Reading Practices, Civil War Archive, and the Black Family

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

“African American soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas,” Waud, Alfred R. , Artist. 1866. Photograph (LOC)

The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice by Dr. Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., Assistant Professor of History at Furman University, analyzes the lives of 185 freeborn Philadelphia Black men who served in Pennsylvania’s first United States Colored Troop regiments through the lens of family and community. This diverse group of veterans and their families shared a particular experience of the federal government over the long nineteenth century. At its core, it is a study of working-poor Black families through the examination of a wide array of government records including the federal census, military service records, and pension records. The result is a sweeping overview of Black life in nineteenth-century Philadelphia—before, during, and after the Civil War—that builds on and expands the brilliant work of scholars such as Erica Dunbar, Kali Gross, and Gary Nash.

Future USCT soldiers came of age in diverse families and household systems. Parents of future USCT soldiers hailed from states where slavery still existed when the war began (18), and women contributed to wage-earning. Definitions of family included fictive kin, blood-related extended adult kin, and orphans: “Blood relations was never the sole defining characteristic that determined family relationships.” (18) Soon-to-be soldiers lived in single-parent households that included elderly relatives, some were raised in orphanages, and others lived with both parents. They embraced a wide array of romantic partnerships before they enlisted—some chose to legalize their marital unions, while others embraced common-law marriages and community recognition. These close-knit family relationships provided a financial purpose and protected Black people from the psychological toll of racism.

In the years leading up to the war, future soldiers contributed vital resources to their households: their wages assisted mothers and fathers maintain independent households and enabled their siblings to attend school. Military service, Pinheiro contends, allowed Black Philadelphians “to expand the theater of war beyond their metropolitan and racially oppressive city and into the South.” (7) Military service, however, came at a price as enlistment exacerbated issues of poverty and deprivation for these men and their families.  In many cases, Black soldiers “were the only full-time wage earners in their households.” (129). Northern Black women such as Jane Welcome registered their economic hardships with President Abraham Lincoln during the war.

Mr abarham lincon   I wont to knw sir if you please wether I can have my son relest from the arme   he is all the subport I have now   his father is Dead and his brother that wase all the help that I had   he has bean wonded twise   he has not had nothing to send me yet   now I am old and my head is blossaming for the grave and if you dou I hope the lord will bless you and me   if you please answer as soon as you can if you please   tha say that you will simpethise withe the poor   thear wase awhite jentel man told me to write to you   Mrs jane Welcom if you please answer it to

he be long to the eight rigmat co a u st colard troops   mart welcom is his name   he is a sarjent1

Welcome and so many others held expansive expectations of what the federal government should do to protect the economic survival of Black families during the Civil War years. Pinheiro convincingly shows the personal sacrifices and economic strain military service had on working-poor Black families. In addition to economic deprivation, working-poor Black families also had to contend with the real possibility that their loved ones could die, which took an emotional toll on all involved. Indeed, Black enlistees were valued and loved in their families and communities. The death of a soldier brought new expenses to families already facing financial despair. Burial expenses and related undertaker fees made federal sources such as enlistment bounties and pension monies crucial to the survival of Northern Black families.

Black veterans and their families endured numerous setbacks in their quest to secure survivors’ benefits from the federal government. “Northern African American families understood that it was necessary to channel their sorrow into the quest for economic restitution for lives lost.” (84) Often times, these were years-long battles, and for Black women, North and South, the application process involved a significant level of sexual scrutiny.

Marriage structured women’s rights within the Pension Bureau, transforming the marital relationship into a political battleground during the war and beyond. Veterans and their families could file claims for pensions under two basic systems:  The General Law System, in 1862, required veterans to establish a direct link between their disability and wartime service. In 1890, law­makers introduced the service law system, in which veterans only had to establish a three-month period of service. War widows also filed claims under these systems, but their eligibility for survivors’ benefits hinged on marriage and sexual respectability.

