Black Virginians in Blue

The Ties That Bind: Marriage and Family Life for Black Union Soldiers


Virginia State Standards Fulfilled by this Lesson:

USI.9 f)/VUS.7 c) describing the effects of war from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers (including African American soldiers), women, and enslaved African Americans.

Lesson Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will learn how enslaved African Americans maintained close family ties despite the fact that enslavers regularly separated husbands from wives and children from parents.
  2. Students will discover how service in the Union Army or Navy affected the families of Black servicemen in a variety of ways.
  3. Students will recognize that the restrictions of enslavement continued to haunt Black servicemen and their families long after emancipation, as the federal government questioned the legitimacy of the marriages and family ties of Black servicemen when awarding pensions.
  4. Students will interpret and analyze primary sources, recognizing how historians come to know more about the past through documents written for practical purposes and how they put those primary sources into conversation with the existing scholarship. 

Approximate Length of Time: 60-90 minutes in class & option for homework assignment


  1. General Reading on Enslaved Family Life
  2. BVIB Essay on Family Life of Black Union Servicemen
  3. BVIB Primary Sources

Activity Procedure

  1. Distribute the the secondary sources, at least one of the general readings and the BVIB essay, and have students read each [this may be done the day before as homework].
  2. Divide the students into small groups and have each group answer the following questions together in writing:
    • What challenges did enslaved people face as they sought to build and maintain family ties?
    • How did enslaved people resist the disruptions to their family lives imposed on them by their enslavers?
    • How did the Civil War and service in the Union Army or Navy affect recently enslaved Black families?
    • What challenges faced the families of former Black Union servicemen after the war? Why did these challenges exist and how did freepeople and their children work to overcome them?
  3. Have each group share their answer with the class and discuss as a large group.
  4. Assign each group a primary source, give them 15 minutes to talk through the document and take notes on what the text reveals and what questions are left unanswered by the source.


 As a follow-up or homework assignment, ask each student to write a short (2-3 paragraph) response that connects their primary source back to the secondary readings. Ask the students to consider both how the essays informed their reading of the documents AND how the documents emphasized portions of the essays or helped to answer questions they still had after reading the essays.

Lesson plan created by: Ian Iverson

Image: "Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters" (Courtesy Library of Congress)