Black Soldiers and their Families’ Activism during the Antebellum Era

This post is part of our online forum on Black Military Families in the Nineteenth Century.

Contrabands coming into camp in consequence of the proclamation, 1863 (NYPL)

For many people today, Frederick Douglass is one of the leading historical figures used to understand the complexity and importance of Black life in the nineteenth century, especially throughout the Civil War Era. It is not surprising that he is a person that receives significant attention, given his life’s journey from an enslaved man to a self-emancipated freedman—and that he also was a prominent abolitionist who interacted with various politicians, including U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the period, Douglass traveled internationally (to Europe) to advocate for more support to pressure the U.S. to end slavery forever, as historians Leslie Friedman Goldstein and Joel Schor collectively detail.

Douglass’ influence is even evident in modern understandings of Black military service, particularly in the U.S. Army. Scholars and the public often point to Douglass’ enlistment rhetoric as evidence of the various motivating factors that influenced hundreds of thousands of Black men—free and enslaved—to enlist in United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments. In his prolific writings and public speeches, Douglass’ tireless efforts sought to rally Black men to enroll in various USCT regiments. More specifically, Douglass’ impassioned belief that once Black men put on a USCT regimental uniform and displayed the “Eagle on your button,” then Black men would (in his opinion) visibly demonstrate their militarized manhood.1 Furthermore, USCT soldiers (as Douglass’ argued) would play active roles in destroying slavery while fundamentally reframing racialized notions of gender in the U.S., as the collective scholarship of Andrew T. Tremel and Frederick M. Binder assert.

In northern U.S. cities, Douglass (and numerous other USCT recruiters) urged the diverse Black communities to rally with the U.S. war effort to defeat the Confederacy. For instance, in New York City, Douglass spoke to Black New Yorkers at Shiloh Presbyterian Church, where Henry Highland Garnet, the future chaplain of the Twentieth United States Colored Infantry, was reverend.2 In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Douglass spoke to a racially diverse audience about the merits that becoming a USCT soldier would (in his opinion) provide to Black people and the U.S. Both examples highlight that Douglass was undoubtedly a distinguished historical figure who captivated audiences when he emphasized his aspirations of living in a more racially equitable society.

Unfortunately, by privileging Douglass’ efforts, one can lose sight of the lived experiences of Black soldiers, their families, and communities fighting to establish a more equitable society throughout their lives (including long before USCT mobilization occurred).

For instance, Priscilla Murray (the mother of future USCT soldier, George Murray) seized her freedom from her Maryland enslaver and later raised her son in New York City, while working as a servant at a local hotel. As a single mother, she challenged Victoria-era gender ideology that claimed only men could assume the idealized role of a breadwinner. As historian Jane E. Dabel notes, it was not uncommon that Black women found wage-earning employment for their families’ economic survival because racial discrimination forced every individual in their homes to find wage-earning work. Thus, Priscilla’s work experiences were similar to Margaret Woodson’s and Martha Hooper’s (mothers of future USCT soldiers). Both Margaret and Martha worked as washerwomen.3 Their collective efforts highlight that future USCT soldiers, as children, resided in homes where their mothers normalized challenging antebellum-era racialized gender roles.

Years before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery throughout the U.S., some future USCT soldiers’ childhood homes became spaces that openly defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by cohabitating with Black refugees, who faced potential re-enslavement after the federal policy took effect. The previous scholarship of historians (including Andrew Diemer and William C. Kashatus) highlights that Philadelphia (for numerous reasons, including its sizeable Black population and influential abolitionist networks) was a critical northeastern hub for the Underground Railroad. Therefore, it should not be surprising that some future USCT soldiers resided in homes and helped care for Black refugees seeking a new life outside slave states. For instance, Isaac D. Henderson lived with Rachel Gray (an eighty-nine-year-old woman from Virginia) in 1860. By sharing their familial spaces and resources, northern Black families took active roles in simultaneously challenging anti-Black federal policies while protecting Black people’s lives.

Meanwhile, racially segregated public schools became another racialized and gendered battleground for numerous northern Black communities fighting to make the educational systems more equitable for Black children. Historians Ernestine K. Enomoto, David L. Angus, and Harry C. Silcox collectively state that many Black communities and family members regularly visited the educational institutions, demanding more transparency on each school’s curriculum. They also sought while calling for the schools to hire more Black teachers, as historian Crystal Webster notes. It is plausible that some families of future USCT soldiers were part of these grassroots efforts that argued race should not be a determining factor in deciding if a northern child received a quality education.

By questioning local and state policies that legalized racism in public schools, Black women were (in the opinion of Victorian-era gender roles) stepping outside their “place.” Black women showed minimal concern for white societal judgments of their actions. What mattered more was their commitment to collectively ensuring that Black children had legitimate opportunities for quality education.

As historian James G. Mendez states, northern racial discrimination made the living situations for Black families economically fraught. Furthermore, it forced every individual to seek some wage-earning employment. For instance, Francis Hawkins (a future USCT soldier) bemoaned, in his Civil War pension, that his family’s unstable finances forced him, from time to time, to forgo attending school regularly because he had to find wage-earning employment, possibly as a laborer.

Collectively, these northern Black families demonstrated, throughout the antebellum era, that they were essential agents of societal change. Whether it was racist social norms or various state and federal anti-Black laws, northern Black families repeatedly fought their appearances in the pursuits to uplift each other while simultaneously challenging the pervasiveness of systematic racism in numerous free states. Even though their collective actions did not receive extensive public adulation at the time. It is still important to recognize that examining and illuminating their essential contributions to numerous aspects of U.S. history is possible. Furthermore, we must recognize how these, and many other, Black families were fighting to establish and live in a more racially inclusive society.

It is understandable how one could gravitate to the unquestionable importance of the Civil War and highlight the roles that prominent Black leaders (such as Frederick Douglass) played throughout the era. To be clear, Douglass must (and will) continue receiving both scholarly and public attention. At the same time, it is also essential to recognize and include the multitude of ways that Black families, including future USCT soldiers, were battling for equality before the Civil War. Doing so would not only illustrate that they publicly demonstrated the notions of Black manhood and womanhood years before Douglass championed donning a USCT uniform to various northern Black communities. Additionally, this approach provides ways to move beyond primarily focusing on the men to illuminate the historical importance of the women who lived with and helped raise future northern USCT soldiers.

  1. Frederick Douglass, “Another Word to black men,” Weekly Anglo-African, March 17, 1863.
  2. “Meeting at Shiloh Church,” Weekly Anglo-African, April 25, 1863
  3. 1850 U.S. Census, M432; 1860 U.S. Census, M653.
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Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Dr. Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Furman University. His book, The Families' Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice, will be released in June of 2022. Follow him on Twitter @PhUsct.

Comments on “Black Soldiers and their Families’ Activism during the Antebellum Era

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    Professor Pinheiro, thank you for this essay. It wisely argues that Frederick Douglass cannot represent, or stand in for, all African Americans during the Civil War era.

    Thank you too for your superb book “The Families’ Civil War.” I have learned much from it and recommend it highly.
    Mark Higbee, Eastern Michigan University

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