Military Service and Black Families During the Civil War

This post is part of our online roundtable on Holly A. Pinheiro Jr.’s The Families’ Civil War.

A Union soldier stands with African Americans on a plantation, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, 1862. (Shutterstock)

Somewhere in America today, there is a child who does not know yet that they will be orphaned when their military parent dies. Somewhere else, there is a man or a woman whose marriage will end when death separates them from their military spouse. Thus, it is today, as it has always been back through the century and millennia of human history. Holly A. Pinheiro Jr.’s  The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers in the Fight for Racial Justice  documents just one war, the American Civil War, in one city, Philadelphia, and the fate of the men, women, and children left behind as collateral damage in the wake of conflict. His micro-study is even more specific. It examines African American families who lived in this city before the Civil War and documents how military service affected their extended families into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Even though they were free, Black soldiers and their families paid a heavy price to free their enslaved brothers and sisters. Pinheiro’s examination goes beyond the wartime emancipationist moment, extending through the Civil War era—the antebellum era when the men who served were children and as young adults formed families, into the post-war period, where they reconstructed their families in the ruins of war.

Pinheiro’s work is an important contribution to the seemingly unending struggle to advance the notion that Black Americans were central to the cause, course, and consequence of the Civil War. In some strange bit of memory magic, white Americans erased African Americans from the war’s military history even though the service of almost 200,000 men was documented in hundreds of thousands of official records. Not only were these men’s individual services forgotten, but so were their families suffering. Pinheiro uses records, including pensions, city directories, and the census, to recreate Black families’ lives in the Civil War era.

Pinheiro’s work is part of a long campaign to remember Black soldiers’ military service that began in the nineteenth century though it was not successful until the later twentieth century. Joseph Wilson and George Washington Williams, Black veterans themselves, wrote the first studies of their comrades’ campaigns. Dudley Cornish, the first white writer to chronicle African American Civil War soldiers, recorded the valor of what he termed the “Sable Arm (1955).” This literary effort made little impact on white Americans’ awareness of Black Civil War service. Given the popularity of the cinema as compared to scholarly studies, it is not surprising that a movie Glory (1989)— documenting the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (Colored)—made Black military service, at least by one regiment, part of the Civil War narrative. Neither the movie, nor previous scholarly studies, examined the unglamorous aftermath of the Civil War as experienced by African American families, including the mourning of loved ones who died in battle, the challenges of amputees who came home unable to work, and the psychological toll of Black veterans whose minds never left a narrow beach under artillery fire.

While this is true for all Civil War soldiers, no one studies the families of Irish immigrants who died at Fredericksburg, the German soldiers at Chancellorsville, the native-born who died at Gettysburg either. On the one hand, scholars’ lack of interest in those left behind is part of a broader amnesia about war’s long-term cost. On the other, historians studying Black military service placed less emphasis on the negative consequences for their families because their sacrifice freed their race. While ending racial slavery mattered to Black men and women, Pinheiro demonstrates that the price of freedom was high for free African American families. Partly, the Black family in freedom suffered because of race-based discrimination before, during, and after emancipation. As a result, white supremacy imperiled the prosperity and very survival of the Black household. When war came, Black men’s military service damaged and sometimes destroyed African American families.

Pinheiro focuses on Philadelphia and the dynamic free community in that city, uncovering the men who would ultimately serve in the first Black units recruited in 1863. He traces these men’s struggles from childhood through young adulthood, examining the families they formed from antebellum Philadelphia through their military service and in the war aftermaths. Pinheiro did not restrict his investigation to blood relatives. He included what Catherine Lee terms “fictive kin,” an invaluable contribution to studying marginalized groups. To survive, families embraced others who may not be related but who live in their homes as part of their struggle for survival in a racist community. White supremacy threatened the survival of their families. Barred from skilled trades and relegated to unskilled laboring ranks, the boys and young men who would be soldiers struggled to support their families. Ironically, they did so in an environment where white Americans questioned their manhood, which supposedly rested on their status as breadwinners. The same white Americans who questioned their fiduciary manhood excluded them from jobs that would have allowed them to take care of their families.

