Prologue Magazine

From Slave Women to Free Women: The National Archives and Black Women's History in the Civil War Era

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Noralee Frankel

© 1997 by Noralee Frankel

The National Archives holds rich collections of records on nineteenth-century Southern African American women. Two of the most important collections for the study of formerly enslaved African American women are the Civil War soldiers pension files and the Freedmen's Bureau records. These sources allow an exploration of the changes and continuities from slavery to freedom for women, men, and families.

As interest in social history developed, historians began to look at federal records in new ways. Historians have relied on federal collections for institutional histories of government agencies and regulatory policies. These records were less often used for personal histories, except by genealogists. With the advent of newer technologies, particularly computerization, historians have been better able to construct the past of nonfamous people. Nineteenth-century African American women who had been enslaved did not leave primary sources such as diaries and letters. Therefore records from the federal government have been invaluable in writing about these women.

The pension records were originally created so that widows of soldiers could receive monthly compensation for the loss of their husbands. Over 100,000 African American men served in the United States Army during the Civil War, the majority of whom had been Southern and had once been slaves. The granting of pensions to formerly enslaved women was tricky because slave marriages were not governed by a contractual agreement as were civil marriages and were not considered legal. Originally, pension law only recognized legal marriages and ignored slave marriages. Slaves did not possess legal documentation, like a marriage certificate, for use as evidence in a widow's pension claim.

The United States Congress, aware that slave couples had lived together and raised families, authorized guidelines allowing former slave wives to receive pensions. In 1864 Congress amended the pension bill by allowing "that the widows and children of colored soldiers . . . shall be entitled to receive the pensions now provided by law, without other proof of marriage than that the parties had habitually recognized each other as man and wife, and lived together as such for a definite period, not less than two years, to be shown by the affidavits of credible witnesses." The section of the act of 1864 regarding African American marriages was repealed in 1866 and replaced with new provisions. The law eliminated distinctions among states in which black claimants could or could not legally marry. During Reconstruction, all former slave states legalized the right of African Americans to contract and marry. The act of June 6, 1866, required no "other evidence of marriage than proof, satisfactory to the Commissioner of Pensions, that the parties have habitually recognized each other as man and wife, and lived together as such." "Satisfactory" proof of marriage was defined more precisely in legislation passed on June 15, 1873. An African American widow was required to supply evidence that she and her husband "were joined in marriage by some ceremony deemed by them obligatory."(1)

It was the complicated procedures involved in documenting nonlegal slave marriages that make these pension records so rich for women's and family history. Since formerly enslaved women could not simply mail in their marriage licenses to obtain their widow's pensions, they provided oral testimony on their marriages and the births of their children. Pension officials also relied on people within the pension claimants' communities who could identify them by recalling personal information. At a minimum, a widow's pension file contains an application, which records a widow's name, age, and the name of her husband and how he died. The date of their slave wedding, who officiated and (where appropriate) the names and ages of the couple's children under eighteen were also given. In some cases the woman who attended the births was also mentioned. In many cases, pension examiners obtained other information from interviewing people (white and black) who knew the claimant. This happened especially when the pension was contested for any reason. Evidence of cohabitation or remarriage would lead pension examiners to reopen the claim and seek out more testimony. With pension records, thicker files are always better for research.

One example is the file of Lucy Brown. While enslaved to one of the wealthiest slave owners in Mississippi, Lucy Brown married fellow slave Thomas Brown and bore several children. According to Henry Young, who had resided on the same plantation as the Browns, "Thomas and Lucy lived together as husband and wife continually after they were married up to the time that he enlisted." During the war, while Lucy's husband, Thomas, served in the Union army, Lucy lived in a federal camp established for ex-slaves. Reunited in Vicksburg, Lucy and Thomas legally married with an Union army chaplain officiating. According to Lucy Brown, "We were married again by the chaplain of the regiment and he gave me a certificate." After her husband died during the war, Lucy, accompanied by her only surviving child, Clara, found work as a field hand and a domestic servant after the war. She also maintained a personal life, becoming intimate with another African American soldier, Frank Dorsey, and later with a married man, Robert Owens. Sometime after these two relationships concluded, Lucy married Reuben Kelly, a freedman. According to Kelly, they were married "by a preacher named Andrew Johnson. We had a license and were fully married. I knew Lucy only about a year when I married her."(2)

From Brown's pension file, historians can learn about the customs surrounding slave weddings. The testimonies within the pension file also describe the war experiences of African Americans who left their plantations to become free. Lucy's work after the war as a field hand and domestic are also mentioned. Through neighbors' discussions of Lucy Brown's relationships with men after her husband's death, attitudes toward marriage and acceptable sexual conduct for women can be learned. The wider community of Brown's friends and neighbors also becomes clear.

