Researching Northern Black Families’s Civil War: An Interview With Michelle Marsden

Researching Northern Black Families’s Civil War: An Interview With Michelle Marsden

When I began examining the lived experiences of northern United States Colored Troops (USCT) soldiers, I thought it was critical to emphasize their lives and familial dynamics beyond their time in the U.S. Army.  My book-The Families’ Civil War: Black Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice-details northern freeborn families battling for racial and gender equality before and after the existence of the USCT regiments.[1] Taking this long chronological approach provides an essential historical intervention to both public and academic discourse by illuminating the lives of people that are usually portrayed as the audience member hearing Frederick Douglass’ speech of the “Eagle on the Button” as essential to providing African American manhood and citizenship claims while seeking to destroy slavery simultaneously.[2] It is long overdue to center on those African Americans to acknowledge how they were significant agents of social change. More specifically, these working-class freeborn northern African Americans were responsible for saving the U.S., defeating the Confederacy, ending slavery, and seeking a more equitable society.

After a presentation at a Philadelphian-based institution, these points became more critical when I received an email from an individual researching their family. The email writer was Michelle Marsden (who has studied her family’s history for thirty-years)[3] She is also a descendant of the Rothwell family (including Elizabeth and Alfred) that my monograph examines. Through that and numerous other conversations, I have a deeper appreciation of how studying history can empower African American families to know that their families were important historical figures. To that end, I have the privilege of interviewing Michelle on why it is vital to center on African American families, like the Rothwells, to fully understand the complexity of U.S. and Civil War Era history.

 

********

HP: Scholars have often relied on well-documented and famous Black people, like Frederick Douglass, to understand the Civil War era. But why do you think examining people, like your kin, would add even more depth and complexity to understanding Black people throughout the Civil War era?

MM: Leaders in the community of free people of color are essential to our understanding of the Civil War era. While we know that Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth stood at the forefront of the abolitionist movement and worked tirelessly to eradicate slavery, there is also a need to explore the experiences of other northern free people of color. Records indicate that my family, the Rothwells, moved from Delaware to Pennsylvania in 1851 as my fourth great-grandfather, Isaac Rothwell, Sr., worked as a free man of color in the fishing industry. Even though he was already a free person of color, Delaware was still a state that endorsed slavery. His move slightly northward from New Castle, Delaware to Chester, Pennsylvania a year after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, tells a story that deserves scholarly attention.

By researching and sharing histories like his, we gain a more nuanced view of the Black family’s experience. There is a good chance that location and proximity to slavery affected their decision-making. Many northern free Blacks, like my family, had to create a delicate balance between employment, and resistance to a system that could have risked their family’s safety. As boatwrights, our family worked on ships that sailed between slave states and northern free states. There is an oral history of the Rothwells using their knowledge of the ships that they worked on to help hide Black people seeking freedom. Research on Harriet Tubman and how she used Black sailors for this very purpose has been documented. By examining the life of average citizens like Isaac Rothwell, Sr., who may have assisted the abolitionist movement in personal ways, we learn much more about the experiences of Black America and the African American family.

HP: In your opinion, what is the potential harm of primarily focusing on the experiences of freedpeople while simultaneously minimizing the historical significance of working-class freeborn northern African Americans?

MM: If one is to study the self-liberated and freeborn Black community in the North but only focus on the journey of those that were fortunate enough to become prosperous with a public voice and platform, then the disadvantage is that we see the African American experience from a very myopic point of view. Clearly, everyone’s journey northward or generational history in the North would have been different. By expanding into the lives of those from various socio-economic backgrounds, we gain the ability to learn about the myriad of hardships they endured and the successes they accomplished in spite of the racial and gender discrimination prevalent in the Civil War era.

