New York Representative Sereno Payne, the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means and Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committees, supported Harriet Tubman as she sought additional compensation for her Civil War service. Hoping to quickly get Tubman—nearing age 80—some much-deserved and much-needed money, Payne advocated for an increase to her widow’s pension in lieu of her request for a direct, lump-sum payment in this letter to the chairman of the Committee on Invalid Pensions on February 5, 1898.
After having received only about $200 for her Civil War service, Tubman spent the next three decades seeking the additional compensation she deserved. Although she was granted a widow’s pension of $8 per month, this money was for her husband’s service rather than her own. In December 1897, Payne introduced H.R. 4982, a private bill granting her a pension of $25 per month. When the bill was referred to the Committee on Invalid Pensions, Payne appealed directly to Chairman George Ray for his support. “I thought it much better to introduce a bill for the increase of her pension,” he wrote, “that she might have the enjoymeny [sic] of it during the remainder of her life, which certainly, in the course of nature, cannot last long.”
The committee, and later the House, agreed with Payne’s assessment that “it seems to be a very deserving case,” and increased her widow’s pension to $25. The Senate balked at the new sum and suggested $20 instead. President William McKinley signed the amended version into law on February 28, 1899, and Tubman collected the $20 per month pension until her death in 1913.