lifting their high and orderly footsteps to the inspiring notes of “Old John Brown,” singing those words with a spirit and meaning with which they were never sung before, [which] will be the proudest and happiest day for the colored race ever witnessed in the United States. After that spectacle, colored men and women in New-York will walk among their countrymen and women, without asking pardon for having been born.
Douglass urged his audience to enlist: “[G]et an eagle on your button and a musket on your shoulder” because “[t]o fail there is to fail everywhere, and to succeed there is to succeed everywhere.” But as Holly A. Pinheiro Jr. details in his vivid and important book, The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice, while the Union victory may have established equality as a theoretical principle of American democracy, it cemented inequality as the reality of American life.
Philadelphia was the North’s preeminent center of Black culture before the war. Pinheiro, an assistant professor of African American history at Furman University, tracks the Philadelphians who served in the city’s first three USCT regiments, along with their parents, wives, children, and other family members. He sifts through census, pension, and military service records to examine how service in the segregated Union army shaped “finances, minds, bodies, and personal relationships with family and community members.” The effects of the war radically changed not only individual lives but also the entire Black experience in the United States.
In his 1863 speech, Douglass boasted that he had recently persuaded “seven good-looking young men — every one of whom can read and write” — to enlist. They were not the only ones. Pinheiro demonstrates that the men who joined the USCT were a generation on the rise.
Few of the soldiers’ parents had much, if any, education. The majority worked “jobs that were physically demanding and hazardous, paid low wages, and regarded them as easily replaceable.” But despite the grind of everyday discrimination in the North, where most white citizens regarded Black Americans as a permanent underclass, this generation had done their best to ensure better lives for their children. Doing so required paying school fees, sacrificing the wages a child might earn, and sometimes even organizing to found a new school that would offer a better education than segregated public schools.
Their efforts succeeded. At the beginning of the war, the future enlistees had more education and, often, higher-skilled and thus better-paying jobs than their fathers. They were blacksmiths, salesmen, brickmakers, farmers. When they marched off to war, they were on the cusp of a different future.
This bright future had slipped out of reach for many of the returning soldiers. Pinheiro details the injuries they suffered during service: Samuel Derry “rupture[d] his back while pulling a heavy cannon at Morris Island, South Carolina.” A snapped log hit James Burk in the pelvis as he constructed a military road. “[T]he sun’s reflection on the white sand and red clay” of Dutch Gap, Virginia, partially blinded John Short as he was digging ditches. A mule kicked Jacob Purnell in the head, leaving the left side of his body paralyzed.
“Instead of the musket[,] It is the spad[e] and the Whe[e]lbarrow and the Axe,” soldier Nimrod Rawley wrote to President Lincoln, complaining about the use of the USCT as laborers rather than soldiers. Many Black men enlisted only to find they would not be trusted to use that musket that Douglass had urged them to lay across their shoulders. Instead, they were ordered to dig fortifications, build roads, bury bodies, care for pack animals, and perform other onerous tasks. “Remember we are men standing in Readiness,” Rawley told Lincoln. The president did not answer.
Whether or not the men subscribed to Douglass’s rationale for service, they did not enlist for the financial rewards. Low-wage laborers earned around $300 a year, but, as the Philadelphian journalist and educator Junius C. Morel sarcastically put it, USCT soldiers were asked to “fight rebel white men, with the prospect of [a] dog’s death by the minions of Jeff. Davis, should they be captured, all for $10 per month.” Morel was actually overestimating: at least three dollars of this paltry pay was automatically deducted each month to repay the government for uniforms.
In April 1864, a USCT soldier named Tillman Valentine wrote to his wife, asking her whether “the little ones is looking up in your face asking for bred and you got none to give them.” While both Black and white soldiers left their families and risked injury and death, Black families were generally positioned closer to the economic edge. The effects of disrupted earnings were more disastrous than in comparable white families.
“They drafted men and left me no means of support,” replied Philadelphian Mary Williamson when a pension agent questioned her for not raising her baby. Her flat response hints at the dramatic upheaval that service caused in many Black families. When her partner enlisted in the USCT, her life was upended. Williamson gave her six-month-old son to his grandfather so she could work as a live-in servant. A decision to enlist was, as Pinheiro writes, a decision about what mattered more: defending the nation or providing for a family.
The impact on children was severe. Many veterans were left with injuries that prevented them from resuming their former skilled employments or even from working at all. These economic blows came just when the veterans would have been expected to support aging parents and pay for their children’s educations. Something had to give. Often, it was education. The aftereffects of the war dragged down generations of Black families.
Beginning in 1861, the federal government enacted a series of pension laws that granted support to veterans and their families for death and injuries suffered in service. The pensions were insufficient — like active-duty wages, they provided less than a laborer’s wages. And Black people faced significant barriers in accessing these pensions at all.
At first, the pension bureau only recognized legal marriages, thus excluding the partners and children of common-law marriages, which were relatively standard in Northern free Black communities. Although Congress revised the pension law in 1864 to recognize common-law marriage, the exception applied only to Southern states, where Black couples could not legally wed. Couples in Northern states who had followed the standards of their communities rather than seeking legal marriage were thus punished.
Even those who had legally married faced intrusive questions by a bureau that was eager to limit the number of dependents claimed. In 1897, a pension examiner questioned a woman named Mary Allen about her faithfulness to veteran Edward Purnell Jr. and thus her right to a widow’s pension. You can hear the exasperation in the transcript of her testimony: “It was at Atlantic City that said Williams had carnal intercourse with me. And this is all there is to the Frank Williams affair except that I had a child.”
The pension examiners were all white men whose decisions were undoubtedly influenced by racism. Margaret Day lost her widow’s pension in 1903 after the examiners discovered that her veteran husband, Wilson, had never divorced his first wife. “This claimant is an ignorant colored woman,” a pension agent wrote in the case file, “who begs for her livi[n]g and by reason of her dense ignorance is unreliable.” The racist stereotypes are clear: the equality that Douglass and others — perhaps Day himself — had hoped would flower from service had instead blighted on the vine.
Pinheiro has squeezed narrative out of stony administrative materials. We read about Francis Hawkins, who knocked around the West after the war as an itinerant barber. “At Pettyfare’s shop[,] they all called me old soldier,” Hawkins told his examiner in an 1893 deposition, recalling a stint in Kansas City, Missouri. We can imagine the scene, with the military badge that Hawkins wore (according to a fellow barber’s testimony) glinting in the eyes of his customers — proclaiming his service both to those who cared to ask and those who, like many white Americans, fell into a convenient amnesia about Black contributions to the Union.
Sometimes a single phrase in a pension file sends a life flaring up out of the gloom of history. Pinheiro quotes a pension examiner’s disapproving annotation in the file of a USCT veteran named Charles Howard: before the war, he “just ran around New York and lived with different women until his money ran out.” Anyone who has spent enough time in Williamsburg has met a 21st-century Charles Howard. I can almost see the rakish tintypes he may have left behind.
Many of the stories Pinheiro tells are, unfortunately, only glimpses of disappeared lives. But to read them feels like standing as a witness to the unequal sacrifices forced upon the Black families who preserved our union.
Erin L. Thompson (@artcrimeprof) is a professor at the City University of New York.