Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era
Throughout the long history of American slavery, black people
understood their society in the idiom of kinship. African-American
families transmitted their culture from the Old World to
the New, socialized the young and succored the old, buffered
relations between master and slave, and served as an engine of
resistance to an oppressive regime. Emancipation at once
strengthened and transformed the families of former slaves. As
African Americans reconstituted their domestic life on a foundation of
freedom, previously hidden beliefs came into full view and familiar usages took on new meaning.
Families and Freedom tells the story of the remaking of
the black family during the tumultuous years of the Civil War and early Reconstruction. In the words of former slaves, free blacks, and their contemporaries, it recounts the elation
accompanying the reunion of brothers and sisters separated for
half a lifetime and the anguished realization that time lost
could never be reclaimed; the quiet satisfaction of legitimating a
marriage once denied at law and the sadness of
discovering that a long-lost spouse had remarried; the pride of
establishing an independent household and the pain of being
unable to protect it; the hope that freedom would ensure the
sanctity of family life and the fear that the new order would
betray freedom's greatest promise. The documents in Families
and Freedom provide insight into the most intimate
aspects of the transformation of slaves to free people.
Available in paperback and suitable for classroom use, Families
and Freedom includes photographs and other illustrations.
259 pp. Table of contents (pdf)
Copies of Families and Freedom may be purchased from The New Press online, by telephone (800-233-4830), or by fax (212-629-8617).
Selected Documents from the Volume
- Maryland Fugitive Slave to His Wife, January 12, 1862
For John Boston, the triumph of his own escape to freedom within Union lines was tainted by the resulting separation from his wife.
First page of manuscript (image, 437K)
- Testimony by the Superintendent of
Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, May 9, 1863
Captain Charles B. Wilder explained how fugitive slaves,
once having escaped to Union lines, worked to liberate fellow slaves and
spread the word of freedom deep in Confederate territory.
- Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863
Shortly after the battle of Fort Wagner, Hannah Johnson, the mother of a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, urged President Lincoln to guarantee the proper treatment of captured black soldiers. In measured but heartfelt words she defined the president's responsibilities to the soldiers and their families and demanded that he fulfill them.
First page of manuscript (image, 473K)
- Marriage Certificate of a Black Soldier and His Wife, December 3, 1863 (image, 471 K)
The marriage of two former slaves, Private Rufus Wright and Elisabeth Turner, was presided over by a black army chaplain, the Reverend Henry M. Turner.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, December 30, 1863
Martha Glover of Missouri, who remained enslaved after her
husband enlisted in the Union army, described to him the burdens
she and their children had borne since his departure.
- Missouri Slave Woman to Her Soldier Husband, January 19, 1864
The wife of a slave who had enlisted in the Union army warned her husband against sending money in the care of her owner, in whose custody she remained, for fear he would intercept it.
- Officer in a Missouri Black Regiment to the Superintendent of the Organization of Missouri Black Troops, February 1, 1864
Lieutenant William P. Deming relayed to General William A. Pile his men's complaints that slaveowners were punishing their wives and children by assigning them heavy work normally done by the men.
Affidavit of a District of Columbia Freedman, February 6, 1864
In April 1862, Grandison Briscoe escaped from Maryland to Washington, D.C., together with his pregnant wife, an infant child, and his mother. Within days, however, a slave catcher returned his loved ones to bondage. Nearly two years later, Briscoe described their fate.
- Black Soldier in Virginia to His Wife, April 22 and May 25, 1864
In letters to his wife, Private Rufus Wright not only described a battle in which his regiment participated but also passed along more mundane news.
- Maryland Former Slave to the Secretary of War, July 26, 1864
Writing from Boston, John Q. A. Dennis, who had become free only eight months earlier, asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to authorize him to take his children from the slaveowners who still held them in bondage.
- Maryland Black Soldier to the Mother of a Dead Comrade, August 19, 1864
A black soldier from Maryland consoled the mother of a friend who had died in combat.
- Maryland Slave to the President, August 25, 1864
Maryland's exclusion from the Emancipation Proclamation left Annie Davis still enslaved. Insistent on her right to freedom, she demanded that President Abraham Lincoln clarify her status.
Image of manuscript (328K)
- Commander of a Black Brigade to the Commander of the District of
Eastern Virginia, September 1, 1864
When a group of ex-slave men working as Union military laborers returned home to liberate families and friends, they were accompanied by a detachment of black soldiers. The soldiers' brigade commander reported the outcome of the dangerous expedition.
- Missouri Black Soldier to His Enslaved Daughters, and to the Owner of One of His Daughters, September 3, 1864
Private Spotswood Rice promised his daughters – and warned the woman who owned one of them – that their liberation was at hand.
- Statement of a Maryland Freedwoman, November 14, 1864
Freed by the adoption of a new state constitution that abolished slavery, Jane Kamper contested her former owner's attempt to keep her children under his control by having them apprenticed to him.
