in the case of Moses Green's, which jumps from page 53 to page 64 in volume #248.1.a. Also, indexes in the ledgers include only the name of the claimant; names of affiants are not mentioned, and often the affidavit contains as much information on the affiant as on the subject of the claim.
Military abbreviations encountered in the text include:
U.S.C.T. - United States Colored Troops; U.S.C.I. - United States Colored Infantry; U.S.C.H.A - United States Colored Heavy Artillery; U.S.C.L.A. - United States Colored Light Artillery; U.S.C.C. - United States Colored Cavalry; "Vols" - abbreviation for "Volunteers"
Naval units mentioned include:
Commodore Hull, USS
After Union forces gained control of sections of eastern North Carolina, blacks were recruited into the U.S. service. Army enlistees were usually assigned to specially organized "colored" units, almost all of which were designated as such (35th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops; 2nd Regiment, U.S. Colored Cavalry, etc.). These units consisted of black privates and non-commissioned officers commanded by white commissioned officers. Navy enlistees usually were taken aboard as "landsmen," the official designation for an inexperienced seaman, but underwent training equivalent to that of their white shipmates (#248.1.a, pp. 45–47). In both services blacks were assigned as cooks, stewards, and menials as well as to combat units.
The military units, ships, and actions in which these men were involved are mentioned repeatedly, although for the most part only incidentally to the claims. While most of the information thus revealed is of little historical consequence by itself, many incidents serve to illuminate the conditions under which the men served.
Certain outstanding references include: the explosion of a heavy cannon at Fort Macon in 1865, which injured several men of the 14th Regiment U.S.C.H.A. (#248.1.a, p. 166); injury to several men of the 2nd Regiment U.S.C.C. when a tow-rope slipped (#248.1.b, p. 67); the arrest of Dennis Wordsworth for sending a letter to General Benjamin Butler (#248.1.b, pp. 105–108); one soldier's accidental gunshot wound and the murder of another by Mexicans in Texas (#248.1.b, pp. 289, 374); the murder of Ned Rouse, a black farmer by the Ku Klux Klan (#248.2.b, pp. 190–191); an inventory of items taken from E.M. Smith by Company E, 3rd New York Cavalry in 1862 (#248.1.b, p. 274); an ex-slave's account of being bought and sold (#248.1.a, p. 86; #248.2.b, pp. 32, 138); a mutiny and riot in the 37th Regiment U.S.C.T. at Camp Hilton, near Wilmington, N.C., in 1865 (#248.3.a, pp. 174–176); and two small vignettes of battle action (#248.3.a, pp. 16–17).
The most common afflictions suffered by these pensioners appear to have been rheumatism, hemorrhoids, and intestinal ailments, but everything from gunshot wounds to smallpox is mentioned. Several instances of ruptures, back injuries and crushing injuries can be attributed to the heavy manual labor these men were required to perform when not actually fighting. Also mentioned are the use of a "press box" for treatment of internal injuries (#248.1.a, p. 145), an example of the long-term effects of gunshot wounds (#248.1.b, pp. 11–17), and descriptions of numerous other wounds. These seem to be more prevalent in the earlier ledgers, when the claims were first being filed. Doctors most often mentioned in connection with these claims are Henry G. Bates, John W. DeGrasse, Walter Duffy, and B. P. Rice.
In making claims, widows and dependents were required to prove their identities and relation to deceased veterans. Consequently, the ledgers are full of marriage and medical certificates (examples: #248.1.b, pp. 18, 44, 326) and genealogical information concerning slave marriages, and births. Examples of the workings of the system itself include a request for correction of a mis-rated pension, complaints about solicitors, and the rejection of a pension (#248.1.a, pp. 112, 164, 176, respectively). Requests for pension increases (#248.1.b, pp. 35, 75, 110–114, 268) and a list of settled claims (#248.1.b, p. 383) complete the picture.
Ledger #248.3.a contains a list of seventy U.S. Senators and Congressmen and their places of residence in Washington, D.C., in 1892 (pp. 250–251).
The collection also contains a probationers' roll book (1887–1901) for the Clinton Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in New Bern, of which Reverend W. A. Keyes was minister. This volume contains names of church members, minutes of trustees meetings, an itemization of church expenditures, receipts, and discussions of church-related problems. It also includes a few baptismal lists. Frederick Douglass appears to have been church secretary from 1899 until about 1901.
The collection contains two account books. Douglass's account book from his law practice (ca. 1883–ca. 1901) lists his clients and has entries for payments of claims, probated wills, rents, and promissory notes. The surviving portion of his account book for 1910 consists mainly of itemized lists of expenditures beneath each client's name.
Miscellaneous material includes a card from the Pension Bureau acknowledging receipt of evidence on a claim for Willis Brown; a pension award certificate for John Roberts of James City, N.C.; an 1897 merchandise list from J. J. Underhill, Baltimore; an advertisement for Simmons Liver Regulator as a cure for malaria; and assorted notes and receipts.