A scholarly investigation such as this would also work to eliminate stereotypes and expand the perception of northern free people of color. Prior to doing my genealogical research, for example, I assumed that freedom itself issued African American access to a public school education. I naively thought that simply living in the North meant schools were prevalent and readily available to all northern Black communities. What I have found is that this was not necessarily the case. Some of my Rothwell ancestors were sent to the Soldier’s Orphan School at Bridgewater, located in Bucks County, PA. While it was publically self-proclaimed as a safe haven for those that became fatherless as a result of the Civil War, this particular school for Black children was documented as one that existed under dilapidated conditions. The Black children suffered from the lack of maintenance to the physical building as well as the lack of consistent, adequate staffing. This is just one example of how an in-depth study of northern Black communities would give us detailed information about the lives of those that lived in this era. We could benefit from learning how they used grit, culture, tradition, family, and faith to survive.

HP: How do you, on a personal level, process seeing important aspects of American history (such as Black military service) knowing that your relatives’ firsthand experience?

MM: Conducting genealogical research for the past thirty years has allowed me to see my family’s journey within the complexities of the larger story of America. I see them as part of the evolution of this country. Their fortitude and willingness to fight to end the institution of slavery inspires me. Two of my great-great-great-grandfathers, Isaac D. Rothwell and Geroge Potts, in addition to two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Samuel Rothwell were all free men of color. Each one enlisted in the U.S. Army for the Civil War between July 4 and July 20, 1863.  The Bureau of Colored Troops was formed at the end of May and only started their Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recruitment in June. If the oral history is true about my fourth great grandfather Isaac Rothwell Sr using his sailing expertise to help hide Blacks seeking freedom, then this means that he was part of the underground railroad. Having that value system and perhaps sharing it with his family, would help to explain why his sons Isaac D. Rothwell, Alfred Rothwell, Samuel Rothwell, and their neighbor George Potts enlisted into the U.S.C.T. so quickly. All of the men became members of the 3rd United States Colored Troops and served in various companies.  According to the enlistment papers, Isaac D. joined Company G at age 19, Samuel, whose name was misspelled as Rothville, Ruthville, and Rathwill in his military files, joined company H at age 19, and George Potts joined Company G at age 16.

Uncle Alfred, who served in Company D, enlisted at age 26 and was the oldest of the four men.  He was the first one to volunteer even though he knew he would be leaving behind a wife, and three children. Unfortunately, he also has the misfortune of being the only one of my ancestors to die in the Civil War. As the regiment served at Fort Wagner in South Carolina, Alfred Rothwell was shot during his garrison duty. In his pension file, there is a copy of the letter that was to be delivered to his wife in the event of his passing. Other records in his pension file show how his widow Elizabeth and children James, Isaac, and Hannah suffered greatly after his death. The men in the 3rd USCT saw action at Fort Gregg on Morris Island, South Carolina, Marion County, Florida, and mustered out in Jacksonville, Florida. I am grateful for all of their sacrifices and look for ways to honor their legacies.

When I look at American history I also feel a personal connection to this era because I have also studied how these four men helped to free those that were enslaved on the other side of my family tree. Without knowing each other, my great-grandfather Peter Vaughters was a direct beneficiary of the acts of the USCT regiments and the end of the Civil War.  He was unfortunately born into the institution of slavery in Carnesville, Franklin County, Georgia in 1852. By the time the war ended, he was a thirteen-year-old young man working on the Vaughters plantation with two other young, forced laborers. His mother, Clary, was sold away from him when he was three. Hiram Vaughters died intestate and the family sold Clary to balance the debts that they owed. Fortunately my great grandfather Peter and my 2nd great grandmother Clary were given the chance to reunite and share the same home as mother and son at least once again before her passing. According to the 1880 Franklin County census of that year, Peter brought his mother to live with him, his wife and three sons. Over the years they continued to live near the old plantation in Franklin County, Georgia. When I encounter American history in an academic, or even in a public cinematic platform, these are the people and moments that I think about. I place the stories of my ancestors’ lives into the narrative of what I learn about America.

HP: Why should a Community Care perspective be something that scholars need to consider when conducting their research?

