Family  /  Book Review

Military Service and Black Families During the Civil War

One war, in one city, Philadelphia, and the fate of the men, women, and children left behind as collateral damage in the wake of conflict.

Somewhere in America today, there is a child who does not know yet that they will be orphaned when their military parent dies. Somewhere else, there is a man or a woman whose marriage will end when death separates them from their military spouse. Thus, it is today, as it has always been back through the century and millennia of human history. Holly A. Pinheiro Jr.’s  The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers in the Fight for Racial Justice  documents just one war, the American Civil War, in one city, Philadelphia, and the fate of the men, women, and children left behind as collateral damage in the wake of conflict. His micro-study is even more specific. It examines African American families who lived in this city before the Civil War and documents how military service affected their extended families into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Even though they were free, Black soldiers and their families paid a heavy price to free their enslaved brothers and sisters. Pinheiro’s examination goes beyond the wartime emancipationist moment, extending through the Civil War era—the antebellum era when the men who served were children and as young adults formed families, into the post-war period, where they reconstructed their families in the ruins of war.

Pinheiro’s work is an important contribution to the seemingly unending struggle to advance the notion that Black Americans were central to the cause, course, and consequence of the Civil War. In some strange bit of memory magic, white Americans erased African Americans from the war’s military history even though the service of almost 200,000 men was documented in hundreds of thousands of official records. Not only were these men’s individual services forgotten, but so were their families suffering. Pinheiro uses records, including pensions, city directories, and the census, to recreate Black families’ lives in the Civil War era.

Pinheiro’s work is part of a long campaign to remember Black soldiers’ military service that began in the nineteenth century though it was not successful until the later twentieth century. Joseph Wilson and George Washington Williams, Black veterans themselves, wrote the first studies of their comrades’ campaigns. Dudley Cornish, the first white writer to chronicle African American Civil War soldiers, recorded the valor of what he termed the “Sable Arm (1955).” This literary effort made little impact on white Americans’ awareness of Black Civil War service. Given the popularity of the cinema as compared to scholarly studies, it is not surprising that a movie Glory (1989)— documenting the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (Colored)—made Black military service, at least by one regiment, part of the Civil War narrative. Neither the movie, nor previous scholarly studies, examined the unglamorous aftermath of the Civil War as experienced by African American families, including the mourning of loved ones who died in battle, the challenges of amputees who came home unable to work, and the psychological toll of Black veterans whose minds never left a narrow beach under artillery fire.