Slave Marriage, Free Marriage: Black Veterans and Their Families After the Civil War
Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Catherine Kolo graduated from the University of Virginia in 2020 and earned a degree in History and a degree with high distinction in Music. She was a 2020 summer intern at the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History and worked on the Black Virginians in Blue project.

One can only imagine the frustration Nancy Douglas of Louisiana, Missouri, must have felt trying to provide information about her late husband, Manuel Price, in her application for a widow’s pension in March 1888. “I cannot give the Month or year in which Manuel Price Enlisted, nor the date of his death, I do not know anything about the nature of the disease of which he died. All that I Know about his death, is what I have been told by Men who were his Comrades.” Price had served in the 68th USCT Infantry Regiment, but died in Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, of pneumonia on April 14, 1864, less than two months after he enlisted. In applying for a widow’s pension in March 1888, Douglas had to document and verify for pension officials not only the circumstances of her husband’s death, but their marriage to each other as well. Because they had wed as enslaved laborers, there was no official documentation of their marriage, which had no legal standing in antebellum Missouri. Douglas was able to name the man who married them as well as some of those who attended the ceremony. In this way, she furnished details that confirmed her marriage and ensured her pension. Years later, her testimony speaks to the life she and her first husband lived as enslaved workers as recorded in Civil War pension records held by the National Archives.[1]

The lack of official records is a distinct limitation for research into the lives of Manuel Price and other formerly enslaved Black veterans born in Albemarle County. Many obstacles stood in the way of securing official documents: their marriages, deaths, and baptisms were less likely than those of Whites to be publicly recorded; illiteracy meant that it could be difficult to preserve such knowledge except through oral transmission; and the domestic slave trade often split families across the country. Pension documents, however, can provide valuable insight into the relationships and family structures of Albemarle-born USCT veterans, since they are composed of medical examinations, military service summaries, and depositions that corroborate family relationships. Several men in the population of Black Albemarle-born Union soldiers lived in circumstances similar to Manuel Price and provide examples of Black veterans’ marriage across the South. In particular, they illustrate the contrasts present in the institution of marriage before and after the war for African Americans, especially regarding the stability inherent in relationships conferred with legal standing and the benefits that stability granted the dependents of veterans.

Prior to the Civil War, public wedding celebrations between enslaved African Americans could generally only take place with the permission of slaveholders, and even seemingly authorized weddings had no independent legal standing and conferred no legal protections or privileges on an enslaved couple. Weddings could be performed by or under the supervision of a slaveowner or his representative, or, with their owners’ consent, through community or spiritual authorities among the African Americans living in a given locality. Thomas Cobb was an enslaved preacher living on the estate of John Coles Carter, a plantation owner who uprooted more than 100 slaves from his family home in Albemarle County upon his move to Missouri in 1852.[2] Carter allowed Cobb to preside over multiple weddings on his estate on Lick Farm, Missouri, and he was the preacher who married Manuel Price to Nancy in 1863, sometime between Christmas and the new year. Cobb also married Manuel’s brother Isaac Price to Cary Ann Watson around the same time. Shortly after their marriages, Manuel and Isaac enlisted in the 68th USCT Infantry with another brother, Joseph Price. Only Isaac would survive the war—like Manuel, Joseph also died of illness, succumbing to peritonitis on March 27, 1865 in Barrancas, Florida.[3]

Marriage between enslaved people was far from sacrosanct in the eyes of Whites because enslaved workers were not considered full legal persons and therefore were deprived of the legal right to contract. There was no guarantee of respect for the relationship, nor any presence of the protections afforded by legal marriage. The realities of chattel slavery—the separation by sale of families; the sexual exploitation of enslaved women by their masters; the constant physical and psychological abuse, both systematic and capricious, inflicted on Blacks by Whites—often assaulted and disrupted enslaved marriages and families. William Isaac Johnson, who grew up enslaved in Albemarle, noted the vulnerable nature of slave marriage and family life in an interview he gave to a Works Progress Administration interviewer in the late 1930s, as he recalled owners who would not hesitate to whip their slaves and who “didn’t think anything of breaking up a family” through sale.[4]

Such was the case for Eli Carr and his wife Georgianna Thompson, who married in 1859 in Saline County, Missouri. Prior to his enlistment, Carr worked as a farm laborer, often breaking hemp and teaming, and the two lived together on the small farm of their owner, William Piper. Carr and Georgianna may have even had one child together, but Piper sold Georgianna to a new owner at an unknown time and the two did not find each other again after the war. Carr then married a woman named Silvia Gray, and they raised four children (Susie, Elizabeth, Millie, and Silas) in Elk Fork, Missouri.[5]