When the pension records are combined with those of the Freedmen's Bureau, a fuller story of freedwomen and how freedom changed their lives from slavery emerges. The Freedmen's Bureau (officially know as Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) was established by a congressional act passed in March 3, 1965. These materials include correspondence and records on the state and local level throughout the South. Of particular use to documenting women's history are bureau reports that discuss freedpeople's commitment toward marriage and marriage registers kept by bureau agents in certain states. Complaint books kept by bureau officials summarized problems brought to the bureau by freedmen and women. These most often included labor disputes such as nonpayment of African American workers and violence perpetrated by whites, often employers. Bureau labor contracts give abundant information about freedpeople's labor and compensation.

While the pension records are best used for discussion of African American women's private and family lives, the Freedmen's Bureau gives much more information about labor relations in the postbellum South. Many of the labor contracts were standard forms that delineated wages and obligations of employer and employee. A minority of contracts give a wealth of detailed information about specific workers. Such examples expand a historian's understanding of certain kinds of work. As the following contracts showed, women hired as domestic labor performed a variety of tasks. For example, one woman agreed in her labor contract "to do cooking, washing, ironing, and general housework and anything about the yard or garden that may be required of her." Charity Riley's employers expected her to be responsible for the dairying (including making the butter), feeding the chickens, cooking, washing, spinning, and weaving cloth. She also raised cotton, potatoes, and other vegetables, which her employer allowed her to sell for her own profit. As with Venus Williams, who was hired as a cook but whose employer also required her "to work in the field when necessary," many domestic servants were expected to provide agricultural labor at the discretion of the employer.(3)

Through the labor contracts, bureau agents, correspondence and reports, complaint books, and other source material in the Freedmen's Bureau, historians can show how free labor during Reconstruction transformed the status of former slave women as well as men. After the war, former slave women and men assumed they would have more autonomy over their working lives. For freedwomen, the fight for more control over their labor took on an additional urgency because they wanted and needed more time for their families. One contract signed by Thomas McArty for himself and his family indicated that his wife would be given "half of each Saturday to wash their clothes." Freedmen's Bureau records such as this contract shows the interconnections between labor and family.(4)

Federal records including the census shed light on the gender roles within the newly freed families. While the 1870 census does not indicate relationships of family members, most households had an adult male. Both the pension and Freedmen's Bureau records indicate the roles that men and women played within families. In describing their domestic relations with their men, freedwomen applying for pensions demonstrate a clear gendered division of labor in the household. Women discuss cooking, washing, and mending clothes. According to testimony in the pension records and the Freedmen Bureau sources, men obtained the main responsibility to provide for and protect their families. Freedmen almost always represented their families to the Freedmen's Bureau when the family brought a complaint to a bureau agent.

Purchases from the plantation store documented by accounts in the Freedman's Bureau reflected the differences in women's and men's division of labor, functions within the family, and style of dress. On the Oakwood plantation near Vicksburg in January 1868, most men and women kept separate tallies. Men's accounts included pants, caps, shirts, boots, shot, fishing line, powder, hooks, and buckets. Women purchased cloth, such as cotton plaid, but no pants or shirts. Such accounts imply that men assumed responsibility for hunting and fishing equipment while women bought materials for clothes-making. Men and women both acquired whiskey, tobacco, lamp oil, and thread.(5)

While these collections provide a wealth of information about relations between men and women, they also provide insights into a wider family structure. Both pension records and labor contracts in Freedmen's Bureau records suggest the importance of extended family. Freedmen's Bureau agents found "a general desire manifested by the Freedmen to care for their own relatives."(6) While most labor contracts do not specify family relations, a few contain examples of extended family relationships on plantations. In Lowndes County, in August 1865, seventy-year-old Suzy resided on the Drummond place with her three married daughters. Malenta, age forty-five, and her husband, Sampson, lived with their son, Alfred. Malenta's sisters, Nancy and Sarah Ann, also resided on the same plantation with their spouses and children. On J. A. Nixon's plantation, freedman Bram, age seventy-five, lived with his sixty-five-year-old wife, Fanny, and his two daughters, Judy and Silvy. Nixon counted Bram's granddaughter Della, the daughter of Silvy, as part of Bram's family. There was no mention of Silvy's spouse. Nixon also listed John's family, which consisted as Bram's son-in-law, John, and Bram's daughter, Nelly. Bram's son, Jim, his wife, and baby also lived on the plantation, although Nixon counted them as a separate family. On these plantations African American children grew up with their siblings and cousins as playmates, in close proximity to their grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Extended families stayed together during slavery and long after the war ended. As late as 1886, a pension examiner discovered that most of the people living with Charlotte Branch on a plantation in Adams County, Mississippi, "were her friends . . . a number of them being relatives."(7)