MM: Looking at the community is essential to form any depth of understanding of a historical era. Genealogists often look at the neighbors, places of worship, local events, and  possible support systems that an ancestor would have had in order to gain a broader view of their life. Knowing the time period, and the location of the family on a farm, or in a city or town can help reveal their story. How close or far away they lived to historical happenings can speak to the stress, anxiety, or tensions of a community. In order to move beyond the single narrative, everything matters when we look back in time.

HP: What advice would you give to others who might be interested in researching their own family history? 

MM: My advice for anyone who wants to learn about their past is to start with your oldest living relative and ask questions. Listen and document everything they have to say. If possible, use today’s technology to help you record their life story. In addition to the elders, I would talk to aunts, uncles, parents, and cousins. Anyone who is willing to share should have their history documented.

Then, I would build a family tree. This can be on paper or on a digital platform. As you add names and dates, try to find the relatives in public archives. This can range from U.S. or state census records to tax digests and old newspapers, town histories and records for local places of worship. Next, I would tell them to learn about the historical significance of the various time periods. Re-examine American history, but specifically from the lens of their ancestors. Learning local, and national context adds to our ability to build empathy, and appreciation of the past.

Finally, I would tell them to share what they’ve learned with their family members. Use family reunions, newsletters, or even online platforms to help all of the descendants understand how the path of their ancestors led them to who they are today.

********

As this interview has shown, studying history is ever-changing and can also be very personal to the descendants of the people we learn and discuss. USCT regiments must remain critical historical figures that fundamentally reshaped U.S. history in numerous ways. As historians (including Kelly D. Mezurek and William Seraile) demonstrate, northern free African Americans lived complex lives that need to be the center of scholarly analyses.[4] Moreover, it is time to stop over-emphasizing enlistment rhetoric to understand USCT soldiering and instead focus on enlisted men and their kin (in and outside their military service). Doing so will (hopefully) illustrate to USCT descendants, like Michelle Marsden, that we remain grateful for their families’ sacrifices and profound impact on our society.

[1] Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., The Families Civil War: Black Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022), 1-12. For more insight on northern USCT familial studies see: James G. Mendez, A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020); Douglas R. Egerton, Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[2] Frederick Douglass, “Another Word to Black Men,” Weekly Anglo-African, March 17, 1863.

[3] Michelle Marsden, “My Trip to Uncover a Family Mystery from 1852,” Ancestry.com, February 14, 2020, https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/my-trip-to-uncover-a-family-mystery-from-1852/, Accessed on 3/1/2023; Michelle Marsden, “Discovering African American Heroes in My Family Tree,” Ancestry.com, February 23, 2023, https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/my-family-history-journey-discovering-the-african-american-heroes-in-my-family-tree/, Accessed on 3/1/2023.

[4] Kelly D. Mezurek, For Their Own Cause: The 27th United States Colored Troops (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2016); William Seraile, New York’s Black Regiments During the Civil War (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr.

Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of History at Furman University. He received his bachelor’s degree (2008) from the University of Central Florida. Later, he earned his master’s degree (2010) and doctoral degree (2017) from the University of Iowa. His research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and class in the military from 1850 through the 1930s. His monograph, The Families’ Civil War, is forthcoming June 2022 with the University of Georgia Press in the UnCivil Wars Series.  You can find him on Twitter at @PHUsct.

4 Replies to “Researching Northern Black Families’s Civil War: An Interview With Michelle Marsden”

  1. As a Ph.D.-trained public humanities scholars (i.e. someone working primarily outside academia to connect public audiences with content and approaches from the humanities), it is heartening to see a MUSTER piece like this. Michelle Marsden reminds us of the import of historical research for all Americans, and for African Americans especially. It’s a useful way to frame our own goals as historians, and to push our thinking about who are audiences can and should be. Kudos to Holly Pinheiro for bridging this gap, and for giving Marsden the opportunity to teach us about how to ground our work in ways that make it meaningful for all.

  2. Bravo Cousin,
    Great work on the family history from Antebellum Delaware to Post Civil War Chester. After many years of studying the same documents related to the UGRR of Chester Pa, our family has fits quite nicely in this narrative from my research as well. Thank you for your work in this field.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.