Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-Era Reunification and DH Possibilities

Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-Era Reunification and DH Possibilities

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of digital humanities (DH) projects and accessible digital tools for those locked out of traditional archival repositories.  The recent and expanding democratization of archival materials, moreover, has introduced new possibilities for researching African American reunification efforts as an embodied application of Civil War memory. Both the Lost Friends and Last Seen DH projects, for instance, showcase the advertisements placed by African Americans seeking to reunite with families separated by slavery and the Civil War and amplified the conclusions of Heather A. Williams’s Help Me to Find My People (2012).[1] When combined with other digital collections and non-digital scholarship, these projects have expanded the possibilities for scholars and descendants to answer old, as well as new, questions. For instance, how do race, gender, class, and place influence black mothers’ use of memory in their efforts to reunite with loved ones taken during wartime campaigns at the Pennsylvania-Maryland border?

During an October 1862 slaving raid, several African American men were taken from Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and eventually returned after white community leaders secured their release. “Negroes Driven South by the Rebel Officers,” Harper’s Weekly, November 8, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

DH projects can reveal one Franklin County, Pennsylvania mother’s deployment of Civil War memory in her reunification efforts. Using resources commonly associated with newly emancipated southern African Americans, Priscilla Marshall made claims of citizenship by seeking justice for the wartime enslavement of her children in Virginia. In effect, Marshall’s application of Civil War memory transcended physical boundaries, gender expectations, and notions of belonging. Digital tools illuminate her efforts.

Following Confederate defeat, black Pennsylvanians attempted to reunite with their family members enslaved during several Confederate Army raids. Some turned to state officials for assistance but to no avail. A state commission would only accept claims for property either damaged or lost (i.e. livestock, crops, business expenses, and household goods).[2] Excluded from state resources, black Pennsylvanian women relied on federal resources for southern freedpeople, the black press, and postwar communal networks. In so doing, they directly applied Civil War memory in their struggle for reunification and rebuffed state officials’ demands to forget the civilian trauma endured. Some women placed the newspaper advertisements now contained in the Last Seen and Lost Friends DH projects. They firmly understood that their efforts might be “rarely fulfilled but the possibility kept them hoping, and intermittent stories of success kept them encouraged.”[3] Yet, hope, memory of loved ones, and the possibility of reunification served as the greatest motivator for their efforts.

Instead of placing advertisements, Priscilla Marshall used the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in Virginia (the Freedmen’s Bureau). The Pennsylvanian mother, like countless southern black women,  “chose to use the apparatus of the Union Army and the strategy of claiming national inclusion to maneuver for a better life and to construct a civic existence.”[4] The Freedmen’s Bureau courts, local agent offices, and even state headquarters served as a venue for justice and restitution where the Pennsylvania Claims Office could not.

Marshall found success. Actively remembering their wartime enslavement, she appealed for her three children–Rosa, Sallie, and Jack–taken during the Gettysburg Campaign.[5] Initially encountering unsympathetic Freedmen’s Bureau agents, Marshall fiercely resisted. She escalated her claim to General Orlando Brown, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia. She also secured and presented witness statements to General Brown in April 1866.[6] As a result, she reconnected with two of her three children who had been enslaved in the Shenandoah Valley. Her digitally accessible letters also reveal how much the mother fought with the agency for reunification. According to two March 1866 letters, Marshall refused to accept any transportation assistance from the federal agency.  Instead, she secured her own travel arrangements for her children with a black woman whom she trusted.  She also expressed hope that her children could assist in locating Rosa. While failing in this effort, the 1870 federal census revealed that her restored family remained intact. Throughout her struggles, the Pennsylvanian mother redefined postwar citizenship according to her gendered notions of freedom and successfully applied Civil War memory in the reunification of her family. Her success continued to encourage other black Pennsylvanian mothers to not give up hope. Previously outside of the collective consciousness, the combination of older and new DH tools has made visible the archival traces of one mother’s love and application of Civil War memory for scholars, educators, and descendant communities alike.[7]

Priscilla Marshall’s reunification efforts, therefore, demonstrates the promise of DH projects and accessible digital tools for asking new questions and creating new insights on the post-emancipation experience. While not perfect, interesting and potentially exciting opportunities for deepening our understanding race, gender, and Civil War memory abound. Whose experience might be rediscovered when DH projects are actively used during and beyond this current crisis? Beyond their teaching utility, how might DH projects influence future Civil War era scholarship?


[1] Williams Research Center, Lost Friends: Advertisements from the Southwestern Christian Advocate, The Historic New Orleans Collection,; Villanova University, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, 2017,; Heather A. Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012).
[2] While Priscilla Marshall did not file a claim, other Franklin County residents did. Successful applicants received restitution for real property only. None of the few claims of personhood received restitution. For all claims, see Damage Claim Applications for Cumberland and Franklin Counties, 1871-1879, Records of the Department of the Auditor General, RG-2, roll 6161, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
[3] “Information wanted of Rose Jackson,” The Christian Recorder, August 14, 1869, Last Seen, accessed April 26, 2020,; Williams, 168.
[4] Sharon Romeo, Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and the Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 3.
[5] “Albert Ordway to Orlando Brown, February 1, 1866,” Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, accessed April 26, 2020, and “Priscilla Marshall to Orlando Brown, April 4, 1866,” Valley of the Shadow, accessed April 26, 2020, Her son’s name is inconsistently noted as Jack in some records and Zack in other records. Despite this inconsistency, his parentage, age, enslavement, and postwar return is accurately documented.
[6] “Priscilla Marshall to Orlando Brown, April 4, 1866.”
[7] “Priscilla Marshall to H. S. Merrill, March 18, 1866” and “Ann Gibbons to H. S. Merrill, March 18, 1866,” Registers of Letters Received, vol. 1, Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872, FamilySearch,; “Marshall, Priscilla,” in Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, Population Schedules,; Romeo, 81-84.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

6 Replies to “Tracing Black Mothers’ Love: Reconstruction-Era Reunification and DH Possibilities”

  1. Meg,
    Thanks for the comment! Yes, it is possible to continue the search virtually. It becomes more difficult based on existing clues in the surviving historical record. It remains a long term goal of mine to determine her fate.

  2. Hillary,
    We seem to be like-minded. If there is anything I can do to help find Rosa, however small, let me know. And if I cannot help, at least let me know if you find her. If you do, we need to celebrate. I could just hear her mother saying to the others, “Yes, but–we never were able to find little Rosa.” I want to be involved somehow. I would love to share this story at the Emerging Civil War blog.

  3. I love this and find the projects that you have worked and currently working on to be fascinating! I will have to read your book titled “Educational Reconstruction.” I live in Richmond, Virginia and have been looking for a book addressing the history of schools in Richmond, particularly during the period of Reconstruction (which is a harder period to research). Thank you for sharing your work!

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