Black Civil War Soldiers and Pensions

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Pension records about Benjamin Davis used during Holly's presentation. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Original pension of minor children: pension records about Benjamin Davis used during Holly's presentation. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Ahead of the anniversary of the start of the Civil War  (12 April), Holly Pinheiro of the University of Iowa, writes a guest blog for us on Black soldiers in the Civil War, focussing on the families that they left behind:

"155 years ago, the Civil War began, though some would argue, rightfully so, that the conflict started well-before Confederate soldiers’ fired their guns on Fort Sumter.

"Without question, the Civil War redefined American society at every level, from the political culture, race relations, to the economy, at both the state and federal level. And, the war’s legacy and its meaning continues to remain a contentious issue in American society.

"The Civil War remains one of the most popular historical moments that is studied and discussed. Bookstores are flooded with a number of books examining military tactics, offices, politicians, and key figures. College courses, conferences, and academic journals provide scholars with venues to engage in scholarly debates about the complexities of the war. The popularity of films, such as Lincoln, Gangs of New York, and Hateful Eight, signifies how Americans continue to be entertained by stories about the war.

"But, even though it remains a highly debated and analyzed historical moment, I believe one issue has not received attention—the individual lives of Black soldiers’ and the families that they left behind. Historians, such as Donald Shaffer and Elizabeth Regosin, has done an exceptional job of investigating the postwar lives of black veterans’ and their families, particularly in their quest to receive a pension. But, little is known about the thousands of black soldiers’, North and South, lives during the antebellum era or the families that they left behind.

Guest blog author: Holly Pinheiro Guest blog author: Holly Pinheiro

"Even with the near certain prospect of death, but no certainty that society would recognize their manhood or the acquisition of citizenship rights, thousands of men joined the military. For instance, Benjamin Davis, a Black Philadelphian, left his wife, Mary, and their newborn son, Jerome, behind to join the military. His decision immediately jeopardized the stability of his family as Mary had to give up guardianship of Jerome to Benjamin’s father, Robert, because she could not financially support her son. To make matters worse, Benjamin was taken as a prisoner of war and killed by a Confederates after a battle at Deep Bottom, Virginia, on September 29, 1864. As a result, Jerome permanently lived with Robert, and Mary had to go on without her son and husband.

"Benjamin’s actions should complicate our understanding of abolitionists’ pro-enlistment rhetoric. His patriotic zeal had a direct and immediate effect on his nuclear family. Furthermore, it raises questions about what was more important: “proving” oneself on the battlefield to a nation that denied Blacks’ citizenship rights, or their family? It is my hope this line of questioning will permeate current academic and public discourse on Civil War history to not only examine an individual Black soldier, but also the family that they left behind."

Holly Pinheiro spoke recently at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery. You can find out more about Holly, and the talk he delivered, here. Or discover the Civil War collections at National Museums Liverpool.