The “Families’ Cause” in the Post-Civil War Era

Black Family, Savannah, Georgia (Flickr/John Tewell)

“In spite of all that may be said of the new South and its willingness to set the issues of the war between the North and the South, there is undoubtedly an element in the South, which does not intend to do so if they can help.” –Christian Recorder

Written on August 16, 1900, the above quote from the Christian Recorder illustrates how the Civil War remained ever-present for many Americans. After the Civil War, many ex-Confederates (and later generations of sympathizers) searched for new ways to solidify and legitimize their white supremacist interpretations of the war’s meaning. The Christian Recorder’s article rightly acknowledges that, by the early-twentieth-century, many white southerners promoted anti-Black measures that systematically and effectively nullified many Reconstruction-era laws—state and federal. Furthermore, the “New South” was heavily dependent on reinstituting modified racial and gender ideologies from the “Old South.” In essence, the public memory of the Civil War provided Americans with a new battleground.

Several historians demonstrate that the Lost Cause-Confederate Civil War memory was a myth promulgated by many whites, including non-southerners, that presented an incorrect historical interpretation, furthering a racist agenda as one means of updating Old South ideologies. Recently, Adam Domby highlights that it was not  so much the Union Cause but the False Cause, that lied at the heart of Confederate Civil War memory. In his study, he examines the central lie of Southern memory, that the war had nothing to do with slavery and white supremacy. In addition to identifying the Lost Cause and adherent refusal to recognize slavery and emancipation as a cause and consequence of the war, other historians identified how those loyal to the federal government places Black freedom and emancipation as central to the memory of the Union Cause. Barbara Gannon identifies the Won Cause or Union Cause, examining the interracial Grand Army of the Republic where Black and white Union Army veterans shared a memory of war to preserve the Union and end slavery. Similarly, David W. Blight emphasizes the Emancipationist Cause, which places Black freedom as one aspect of Union memory. As part of his study, he recognizes the varied ways Blacks recalled and celebrated the profound impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction-to the African American fight for equal rights in American society. These scholars collectively debunk any notions of the Lost Cause narrative as an accurate interpretation of American history.

While successfully refuting a false historical perspective, more can be done about the postwar memory work of Black Americans. For example, the life experiences of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) veterans’ kin and their eternal fight on the battlefield of Civil War public memory deserve more scholarly and public attention. Scholars have done an exceptional job uncovering the war’s lasting impact on newly freed, formerly enslaved, USCT veterans and their families. However, northern freeborn veterans’ kin are rarely, if ever, the center of historical analysis. As a result, less is known about their struggle in the post war era to memorialize their service and their family’s sacrifices. I argue that it is long overdue to shift the historical conversation to people who experienced the Civil War and its aftermath in important and starkly different ways from newly freed people. To accomplish this goal, one need only examine the Civil War pension records of USCT veterans’ dependents to understand how they persistently fought for inclusion in the conversation around the meaning of the Civil War generations after 1865.

Focusing on a dependent’s’ pension application provides multiple ways to understand how the federal government (namely the Bureau of Pensions) documented and occasionally approved dependent pensioners. At each aspect of the application process federal government representatives ignored the Lost Cause which ignored Black soldiering in the war, and the lasting impact soldiering had on dependents generations after the war. Instead, the Bureau of Pensions officials acknowledged what I term the Families’ Cause, which refers to the concerted efforts that multi-generational dependents demanded regarding both social welfare and the lingering impact that their male-kin’s wartime sacrifices held on their households.

There were limits to this inclusion—or something like that. Many Black applicants experienced racial discrimination. In many cases, it had to do that many pension agents (who were all white men) inherently viewed Blacks as untrustworthy seeking to defraud the federal government out of money. To be clear, application deception occurred but it transcended race. Even so, pension agents often approached USCT dependent applications with a heightened sense of skepticism with negative consequences for Blacks. Illiterate applicants also faced challenges due to their inability to comprehend the necessary documents fully. Lawyers, who received varying fees, were critical of those hoping to navigate the complex pension system. Traveling to and from locations to provide evidence and track down a witness was a costly endeavor. The Bureau of Pensions’ overemphasis on  collecting documentation throughout an extensive and sometimes invasive examination procedure that could span years, even decades, led to detailed data on people who did not have the resources or time to document their lives.

Even with these (and other) potential pitfalls, some dependents of deceased USCT veterans continued applying for pensions. For instance, Edmonia Woodson (the daughter of William Woodson, an Eighth United States Colored Infantry veteran) composed a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt on September 18, 1939. Edmonia formally requested that her mother, Julia, receive a widow’s pension, even though Julia’s widow’s pension (initially filed in 1894) received a rejection. Edmonia decided to write the First Lady after cancer worsened her mother’s health, and their financial situation became dire. Another critical factor for Edmonia centered on the fact that she viewed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration as caring for all “poor people regardless to race[,] creed[,] or color.” Her impassioned correspondence did not go unnoticed. A representative for Roosevelt  informed the Veterans Administration (V.A.) to provide answers promptly on the case.

The investigation by the V.A. and letters between Edmonia and Roosevelt continued in October. On October 3, Edmonia thanked Eleanor for writing her: “Your letter was rec’ a few days ago[,] which I thank you kindly.” She then confirmed that numerous federal government representatives contacted her for more information on her mother’s case while also venting about her difficulty in finding living witnesses to validate her claim. Under the direction of Roosevelt, the V.A. received Edmonia’s second letter. On October 17, the V.A. formally rejected Julia’s case because, unbeknownst to his daughter, William deserted from Camp William Penn on December 20, 1863. Unfortunately for his family, William’s decision to desert jeopardized his family’s financial stability seventy-six years later. However, his military service would allow his daughter to gain an ally with the First Lady while seeking social welfare that highlighted her family’s continued connection to the Civil War.

There is no question that the pension application was a highly bureaucratic and invasive process that gave federal government representatives the ability to judge (usually harshly) the personal lives of Black people. Simultaneously, the persistence of Black people, like Rose Harley, illustrates that they believed, through their pension applications, that the federal government owed them for the wartime sacrifices that their families and male-kin made. Their dedication to providing evidence, which could take years, reveals their commitment to having their voices heard. Without question, dependents desired and legitimately needed monthly pensions for economic stability. Nevertheless, these people refused to have their experiences and connections to the Civil War archived by the federal government. Every application was also an example of the Bureau of Pensions’ willingness to listen and record these people’s stories. Collectively, their actions show that even as the Lost Cause became deeply entrenched in American society, the pension records of dependents to USCT veterans directly challenged, even if it was not their intention, their erasure from public and historical discourses.

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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.