Reimagining the Lives of Black Soldiers Wives and Widows in Post-Civil War America

My book project, Her Claim for Pension is Lawful and Just, chronicles struggles of black women seeking benefits from the United States government on the basis of their standing as the wives and widows of the men who served in the Union army during the Civil War. By employing the resources and digital tools learned in AADHum’s “Movement of People” digital humanities incubator, I hope to map the neighborhood institutions and social relationships black women drew on in their effort to advance ideas about citizenship in post-Civil War America. In doing this work, I hope to clarify some of the questions I posed in the initial stages of my research and apply digital skills to new questions dealing with black migration in the late nineteenth century.

Websites and crowd sourcing projects dealing with the experiences of black Union soldiers are by no means new, and there are some good ones currently in development. When I began this project many years ago, my encounters with my subjects occurred principally in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I spent hours upon hours identifying black soldiers who enlisted in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, filling out hundreds of request forms, and sitting in the research room hoping that something would come back. Now, a large number of these records, as well as a small segment of widows’ pension records, are available online. Additionally, there are several digital archive initiatives dedicated to black Union veterans taking shape. Students at the University of Tennessee are in the early stages of creating a digital archive dedicated to the 1st U. S. Colored Troops (Heavy Artillery).

… how can I use these materials to design and develop a community-centered mapping project?

Informed by this work, I arrived in the AADHUM community with a wealth of data (federal censuses, military records, Freedmen’s Bureau records, Freedmen’s Bureau bank records, newspapers, cemetery records, wills, tax records, and pension files, which further included depositions, affidavits, marriage licenses, and death records) and a research question: how can I use these materials to design and develop a community-centered mapping project? I am attempting to construct a map of New Bern—a port city in eastern North Carolina where thousands of black refugees sought shelter during the Civil War—with the lives of black soldiers’ wives and widows at the center. While I’ve always envisioned this project as a collaborative endeavor, the recent work of Estevan Rael Galvez, entitled “Reimagining Community-Centered Sites for History and Healing,” has pushed me to interrogate my aims: what constitutes collaboration? And is it possible to collaborate with the deceased?[i] While the answers to these questions are still unfolding, a map of this sort could potentially add another layer of understanding of a group of women whose lives have largely been obscured. My hope is to create a set of maps that reflect critical awareness of the connectedness of family, community, and understandings of womanhood at the center of poor black women’s claims for survivors’ benefits.

I plan to use QGIS tools to address the problem of spatial representation and black women during the Civil War era by visually representing this region in a way that highlights the proximity of refugee camps, social institutions, and waterways to the development of what I term “the pension network.”

“Movement of People” showed me multiple ways to leverage QGIS mapping tools to recreate the world of black soldiers’ wives and Union widows. Taking time to analyze how maps might be employed to communicate my ideas and arguments helped me reframe my analytical approach. The question I am now asking is: how did black women occupy space in New Bern before and after the Civil War? Many of the historical maps of the region fail to represent refugee camps, such as the Trent River Settlement (later James City), where thousands of black soldiers’ wives and their children resided during the war. I plan to use QGIS tools to address the problem of spatial representation and black women during the Civil War era by visually representing this region in a way that highlights the proximity of refugee camps, social institutions, and waterways to the development of what I term “the pension network.” By pension network, I am referring to the protocols and localized exchanges that occurred within women’s neighborhoods. As my AADHUM colleagues have pointed out, such an approach will likely mean constructing many maps to highlight how different women experienced Union widowhood and made claims on the government.

In the past, I’ve been frustrated by the thought that QGIS would only benefit historians of the recent past. Insight and support from the AADHUM team revitalized my hope in this tool and this project. The ability to utilize mapping tools, identify meaningful sites, and recreate the regional infrastructure of the pension application process as it took shape in eastern North Carolina will complement current understandings of black women’s social relations and the complexity of their inner lives. To that end, I aim to map the movement of information though New Bern, a black majority city where freedmen and women built and sustained their own religious, social, and economic institutions. Such an approach will illuminate how poor black women worked together to initiate petitions and lay claim to Union widowhood.

Mapping the lives of black soldiers’ wives and widows in the manner I’ve proposed is a daunting task. I will need to ask new questions of the archival documents that I’ve spent many years studying. QGIS strengthens my ability to map questions of citizenship as poor black women understood them, while being patient and creative. What I aim to create is a manifestation of “Movement of People.” The incubator helped answer some of my own misunderstandings and underscored the possibilities and prospects of applying digital tools to the study of poor black women in post-Civil War America. Stay with me on this journey.

Brandi C. Brimmer, AADHum Scholar and Assistant Professor at Morgan State University, Department of History, Geography, and Museum Studies

[i] My colleague at Howard University, Arlisha Norwood, has urged me to consider the possibility of crowd sourcing to enrich the public’s understanding of black women’s travails in post-Civil War America. This would take the project in a new direction and open up new methodological approach to ‘doing black women’s history.

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