The nature of marriage changed radically for Black men who enlisted in the Union army, primarily because, as historian Tera W. Hunter has argued, Union strategists understood that freedom for dependents of Black soldiers could be a powerful incentive for enlistment. In addition, the influx of formerly enslaved refugees into Union camps provided a wide pool of marriageable women for bachelor soldiers. It was also significant for Black couples to remarry in a situation of federal authority as it signaled their acceptance into the law and safety of the Union, underscored by the symbolism of being married by a military official. “[Marriage under the flag] was like taking an oath of allegiance or being inducted into the service,” Hunter explains. It represented “one of the first ‘rites’ of freedom exercised by the newly freed. It not only opened the way for the consideration of other rights but also moved toward fulfilling an important social prerequisite for citizenship by initiating a family.” Historian Amy Taylor concurs, emphasizing the long-term civic function of marriage, especially in the setting of contraband camps:

[T]he mother-father-child family structure… was an incubator of good social and political values; in it, future citizens developed the character and morals necessary to go out in the world and act as responsible citizens. Submission to family obligations, for example, was held up as a necessary demonstration of virtue and of one’s fitness to be a law-abiding, self-supporting citizen in a free republic.[6]

Overton Fitzhugh was one soldier who decided to meet the challenge and marry under the flag, formalizing a relationship he had established before the war. Fitzhugh was a soldier before he was a legal husband, enlisting in the 59th USCT Infantry Regiment and serving as a carpenter and a company cook. In addition, he participated in multiple expeditions, notably helping defend Memphis, Tennessee, from an attack by Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. He married Mary Ann Fitzhugh while still in the service in 1864 under the authority of his regiment’s chaplain in a military camp in Memphis. According to their marriage license, the couple already had three children together. Although their fate after Fitzhugh mustered out in 1866 is unknown, their marriage in 1864 legalized their union and legitimized their children.[7]

In the transition between enslavement and freedom, Black marriage underwent a remaking as African Americans were able to exercise greater agency over their familial relationships. Historian Donald Shaffer notes that family life was an arena in which Black veterans were able to preserve the masculinity they had asserted as soldiers, especially in comparison to the political sphere, which continued to disenfranchise African Americans. As protectors and familial authorities, Black veterans seized legal marriage as a chance to legitimize their family ties. Formerly enslaved Albemarle-born Black soldiers who returned to live in the South after the war largely conform to this observation. In addition to the changed institution of marriage, Black men found themselves acquiring roles within the family that grew out of the nexus of freedom, citizenship, and masculinity. These were patriarchal roles that were prefigured, as Donald Shaffer describes, in the patriotic and masculine figure of the Black Union soldier.[8]

Most of the formerly enslaved Albemarle-born veterans were motivated to legally marry in part because it conferred formal recognition in the eyes of the law and the country. These motivations may have been at play for William I. Johnson, who married legally and was well-respected in his Richmond, Virginia, community. As a young enslaved man, Johnson was encouraged by captive Union soldiers to escape to freedom. He and four other enslaved men escaped to Washington, D.C., where they all enlisted. After his service, Johnson married Hannah Hardaway in 1880 and worked as a bricklayer and an independent contractor, while being active in several fraternal organizations. Johnson and Hannah had five children: Mary, Helen, Rosalie, Alice, and William Jr. It was a point of pride for Johnson that he could afford to send his children to college, an opportunity that relatively few Black families possessed.  Although he and his family never applied for a pension, they benefitted from legal marriage in the respectability and stability it conferred.[9]

Historian Tera Hunter notes that prewar marriage conventions of non-legalized serial monogamy and self-divorce were still present in the transition to a widespread practice of legal marriage: “while the majority eagerly embraced legal marriage, many preferred to maintain their conjugal relationships as they had before….” This was especially true in the agency expressed between those in enslaved marriages, who had the chance to decide whether to formalize their unions, or not. For example, after the war, Isaac Price moved to Illinois to reunite with his wife Cary Ann only to find that she had borne another man’s child. He left her, ending their marriage, and returned to Lick Farm, Missouri. Price ultimately legally married (twice), which shows an acknowledgement of the benefits of legal marriage despite the convenience of self-divorce for ending informal marriages. In addition, legal marriage allowed his last wife, Melissa Price, to claim a widow’s pension between his death in 1901 and her remarriage to a man named Robert Steele in 1906.[10]

