The Widow vs. the Bureaucrats: The Strange Case
of Mrs. Captain Ripley Arnold
O N SEPTEMBER 6, 1853, A BIZARRE GUN BATTLE OCCURRED AT FORT
Graham, Texas, on the Brazos River, between Capt. Ripley Arnold
and Asst. Surgeon Josephus Murray Steiner. The results of that fight
were the death of Captain Arnold and the beginning of a long odyssey
by his wife, Catherine Bryant Arnold, through the byzantine workings of
the U.S. Army pension system. The widow was still grieving when she
commenced her frustrating battle with authorities in Washington, D.C.
to get her husband's military pension. Arnold spent the next thirty years
battling the Pension Office for what she felt was rightfully hers. The
story can be found in the serial correspondence contained in a fat file at
the National Archives pension records, where it gathered dust for nearly
a hundred years before any historian examined it.'
Catherine Arnold's case is worth looking at today because it gives us a
rare look at how the nineteenth-century pension system worked in all its
glorious inefficiency and institutionalized contrariness. Yet her case was
anything but typical. Her long-running battle with the federal bureaucra-
cy was different from the experiences of other soldiers' widows, particu-
larly after 1865 because the Civil War changed the rules of the game. In
the antebellum period the U.S. government barely acknowledged its
obligation to veterans of military service. Qualifications were stringent,
benefits were miserly, and the number of citizens involved was an
insignificant drop in the political bucket. The Mexican War was the first
national conflict to raise serious questions about the traditional system of
* Dr Selcer is a Fort Worth native and the author of three books on Fort Worth history. He
holds a Ph D from Texas Christian Unlversity and teaches for Dallas County Community College
District and the International University in Vienna, Austria
' Capt. Ripley Allen Arnold has no pension file in U.S. government records because he never
filed for a pension. His story is contained in pension records filed under his wife's name.
Pension file of Catherine B. Arnold, Record Group 15, Old War Files (Widow's) File no. 9705,
Certificate no. 5317, Records of the Veterans Administration (National Archives, Washington,
D C ); hereafter cited as RG 15, no. 9705.
VOL. CVII, No. 3 SOUTHWESTERN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY JANUARY, 2004
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 107, July 2003 - April, 2004. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101224/. Accessed April 20, 2014.