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Freedom's Promise

Freedom's Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation

Elizabeth Regosin
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 239
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  • Book Info
    Freedom's Promise
    Book Description:

    Emancipation and the citizenship that followed conferred upon former slaves the right to create family relationships that were sanctioned, recognized, and regulated by the laws that governed the families of all American citizens. Elizabeth Regosin explores what the acquisition of this legal familial status meant to former slaves, personally, socially, and politically.

    The Civil War pension system offers a fascinating source of documentation for this study of ex-slave families in transition from slavery to freedom. Because the provisions made to compensate eligible Union veterans and surviving family members created a vast bureaucracy-pension officials required and verified extensive proof of qualification-former slaves were obliged to reproduce and represent the inner workings of their familial relationships.

    Regosin reveals through both their personal histories and pension narratives how former slaves constructed identities as individuals and as family members while they negotiated the boundaries of "family" as defined by the pension system. The stories told by ex-slaves, their witnesses, and the government officials who played a role in the pension process all serve to provide us with a richer understanding of life for newly emancipated African Americans.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2173-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    In 1777 Samuel Adams argued that the American experiment “shall succeed if we are virtuous. . . . I am infinitely more apprehensive of the contagion of Vice than the Power of all other Enemies.”¹ From the Republic’s inception Americans believed that its survival depended upon a citizenry who were virtuous. They defined this virtue both in the traditional republican sense of a willingness to sacrifice individual wants for the good of the community and especially in a more personal or private sense of individual piety, responsibility, and morality, the very antithesis of European monarchical corruption.² How did a nation...

  5. ONE The Pension Process: A View from Both Sides
    (pp. 23-53)

    Shortly After they were married in June 1863, Harriet Berry and her husband Joseph escaped from slavery, running to freedom behind Union army lines. The young couple made it to Norfolk, Virginia, where Joseph soon enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. After a year in the service of the Union, Joseph contracted pneumonia and died, a common fate among Civil War soldiers. In 1878, alone in the world, scraping out a living as a servant, Harriet applied to the government for a widow’s pension.

    To illustrate the pension process, this chapter traces Harriet Berry’s pension claim from her first...

  6. TWO “We All Have Two Names” Surnames and Familial Identity
    (pp. 54-78)

    Harriet Berry’s identity as the widow of Joseph Berry was called into question when pension officials discovered that her surname might have been Bell. In free white society surnames operated according to traditional assumptions about the nature of family and familial roles and relationships. A surname was the outward sign of familial identity. Signifying the descent of the family through the male line, the family name passed from father to son, who kept it permanently. A daughter also inherited the family name from her father but used it only until she married. According to the principles of coverture, when a...

  7. THREE “According to the Custom of Slaves” Widows’ Pension Claims and the Bounds of Marriage
    (pp. 79-113)

    In 1866 Freedmen’s Bureau agent J. M. Tracy appealed to bureau headquarters for guidance in collecting evidence for the pension claims of former slave widows. “Where slaves weregivenin marriage and married by colored ministers, no licens were used, and no records kept, and seldom witnessed by white persons what rule will I be governed by in such cases? Will the testimony of colored persons be taken in such cases? And wherenoevidence of any kind can be produced, aside from the widows own affidavit, will that be sufficient?”¹ What is significant about Tracy’s appeal is less the...

  8. FOUR “The Order of Civilization” Minors’ Pensions, Legitimacy, and the Father-Centered Family
    (pp. 114-147)

    Beceuse a pension was a form of inheritance, the act of applying for a minor’s pension forced many former slaves to grapple with their legitimacy, their legal identity as members of a particular family. In the case of William and Alice Timmons, the children were denied their father’s pension because they could not prove that they were his legitimate children. Just as the law defined the legality of marriage, it determined the legitimacy of children, founding its construction on the marriage-centered, patriarchal family. A child was legitimate only if conceived or born within a lawful conjugal relation.¹ But if legitimacy...

  9. FIVE “My Master . . . Supported Me” Parents’ Claims and the Role of the Provider
    (pp. 148-182)

    Thus far it has been clear that slave familial relationships did not fall neatly into pension law categories. Free society’s ideal family, regulated by the law and Western cultural tradition, differed significantly from the lived experience of slave families, regulated by the master, the circumstances of slavery, and slaves’ own cultural tradition. To compare the two is to compare apples and oranges. The pension claims of mothers and fathers who lost a son (or sons) to the war not only underscore the problem of this incongruous comparison but also suggest its continuation in freedom. The disparity between former slaves’ families...

  10. Epilogue The Storytellers
    (pp. 183-186)

    Louisa Caldwell’s case appears at the outset of this book. Her pension file is rather unremarkable in general, a slim affair containing only a few yellowed and tattered documents. She left no popular legacy to speak of, no great speeches, no essays or books; she was and is virtually unknown. Because it recorded the fact of her existence Louisa’s pension claim reveals her as an actor in the extraordinary drama that was the era of emancipation. The scantiness of Louisa’s pension file makes it necessary to surmise or to imagine most of the details of her life, but the few...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 187-216)
  12. Sources Cited
    (pp. 217-226)
  13. Index
    (pp. 227-239)