Legal marriage superseded informal marriage, undermining pension claims of family members who were not legally recognized. This can be seen in the case of Henry Hughes, who served in the 65th USCT Infantry Regiment. He married twice as an enslaved farmer in Missouri, first to Peggy Davis and then to Martha Hughes. Between these marriages, he had at least three children (with Peggy, a daughter named Evelyn and possibly another child; with Martha, a son named Henry and another child whose name is unknown). In the course of the war, Hughes was lost to Martha. Assuming him dead, she filed an application for a widow’s pension in 1901, only to find that Hughes was alive and living in Louisiana with his second legal wife, Tennessee Cage, with whom he had three children, McHenry, Miller, and Cora. (His first legal wife was a woman named Amy, with whom he had Philip, Lucy, and Lizzie—he remarried after Amy’s death.) Because he was still alive and had not returned to live with her, Martha’s claim failed. Circumstances became even more complex upon Hughes’s death in 1910 as both Tennessee and Martha filed for widow’s pensions, and J. A. Cuddy of the Pension Bureau was called upon to determine the rightful claim. Eventually, he ruled in favor of Tennessee:

admitting that Martha was the soldier’s slave wife at the time of his enlistment, she was never his lawful wife and has no status as his widow… we are fully justified in presuming that the soldier’s ceremonial marriage to the claimant Tennessee in 1885, was a valid marriage, and as said marriage subsisted until his death, it must be held that she became his lawful widow at that time.[11]

Martha Hughes was not the only spouse to be denied a pension due to an informal marriage. Georgianna Carr, the enslaved wife of Eli Carr, filed a claim for wartime pay in arrears for his service after he died in 1875. Although she provided evidence of their marriage and separation by way of testimony, her claim was refused—in part because she provided an incorrect year of death. This illustrates the advantage legal marriage provided: documentation could provide a critical degree of legitimacy in cases where personal knowledge was not enough.[12]

Despite the differing experiences of marriage for Isaac and Manuel Price, Eli Carr, William Isaac Johnson, Overton Fitzhugh, and Henry Hughes and their spouses, all who survived the war eventually utilized legal marriage with previous or new partners. In this way, they are representative not only of those born in Albemarle, but of the larger experience of formerly enslaved Black veterans across the country. The long-awaited exercise of agency through marriage was an extension of the legal personhood newly extended to African Americans in the form of citizenship, but the extension of civic privilege came with an additional burden of moral expectation and normativity, especially when it came to regulating intimate relationships. Tera Hunter describes an ahistorical contradiction inherent in this concern, which was reinforced with new laws:

Whereas under slavery blacks were not allowed to get married, they would now, under freedom, be disproportionately punished if they did not marry while cohabitating… whereas sex outside of marriage was required and expected of the enslaved, under the new system it could be condemned as criminal.

Legalization of marriage between African Americans after the war thus did not mean the end of discrimination or prejudice in regard to Black marriage—but it did mean, at last, a chance for respect from the government, especially when it came to recognizing the pension claims of spouses and dependents of Black veterans of the Civil War.[13]

Images: (1) An unidentified African American veteran and his family (courtesy Library of Congress); (2) Testimony of Nancy Douglas, widow of Manuel Price, 68th USCT (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration); (3) Marriage license of Mary Ann and Overton Fitzhugh, 59th USCT (U.S. Freedman’s Bureau Marriage Records, courtesy; (4) Excerpt from the special examiner’s report from the pension of Henry Hughes, 65th USCT (courtesy National Archives).


[1] Nancy Douglas quoted in Pension Records for Manuel Price, RG 15, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (hereafter NARA) (transcription available at /usct/node/537).

[2] For more information on the enslaved workers of John Coles Carter and their lives in Missouri, please see Elizabeth R. Varon’s three-part essay “From Carter’s Mountain to Morganza Bend: A U.S.C.T. Odyssey”, Black Virginians in Blue (/usct/node/25).

[3] Compiled Military Service Records for Joseph, Manuel, and Isaac Price, RG 94, NARA; Pension Records for Joseph, Manuel, and Isaac Price, RG 15, NARA.

[4] William I. Johnson Interview, “Virginia Writers Project: Life Histories,” Work Projects Administration of Virginia Records, 1939-1943, Library of Virginia (hereafter LVA), Richmond, Virginia; Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews With Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976), 165-170 (transcript available at /usct/node/528).

[5] Compiled Service Records for Eli Carr, RG 94, NARA; Pension Records for Eli Carr, NARA.

[6] Tera W. Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017), 122-123; Amy M. Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 78.

[7] Marriage Record for Overton Fitzhugh and Mary Ann Fitzhugh, U.S., Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records, 1846-1867, accessed through

[8] Donald Robert Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 113.

[9] William I. Johnson Interview, WPA of Virginia Records, LVA.

[10] Hunter, Bound in Wedlock, 16; Pension Records for Isaac Price, NARA.

[11] Compiled Service Records for Henry Hughes, NARA; 1880 U.S. Federal Census, accessed on; Pension Records for Henry Hughes, NARA (transcript available at /usct/node/523).

[12] Pension Records for Eli Carr, NARA.

[13] Hunter, Bound in Wedlock, 15.