Family  /  Journal Article

USCT Kin’s Generational Battle for Equality

Paid less than their white counterparts, Black men in the United States Colored Troops fought for the Union and the future of their families.

USCT recruits were a diverse group with a legion of reasons to become U.S. Army soldiers. For some African American men, soldiering allowed them to simultaneously refute denigrations of their manhood while making public demands for full and equal national citizenship. Other men desired to engage in armed combat to destroy slavery. Some men needed the one-time cash injections that some enlisted men could amass during the enlistment process. Unfortunately, enlistment records rarely reveal what motivated young men, such as the Rothwells—Alfred, Isaac, Jr., and Samuel—and George Potts, all to enlist in the Third USCI in July of 1863. Regardless of their motivations, their actions had the potential to impact the men’s kin as well, for the Rothwells and Potts they were families that now had personal connections to Pennsylvania’s first (of eleven) USCT regiments.

Families, and the larger community, were critical supporters of the war effort, and numerous war propagandists agreed. African American women, more specifically, received frequent public praise from a racially diverse group of northerners for their prominent role in getting able-bodied men to enlist. For instance, Pennsylvanian Congressman William D. Kelley proclaimed that African American mothers, such as Elizabeth Powell and Sarah Potts, and wives, such as Elizabeth Rothwell, were vital to the war effort. The Weekly Anglo-African (published in New York City) printed similar statements in widely circulated newspaper articles.

For Alfred’s young family, however, his enlistment disrupted their already destabilized family economy since he was his family’s only documented full-time wage earner. His July 4, 1863 enlistment immediately ended his civilian wages. He also never received his $100 enlistment bounty due for his service. Additionally, throughout his military career, he received seven dollars monthly due to U.S. War Department policies. At the same time, white soldiers (of the same rank, in the same army, and doing the same work) made thirteen dollars per month. Not only was his life cheapened, but it also directly impacted Alfred’s wife and three young children, who would rely on his soldier’s income to survive. Incorporating the material realities of northern African American families when discussing the consequences of soldiering ultimately provides more depth and better uncovers the complexities of familial life (in and outside of the military).