Evaluating enslaved women’s petitions through the lens of heterosexual marriage and patriarchal family relations, as bureau officials did, had detrimental outcomes for Black women seeking pensions. This is not new terrain for scholars of African American women’s history. Scholars such as Noralee Frankel, Leslie Schwalm, and Tera Hunter point to the difficulties Black women had adapting their marital experiences to meet the rigorous demands legal institutions and government agencies. As I stressed in Claiming Union Widowhood, the marriages of enslaved people were neither authorized nor effectuated through legal routes, so it was nearly impossible for for­merly enslaved women to secure pension benefits during the war. Federal lawmakers eventually addressed this problem by introducing provisions that retroactively recognized the marriages of formerly enslaved people and accepting eyewitness testimony as evidence.

Freeborn Black women brought a diverse set of marital claims to bear on the pensions system. On this point, Pinheiro further clarifies the implications of federal lawmakers’ wartime policies by focusing attention on the applications of free Black women in the North. Northern Black women who embraced common-law marriages did not qualify under the Act of 1864, which opened the pension system the families of formerly enslaved soldiers. Moreover, as Pinheiro writes: “the federal government was more likely to accept common-law marriages from former slave states than free states.” (85) Marriage and family would become the centerpiece of Black soldiers and their families’ interaction with government agencies such as the Pension Bureau.

Like Southern Black families, Northern Black veterans and their families presented claims that reflected the wide array of relationships that they had nurtured in their communities over the course of their lives. Though not always successful, their petitions challenged the fundamental definition of marriage and family that informed the bureau’s understanding of family and women’s roles within the household.

Investigations conducted by special examiners were not particular to Black women, North or South. Formerly enslaved women and Black women who embraced common-law marriage, however, endured high levels of scrutiny because of their inability to provide standard documentation of their marriages and because racialized conceptions of sexual respectability positioned them outside of the boundaries of worthy widowhood. The intimate details of Black women’s private lives took on a heightened level of visibility during the examination process. Examiners posed deeply personal questions about their intimate lives on a regular and repetitive basis (with the expectation that they would answer). Keep in mind, these examinations were “witnessed” by someone in addition to the special examiner.

Gaining recognition from the bureau and collecting a pension did not guarantee anyone’s standing on the pension roster. Bureau officials constantly scrutinized Black veterans and their heirs. Analyzing the contested dimensions of Black veterans and their families’ struggles for pensions does not necessarily change the outcome their individual cases, but it does suggest a more expansive political landscape in which working-class Black people, North and South, played a key role in battling for the memory of the Civil War.

Because of its regional focus, creative reading of the Civil War archive, and its detailed attention to the daily lives of freeborn African Americans, The Families’ Civil War fills a significant gap in the literature by showing how Black military service extended well beyond the sacrifices of the men who enlisted. In doing so, Pinheiro builds of the insights of James Mendez by employing family as a lens through which to analyze the experiences of Black soldiers and veterans. Early chapters in this study detail the crippling impact of racial discrimination on Black families. Black men seeking semi-skilled work and entry into an industrial workforce faced violence. Black families continually fought racial discrimination decades after the war; the Civil War, then, was one battle in a long fight for racial justice that extended well into the twentieth century.

  1. Jane Welcome to President Abraham Lincoln, in The Black Military Experience, pp. 664–65, in Families and Freedom, pp. 205–6, in Free at Last, p. 492, and in Freedom’s Soldiers, pp. 136–37.
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Brandi C. Brimmer

Brandi C. Brimmer is the Morehead-Cain Alumni Associate Professor in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research recovers poor and working-class Black women’s battles for citizenship during the nineteenth century. She is the author of Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South (Duke University Press, December 2020), which received Honorable Mention for the ABWH Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award for the best book in African American Women’s History.

Comments on “Reading Practices, Civil War Archive, and the Black Family

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    Brilliant and creative scholarship that has deep implications for the role of military service on anchoring black life especially roles for men when the workforce presents few options. Thank you

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