- Mother of a Pennsylvania Black Soldier to the President, November 21, 1864
Apprehensive about her son's safety and her own welfare, the elderly mother of a black soldier petitioned President Lincoln for his release from further service, on the grounds that he was her sole support.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, November 26, 1864
Threatened by their owner, the wife and children of Joseph Miller had accompanied him when he enlisted in the Union army. Miller described the ordeal that followed the expulsion of his family from the camp in which they took refuge.
- Kentucky Black Soldier to the President, December 4, 1864
A black soldier unsuccessfully sought a discharge so that he could provide for his wife and children, whose owner refused to maintain them.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, December 15, 1864
A black soldier at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, protested the expulsion of his wife and ailing daughter from the camp, where they had taken refuge after being threatened by their owner.
Commander of the 3rd Separate Brigade, 8th Army Corps, to the Headquarters of the Middle Department and 8th Army Corps, December 15, 1864, Enclosing a Circular by the Brigade Commander
Immediately after Maryland abolished slavery in November 1864, former slaveholders in the state rushed to apprentice ex-slave children in order to keep them in custody and control their labor. General Henry H. Lockwood reported how the apprenticeship system system worked and to whose benefit.
- Louisiana Black Sergeant to the Commander of a Louisiana Black Brigade, December 27, 1864
Recounting his regiment's battlefield success, a black sergeant stationed in Florida felt confident that the general who had supervised recruitment in his home state would grant him a “Small favor.”
Kentucky Black Soldier to the Secretary of War, January 26, 1865, Enclosing Two Letters
Private Aaron Oats believed that his service to the Union entitled him to assistance in liberating his family. In a letter to the secretary of war, Oats enclosed two letters he had received, one from his wife and the other from her owner.
- Chaplain of an Arkansas Black Regiment to the Adjutant General of the Army, February 28, 1865
The chaplain of a black regiment in Arkansas noted the importance of marriage to the freedpeople, who regarded their wartime emancipation as a step toward “an honorable Citizenship.”
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier's Widow, March 25, 1865
After her husband enlisted in the Union army in late 1864, Patsy Leach endured abuse at the hands of their enraged owner, a Confederate sympathizer in Kentucky. Fearing for her life, she fled with her youngest child, leaving four other children behind.
Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, March 29, 1865
When Congress adopted a joint resolution in March 1865 freeing the wife, children, and mother of every black soldier, slave men in Kentucky (where slavery remained legal) responded with a renewed surge of enlistments. Slaveowners threatened volunteers and their families with violence, and local police and slave patrols tried to obstruct slaves' flight to recruitment centers. A soldier recounted how he and his wife had been foiled in their first attempt to escape.
North Carolina Black Soldiers to the Freedmen's Bureau
Commissioner, May or June 1865
At the end of the war, black soldiers stationed near Petersburg, Virginia, wrote to the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau to protest the suffering of their wives, children, and parents at a settlement on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.
- Affidavit of a Black Soldier's Widow, August 1, 1865
More than a year after her husband's death in battle, the widow of a black soldier sought to recover the pay due him.
- Statement by a Discharged Virginia Black Soldier, August 11, 1865
Attempting to reunite with his wife and children after his discharge from the Union army, John Berry was forcibly turned away by their former owner, who resented Berry's service against the Confederacy.
Affidavit of a Former Alabama Slave, August 14? 1865
Liberated by Union forces in northern Alabama in 1862, twelve-year-old Amy Moore, her younger sisters, and her mother were reenslaved in 1863 under a Kentucky law that prohibited freed slaves from entering the state on pain of arrest as runaways. Still in bondage months after the end of the Civil War, Moore recounted how she and the other members of her family had been jailed and sold at auction.
Officer in a Kentucky Black Regiment to the Headquarters of the Regiment, November 15, 1865
Armed with an order from General John M. Palmer, the military commander in Kentucky, a black sergeant attempted to move his wife from the home of her former owner, only to be jailed by civil authorities. His company commander recounted the episode to the commander of the regiment, whose endorsement and that of General Palmer indicated that such persecution of black soldiers was common.
- Georgia Planter to the Freedmen's Bureau Acting Assistant Commissioner for Georgia, April 17, 1866
When the circumstances of their households allowed, many freedwomen declined to labor for white employers, preferring to care for their children and engage in productive activities in their own housholds, gardens, and poultry yards. A planter in Georgia denounced this reduction in the plantation labor force as detrimental to entire Southern social order.
- North Carolina Free Black Man to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Southern District of North Carolina, April 26, 1866
For impoverished black Southerners struggling to attain economic independence, their primary resource was the labor of their families. Joe Bright rented a forty-acre farm, expecting his six working-aged children to help him cultivate it, but his expectations were dashed when their former owner had the children bound to him as apprentices.
First page of manuscript (image, 529K)
- Adjutant of a Missouri and Arkansas Black Regiment to the Executive Committee of the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, June 11, 1866
Stationed in eastern Arkansas, where many of them had been enslaved, soldiers of the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry expended both their money and their labor to construct an orphanage for black children.