“The Families’ Civil War”: An Author’s Response

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

African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Shutterstock)

Even though the Civil War (officially) ended over 150 years ago, it remains a widely popular historical period (for examining and remembering) that continues garnering people’s interest—in and outside of the U.S.—for many reasons. For example, one can see how current public interest in the era manifests itself in numerous ways, including but not limited to renaming U.S. Armed Forces military bases, debating over Civil War monuments, and encouraging schools to make their curriculum to emphasize more diverse populations. In most conversations, white people (in both the Confederacy and the U.S.), especially men, receive the most attention as their experiences, opinions, and legacies continue to dominate the historical narrative.

For some people, the inclusion of African Americans into the Civil War historical discourse is done either as an afterthought or to incorporate them as a historical background figure. Even so, that has not deterred challenges from a multitude of individuals who understand that it is necessary to include the lives of enslaved people who seized their freedom and prominent free African Americans who navigated the complexity of racism outside of bondage. To be clear, their histories must continue to receive public recognition.

At the same time, it is also critical to continue incorporating the historical voices of Black people who were previously (for various reasons) never the central focus of historical analyses. One of these often overlooked and understudied Black voices is working-class northern freeborn Black families. By incorporating theirs, and other peoples’ voices, it illustrates that we have much more to learn about the diversity and complexity of Black life throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Echoing the work of historians, including Kelly D. Mezurek, James G. Mendez, and others, The Families’ Civil War sought to illuminate the lives of working-class freeborn northern Black families who, from 1850 to the 1930s, demonstrated generations-long agency in their battle against both racial and gender discrimination.

As Drs. Barbara Gannon and Robert Greene II astutely noted, Glory still captivates the fascination of people (including my own) for its emotional and humanizing depiction of Black soldiers (for a northern regiment). Throughout the film, discussions about the enlisted men’s families materialize numerous times as the soldiers fought a multi-front war against racism (including within the U.S. Army). While the film primarily focuses on formerly enslaved men, some of the hardships depicted in the film (such as receiving a sizeable monthly pay deduction of six dollars for being Black) also impacted northern freeborn USCT soldiers.

In The Families’ Civil War, I felt that it was necessary to delve deeper into how those historical moments impacted not just the enlisted men during the Civil War or Reconstruction Era, but also illuminate their complex family structures. Rather than focus on an isolated segment of a USCT soldier’s life (such as their wartime experiences), my work endeavored to shed light on how their families fought against various forms of racial and gender discrimination that existed throughout the antebellum era and persisted long after. Even before the Civil War began, Black families fought for equality in a free state where racial discrimination and violence were commonplace. And once President Abraham Lincoln officially recognized the value of Black men in the U.S. Army, northern African American families discovered that removing Black men from their homes created immediate and devastating hardships that, in some cases, lasted into the early twentieth century. For instance, throughout the Civil War, the personal correspondences and memoirs of northern freeborn Black soldiers, including James Henry Gooding, highlighted how their service difficulties (unfortunately) reverberated to the home front.

Recognizing the importance of Black families provides a new avenue to gain a fuller understanding of how multi-generational Black families, due to the enlistment of their male-kin, engaged in a decades-long battle over the competing definitions of a “legitimate” family structure with the federal government. In numerous instances, the conflict surfaced when the families of USCT veterans attempted, with varying results, to navigate the Civil War pension system. Sadly, many of the relatives of deceased USCT veterans discovered that the federal government (through the passage of federal laws and investigations by federal government representatives) developed an obsession to either limit Black people from becoming pensioners or remove them from the Civil War pension rolls altogether.

Black wives and the offspring of USCT veterans became frequent targets of both racial and gender discrimination as the federal government became hyper-focused on their private and intimate lives when assessing their “worthiness” to become a pensioner. As Dr. Brandi C. Brimmer’s review observed, there is a bevy of exceptional work (including her monograph) that illustrates even though the Black widows of USCT veterans were often targets of both racial and gender discrimination, they (both through their individual and collective efforts) constantly refuted the federal government’s limited conception of a family. Like many freedwomen, northern freeborn Black women used the pensions to publicly and defiantly assert that the federal government see and respect northern Black families as they defined them. Furthermore, because of their persistence (spanning multiple decades), Black women’s voices are prominent in the historical records. They demonstrate that we must continue listening to them from their perspective and not from the viewpoint(s) of their oppressors.

The lasting impact of federal government surveillance of USCT veterans’ families was evident in the powerful review by Dr. Hilary Green, who highlighted how a rejection of a dependent’s pension application created a rippling effect of trauma that persists today. Dr. Green’s familial connection to the historical topic reminds scholars (including myself) that studying Black lives is more than interesting to the descendants and communities. Additionally, Dr. Green states that Black families have never given up the fight to have their histories included in the Civil War public memory discourse. Her words echo an interaction I have had with one of the descendants of my book. They also pointed out how historical and public conversations need to acknowledge how the Civil War’s legacy is still with them now. Furthermore, we must never forget how these historical moments impacted not only famous people (like Frederick Douglass) but that it is vital to understand how working-class freeborn Black families simultaneously experienced it as well. Their histories, viewpoints, and lives mattered too. Uplifting the accounts of these and other Black families will (as Dr. Robert Greene II rightly noted) allow us to begin repaying the significant debt that we owe them.

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Holly A. Pinheiro Jr.

Holly Pinheiro received his doctoral degree from the University of Iowa. He is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Furman University in the History Department. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. Counter to the national narrative which championed the patriotic manhood of soldiering from the Civil War through the 1930s, his research reveals that African American veterans and their families’ military experience were much more fraught. Economic and social instability introduced by military service resonated for years and even generations after soldiers left the battlefield. He has published articles in edited volumes and academic journals, in and outside of the United States. His manuscript, The Families’ Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice, will be released in the summer of 2022. It is under contract with The University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series. The manuscript highlights how racism, in and outside of military service, impacted the bodies, economies, family structures, and social spaces of African Americans long after the war ended. He has also started preliminary work for a new monograph that will examine all Pennsylvania born soldiers who trained at Camp William Penn. Follow him on Twitter @PhUsct.