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Freedom's Promise

Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation

Elizabeth Regosin

Publication Year: 2002

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.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

In 1897, after eight frustrating years of pursuing a Civil War pension, former slaves William and Alice Timmons wrote an impassioned plea to the commissioner of pensions: “We from our birth was called Wm and Alice Timmons...

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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...

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Chapter One: The Pension Process: A View from Both Sides

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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...

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Chapter Two: “We All Have Two Names”: Surnames and Familial Identity

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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...

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Chapter Three: “According to the Custom of Slaves”: Widows’ Pension Claims and the Bounds of Marriage

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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 were given in marriage and married...

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Chapter Four: “The Order of Civilization”: Minors’ Pensions, Legitimacy, and the Father-Centered Family

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pp. 114-147

Because 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...

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Chapter Five: “My Master . . . Supported Me”: Parents’ Claims and the Role of the Provider

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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...

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Epilogue: The Storytellers

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pp. 183-185

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...


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pp. 187-216

Sources Cited

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pp. 217-225


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pp. 227-239

E-ISBN-13: 9780813921730
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813920955

Page Count: 239
Publication Year: 2002