As these examples show, the pension and Freedmen's Bureau files shed light on communities, both slave and free. On occasion, the pension witnesses would explain their relationship to the widow claiming the pension and how long they had known each other. Former slave Andrew Walker lived on the same plantation as James Brown and his wife, Martha. Although a small boy at the time, he recalled their marriage: "I was a dining room servant on the Edmund Randall plantation . . . and they were married in the white folks house by our marster Edmund Randall." Later Walker married their daughter and witnessed James Brown's "burying. He was buried right on the Randall plantation."(8)

Women's ties with other women became more significant during specific female gender-related experiences, such as childbirth. Among women, midwives possessed a special status since they aided women during the life-threatening as well as the life-giving experience of childbirth. The pension records give ample evidence of African American women aiding each other during childbirth. During slavery, midwives worked in other capacities on the plantation. Peggy Fisher cooked for her owners while acting as slave midwife.(9)

If a midwife was unavailable, other women served as attendants at the delivery so that the mother would have company and receive encouragement or assistance. While Elizabeth Ellison testified on her pension application that she was unable to furnish evidence of a midwife to testify to the birth of her children (to prove the children deserved a military pension), she could give "the testimony of the nurse who attended her on the occasion." The nurse was a fellow slave, Matilda Guy, who swore that she "was at the birth of said child, and assisted in nursing the mother and child during the sickness of the mother." Guy and Ellison's relationship evidently continued after the war, since Guy also stated that she spent time "with the family since" the birth of the child. Even in the private moments of childbirth, women were connected to wider communities where they lived.(10)

As historian Thomas Holt has stated, historians writing about African Americans must try to understand the "textures of their interior worlds. But," he cautions, "having done that, we then must establish linkages between that interior world and the external developments and movements in the larger world; for only in that way can that history lay claim to centrality in the national experience." Black women whose lives accepted and defied conventional definitions of private and public spheres reveal the connections and tensions between "interior worlds" and the larger worlds. The Freedmen's Bureau records link the personal with the "national experience" as historians explore, through them, the broader economic and political issues of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The pension records provide an excellent examination of the "interior worlds" of nineteenth-century African American women. The collection also shows the complications involved in trying to separate the public from private. The existence of the records proves that public policy, in this case the distribution of pensions, placed very private concerns into the public domain. The invasion of privacy of these women has given historians the opportunity to explore a world of family, marriage, sexuality, and friendships, often hidden by traditional sources. The records from the National Archives offer exciting possibilities for the writing of African American women's history.(11)

Noralee Frankel is Assistant Director, Women, Minorities, and Teaching, at the American Historical Association and the author of Freedom's Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi (1999).


1. For more information about pensions for African American women, see Roy P. Basler, "And For His Widow and His Orphan," 27 Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (October 1970): 293; War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series III (1910), p. 507; Megan McClintock, "Shoring Up the Family: Civil War Pensions and the Crisis of American Domesticity" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Chicago, December 1991), p. 18; Megan J. McClintock, "Civil War Pensions and the Reconstruction of Union Families," Journal of American History 83 (September 1996): 456–480, 473. Quotation from Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, p. 596.

2. Pension file of Thomas Brown, 147.977, Fifty-third Regiment, Records of the Veterans Administration, Record Group 15, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG ___, NARA).

3. James Shipman, labor contract, Jan. 12, 1987, Office of the Assistant Commissioner, Mississippi; Charity Riley, Complaint, Sept. 26, 1868, Canton: Miscellaneous Records, both in Mississippi, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (BRFAL), RG 105, NARA.

4. Pickney Vaughn, Contract, February 1866, Mississippi, BRFAL, RG 105, NARA.

5. List of Freedmen on "Oakwood" Plantation, Records Relating to the Division of Crops on Cotton Plantations, 1867-1868, Mississippi, BRFAL, RG 105, NARA.

6. William Shields to Merritt Barber, Dec. 31, 1867, Narrative Reports from Subordinate Officers, Office of the Assistant Commissioner, Mississippi, BRFAL, RG 105, NARA.

7. H. F. Drummond, contract, Aug. 19, 1865, Mississippi, BRFAL, RG 105, NARA; J.A. Nixon, contract, Aug. 19, 1865, Mississippi, BRFAL, RG 105, NARA; pension file of Archie Branch, 168.398, 187.861, 58th Regiment, RG 15, NARA.

8. Pension file of James Brown, 406.868, Fifth Regiment, RG 15, NARA.

9. Pension file of Robert Drake, 143.055, Fifth Regiment, RG 15, NARA.

10. Pension file of Henry Ellison, 151.986, 194.705, Fifth Regiment, RG 15, NARA.

11. Thomas C. Holt, "Introduction: Whiter Now and Way?" in State of Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (1986), p. 6.