Weeping No More: The Lives and Labors of Black Union Soldiers’ Wives and Widows in the Aftermath of the US Civil War

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 4:10 PM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Brandi Brimmer, Morgan State University
This presentation examines how black women remade notions of Union widowhood in the Union occupied areas of North Carolina during the Civil War/Reconstruction era.  It follows the story of Fanny Whitney, an enslaved woman, who belonged to a community of men and women that was multigenerational and bound together by extended ties of kinship and personal connections that extended throughout the region.  Fanny’s husband, Harry, died shortly after enlisting in the United States Colored Troops, leaving her to fend for herself and her three surviving children.

I show how Fanny and women like her learned to rely on the social and economic solidarities forged in settlement camps and used them as weapons in their struggle against deprivation and poverty.  Women’s labor combined with the communal networks they had learned to rely on under slavery and during the war served as weapons in their daily struggles against poverty, racism, and widowhood in the aftermath of war.

 When formerly enslaved black soldiers’ widows like Fanny Whitney became eligible to claim survivors’ benefits on the basis of their marriages during the civil war era, they illuminated the heroics of their husbands’ service and emphasized their own noble sacrifice during the war.  In filing such petitions, these women laid claim to the respectability and honor bestowed on all Union widows.  The implications of black women’s petitions carried profound political symbolism that reverberated well beyond the U.S. Civil War/Reconstruction era.  At the same time, these women could walk away with concrete economic resources that could make a substantial difference in their everyday lives.