Black Women, the Civil War, and United States Colored Troops

 

Portrait of two young African American women, one standing, one seated, sometime between 1870 and 1900 (Library of Congress)

In 1887, William J. Simmons, a United States Colored Troops (USCT) veteran turned historian, expressed his gratitude to Black women in the dedication of his book, Men of Mark.  “This volume is respectfully dedicated to the women of our race,” he wrote, “and especially to the devoted, self-sacrificing mothers who moulded the lives of the subjects of the sketches, laboring and praying for their success.” Simmons’ words reveal the important role that Black women had in the lives of USCT soldiers. Unfortunately, numerous scholars continue to undervalue the prominent role that Black women exercised in the U.S.’s war effort during the Civil War. However, like Simmons, we should never forget their importance to USCT regiments as Black men trained. One need only look at the fact that Black women were integral in creating numerous USCT regimental flags.

On August 31, 1863, Black abolitionist Robert Purvis presented the Sixth United States Colored Infantry (USCI) regimental flag to Colonel Louis Wagner at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Purvis informed the racially mixed audience of the multifaceted meanings of the flag. “And now,” Purvis declared, “soldiers, under this flag let your rallying cry be for God, for freedom, and our country; if for these you fall, you fall as Christian patriots, heroes, and martyrs.” Purvis, who was part of an all-male Black contingent of speakers, used his time to assertively redefine the status of Black Americans, specifically men. It is possible that his prominent status as an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad factored into his role as a speaker. 

Purvis’ words called white society, including audience members, to recognize Black manhood as patriotic, self-sacrificing, and courageous, which were terms that many whites refused to associate with Black men. Before this event, numerous whites considered Black men to be cowards, void of self-restraint, and afraid to fight in combat as soldiers. However, Purvis’ words urged witnesses to recognize a defining moment as militarized manhood and Black manhood intersected in front of them. At the same time, Purvis does not use the moment to state how USCT soldiering created ways for Black women to reframe Black womanhood as patriotic, nurturing, and self-less, which were characteristics that white society limited solely to white women.

Black women who raised funds and commissioned the creation of the regimental flag for the Sixth USCI were present at the event, but their involvement received no recognition from the male-speakers. But even before these military processions, Black women made themselves active participants in the U.S. wartime mobilizing efforts. They were constantly visible at various U.S. Army military camps where they interacted with Black men, including kin and friends, who trained to become USCT soldiers. Others found work, such as washerwomen (either contracted by the U.S. Army or by a local business), nearby or at Camp William Penn. Some Black women provided medical care and improved sleeping quarters after noticing that some soldiers did not have tents. But to accomplish these goals, Black women first had to arrive at the site, which was its own battle.  

Many Black women used public transit, usually passenger (or street) cars, to reach Camp William Penn. As a result, Black women put themselves in physical danger when they interacted with white conductors and passengers on these public transit vehicles. Some Philadelphian public transit companies either forced Black people to ride in “Negro cars” or denied them access to the transit service. When Black passengers refused to sit in racially segregated seating it often led to abusive, potentially violent, confrontations. For instance, an unnamed Black woman, rather than face further harm from whites, “jumped from the car at the risk of her life.”  In an editorial to the Philadelphia Press, an unnamed Black woman derided public transit employees for denying Black families from “seeing those dear to them, because the directors of the city passenger cars refuse to let colored people ride…” Thus, it was on these “moving theaters” where Black women fought, literally and figuratively, to make it to and from U.S. military camps, in many cases to remain in contact with their kin. 

Black women were wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends to USCT soldiers. Additionally, they were community organizers with a long history of participation in charitable works, such as organizing door-to-door campaigns to raise funds for the Christian Recorder in Philadelphia to help free Black people to survive in the North. They fought to protect free children from being stolen and sold into slavery. They were active in educational institutions (such as the Institute for Colored Youth) and church organizations, including the Union African Methodist Episcopalian Church Dorcas Society. They were also abolitionists like Sarah Mapps Douglass and Charlotte Forten. It was these, and other, diverse experiences that they later incorporated into their war work.

And, as Pennsylvania Congressman William D. Kelley and various members of the northern Black community openly stated, Black women arguably served as the most important recruiters of potential enlistees, due to their intimate relationships with Black men. Black women were also, by 1863, supporters and protectors of the well-being of many northern USCT soldiers. For instance, soldiers training at Riker’s Island, New York, suffered from improper medical care and poor-quality food. Black women in New York made themselves indispensable to the U.S. as they discovered and remedied these pressing problems for USCT soldiers. 

Another important task that Black women performed was raising funds to have USCT regimental flags created. During the Civil War, the culmination of recruiting, mustering in, and training a U.S. regiment was the send-off military procession that usually closed with the presentation of the U.S. and regimental flags. The latter often symbolized state and local connections to the regiment. Moreover, it was a visible reminder of the Black communities, families, and abolitionists’ hopes for profound and positive changes within the regiment’s home state and possibly nationwide. Additionally, the flag represented the women’s commitment and diligent support of the soldiers, even as the enlisted men departed for the frontlines.

Before the pageantry occurred for USCT regiments, people (usually women) collected funds to finance the creation of the regimental flag. In many states, Black women raised money for various USCT regimental flags, including the Sixtieth USCI. Their collective actions ultimately created the quintessential symbol that Black men used to redefine Black manhood as saviors to the U.S. However, rarely, if ever, did regimental flag events publicly acknowledge that Black women sacrificed their time, energy, and money to create the regimental flag. Even if male speakers did not state it, Black women, through the efforts to create a flag, demonstrated their dedication to the wartime mobilization of the U.S.   

At regimental flag processions, Black women did not quiet their demands for societal change. One need only look at the words on the Sixth USCI’s regimental flag, which stated, “Presented by colored citizens of Philadelphia….” David B. Bowser, a Black artist, crafted the flag and etched the words. However, it was the activism of Black women and their fundraising campaign which made it possible. Therefore, Black women visibly asserted themselves as U.S. citizens. Scholars, including myself, often note that many USCT soldiers and their supporters envisioned military service as further proof of U.S. citizenship. The same claim to citizenship should be true for the Black women who supported them. They simultaneously affirmed their citizenship demands using what literary scholar Koritha Mitchell terms homemade citizenship. Moreover, their agitation accompanied the northern USCT regiments wherever they brought the flag, including carrying it into battle against the Confederate Army and liberating enslaved people. 

It is long overdue for traditional Civil War scholars to recenter historical conversations around Black women’s wartime activism. Their persistence and commitment to supporting USCT soldiers coincided with Black women’s challenges for recognition and inclusion in U.S. citizenry. Thus, studying and discussing Black women is essential to deepening and more accurately our understanding of the Civil War. They should no longer remain an afterthought even when discussing events such as presenting a regimental flag.

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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.

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