Book Review: The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice

As Civil War history becomes more specific, books like Holly Pinheiro’s The Families’ Civil War use case studies of particular groups to show readers how the methods of microhistory are well-suited for issues relating to minorities, ethnicity, race, and gender. Beginning with a set of questions concerning the often-harsh reality experienced by the families of African Americans who served in the U.S. Army, Pinheiro chose to explore the lives of freeborn African American Philadelphians who worked to create and maintain families during the time of the Civil War until the 1920s.

Not all the 79,000 men who served in the northern USCT regiments fought the same war. This study looks at the impact of racism on freeborn northern African Americans living in the densely populated area of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love had 4% of the nation’s population of free African Americans, according to the 1860 U.S. Census. It also had the largest population of African American men between the ages of fifteen and fifty. The War Department explicitly targeted this group for mobilization in 1863. After the war, many remained in the North, dealing with the racial discrimination common to the area. This behavior did not end in 1865 but continued and continues today.

The Families’ Civil War looks at a subgroup of 185 USCT soldiers using primary sources such as regimental books, Compiled Military Service records, the U.S. Census, and Civil War pension records. The author also uses recruitment documents, city directories, texts of speeches made by prominent public individuals, and newspapers—white and African American. But the soldiers themselves are only part of Pinheiro’s analysis. They are a “focal point to locate and trace more extensive family histories” (4). Pinheiro also brings to the reader’s attention the inspiring scholarly work created by African American historians published just after the Civil War until well into the twentieth century. Modern historians can more thoroughly flesh out the African American family through the emphasis these authors placed on the women, children, and extended families (including the inclusion of fictive kin).

From nameless individuals to men and women with powerful, positive identities, The Families’ Civil War traces these 185 men back as well as forward, showing readers the continuing impact of racism on pensions, the homing of severely incapacitated veterans, and the impact of white ideals on the institution of marriage and “breadwinning.” Before serving in USCT regiments, these Philadelphians created families, educated their children, worked in many skilled and unskilled occupations, and fought the racism that tore familial groups apart. In 1863, when the Civil War was no longer “Whites Only,” this group of men fought to determine the future of all African Americans. That it had to be done in an Anglo-dominated military was not significantly different from their lives before the war. However, white ideals of manhood—legal marriage, male breadwinners, single-family dwellings, and education for children—led to even further economic instability for many African American families after the war. For example, wives had to prove legal marriage to claim their husband’s pensions or even to have possessions returned. In addition, veterans sometimes could not perform their earlier occupations due to wartime injuries, so new ways to support families had to be established. Sometimes this meant women worked outside the home, families combined living quarters, and children found their educations interrupted.

In addition to a compelling narrative, author Pinheiro, an assistant professor of African American History at Furman University, gives us a set of appendices that discuss methodology, choosing to limit his sample to Philadelphia men who served in the 3rd USCT, the 6th USCT, and the 8th USCT. Complete lists of the men in all the units above include names, ages, enrollment dates, and civilian occupations upon enlistment. Reading these men’s names allows readers to develop a closer relationship with them all. In addition, Pinheiro’s copious “Notes” section sheds much light on the secondary sources he used and issues he had while researching. The Index is thorough and easy to use.

The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice is one of those books that serves as a corrective to the grand historical narratives of the American Civil War. A smaller, more intimate case study, this book becomes a lens through which readers can view everyday patterns, values, and ideas of 185 free, urban African Americans and their families. The methods of micro-historical case studies are extremely well suited for studying American history, especially issues related to minorities, ethnicity, race, and gender. Pinheiro’s book takes its place as one of the first.

The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and the Fight for Racial Justice
By Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.
University of Georgia Press, 2022, $26.95 paperback

Reviewed by Meg Groeling

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