When the war started and Black men were needed to fill the Union Army’s depleted ranks, leading African American abolitionists—assisted by elite whites—recruited Black soldiers. When they did so, they once again asserted certain ideas about gendered manhood, suggesting that enlisting in the military demonstrated one’s manhood. Black abolitionists also called on Black women to demonstrate their womanhood by giving their husbands and sons to wartime military service. Recruiters used both gendered rhetoric and race-based appeals to fight slavery and the promise of a rather ill-defined “citizenship” for men, or maybe their races, or possibly the war’s survivors. African American men answered the call, and their decision severely impacted their extended families, both their real and fictive kin.

Most studies emphasize the obvious cost of wartime service on all families—death and disability for their loved ones; however, Pinheiro identifies how families suffered because of the race-based challenges of African American military service. Black Philadelphians enlisted with the promise of monthly equal to white soldiers; it was neither the same nor was it paid every month. Instead, these men received seven dollars a month, as opposed to thirteen dollars a month, paid whenever the Army mustered their unit for pay, theoretically, but not always, bimonthly. While this affected white soldiers, these men could also rely on bounties–bonuses for enlistment. Initially, Black volunteers did not receive these payments. Eventually, the government addressed these inequities, but Black families, who had always lived on the margin, were desperate by that time.

Despite the desperate need for more soldiers, the Army refused to treat these men as equals. For example, because of their race, African Americans almost never became officers. Imagine you are a civilian required to adapt to a military environment that demands a certain degree of subservience and negation of your individual will to your officers who view you as unworthy of command. As a result, many of these civilians understandably rebelled against the race-based discrimination that was systemic to military service, one that would only begin to be dismantled eighty-five years after the war’s end.

While forced into a separate and unequal military, these men and their families found a measure of equality when soldiers died or were disabled because policies related to soldiers’ service pensions appeared color blind. However, military officials used gendered notions of marriage and sexual relations to deny African American families these pitiful payments—eight dollars a month for a widow and two dollars for a child. Pinheiro documents the decades-long struggle that Black families faced in a theoretically race-blind system. As documented in Donald Shaffer’s pioneering study of pension records, African Americans did not always marry their partners, a reflection of their own notion of gendered relations between men and women. If a woman had not married a soldier, she was often denied a widow’s pension. While a legally correct decision, pension examiners, white men who acted as gatekeepers in the system, demanded that women justify their worthiness for the pension by recording their sexual behavior both inside and outside of marriage. When pension examiners deemed a woman unworthy of a pension, the family suffered grievously. Denied pensions, destroyed families.

Despite the racism in the pension process, Pinheiro argues that veterans and their families asserted a form of “Cultural Citizenship” when they demanded these payments. Cultural Citizenship represents a demand for membership and a sense of belonging in the nation regardless of the inequities of political citizenship. While he applies this to the entire Black family, he focuses much of his attention on the woman — wives, partners, and daughters—who were promised Cultural Citizenship for supporting their male relative’s enlistment. While they could not vote, nor run for office, African American women asserted their right to a pension because of their sacrifice, challenging race-based gendered ideas that made white widows more deserving of postwar payments. His last chapter demonstrates that as late as the 1930s, a Black woman descendant of a Civil War soldier wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt asserting her cultural citizenship based on her family’s sacrifice.

Pinheiro’s brilliantly researched recreation of African American life in the nineteenth and twentieth century, a long Civil War indeed, portrays the African American family’s beauty and fragility. While much of this review has been about Pinheiro’s contribution to scholarly debates on African Americans and the long Civil War era, it is a remarkably accessible book suitable for undergraduate and graduate classes. One hopes it is read beyond the halls of academia so that Americans can understand the ultimate cost of the families’ Civil War.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Barbara A. Gannon

Barbara A. Gannon is an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida (UCF). She received her B.A. from Emory University, an M.A. from George Washington University, and a Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (UNC Press, 2011). This book received the Wiley-Silver Prize (University of Mississippi) for the best first book in Civil War History. It also received an honorable mention from the Lincoln Prize (Gilder Lehrman Institute) jury in 2012. She published her second book, Americans Remember their Civil War (Praeger), in 2017.  Her current project concerns the public memory or, more properly, the public erasure of the Battle of Olustee and its casualties. The Union dead remain in a mass grave on the battlefield.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *