USCT Kin’s Generational Battle for Equality

USCT Kin’s Generational Battle for Equality

Even before the Civil War began, African Americans were fighting for racial and social equality. Often, historians focus on the lived experiences of African Americans residing in southern states to understand how African Americans fought to reframe society to become more inclusive. It is vital that we also acknowledge the complexities and experiences of northern African Americans as well. Anti-Blackness was never isolated to one region. Even in states where slavery was eventually abolished, racism continued evolving.

Pennsylvania was an example of a northern state that sought to normalize and codify white supremacy. Antebellum state policies, laws, and racial attitudes demonstrates the difference between being opposed to slavery and being for racial equality.  African Americans had faced attempts to restrict them—even if not enslaved—for decades. One such family was the Rothwell family, who lived in Chester, Pennsylvania, who navigated life (including anti-Blackness) in a free state.

1838 was a significant year in African American experience in Pennsylvania. In May 1838, when Philadelphian anti-abolitionists burned down Pennsylvania Hall, a newly opened “Temple of Free Discussion” where a diverse collection of abolitionists and women’s rights advocates congregated.[1] Anti-abolitionists then burned African American homes, religious institutions, schools, and businesses as they violently expressed their racist views. To be clear, this was neither the first nor the last white-led race riot in Philadelphia. That same year the state legislature revised the definition of “freemen” to be exclusively white and male, and explicitly both racialized and gendered voting rights which continued until the passage of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. By the fall, voters (who were primarily white men) approved the new state constitution.[2] Thus, it was evident that many white Pennsylvanians did not believe in racial equality.

For the Rothwell family who were African Americans living about nineteen miles south of Philadelphia, 1838 was a memorable year due to the birth of Alfred (a future Civil War soldier in the Third United States Colored Infantry (USCI)). Due to actions beyond their control, including birth, Alfred lived in a state that demonstrated hostility (sometimes violently) towards African Americans. He would spend his life battling racism while trying to live on a day-to-day basis.

Life for the Rothwells and Black Pennsylvanians dramatically changed after the state legislature decided (for various reasons) to formally ban slavery in 1847. African Americans undoubtedly celebrated the new policy, primarily as it provided more opportunities for human rights activism. For Isaac Rothwell, Sr. (Alfred’s father), the humanitarian and grassroots social activism connected to, according to a descendant, “using his sailing expertise to help hide Blacks seeking freedom.”[3] Perhaps Alfred continued down the path while working as a fisherman (before he enlisted).

It is also essential to recognize that employment on northern waterways was an anomaly for many Pennsylvanian African Americans. Philadelphia, for instance, was a city where many African Americans found it extremely difficult to find in any occupation beyond unskilled labor. Historian W.E.B. Du Bois stated that “Everyone knows that in a city like Philadelphia[,] a Negro does not have [the] same chance to exercise his ability or secure work according to his talents as a white man.”[4]  Looking northward toward New York City, white—employers and customers—used numerous methods to limit employment opportunities for African Americans. Thus, northern African Americans working semi-skilled or skilled occupations resisted occupational racial discrimination daily.

Life for northern African Americans, including the Rothwell family, fundamentally changed after U.S. Congressmen (in both free and slave states) negotiated terms to protect the “rights” of enslavers nationwide which fundamentally threatened the life and liberty of all African Americans. Efforts to protect African Americans who fled from their enslavers dramatically increased after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The revised federal law simultaneously protected the rights of enslavers to their “human property” while making any African Americans (sometimes with baseless claims or kidnapping) a potential victim, who was rarely (if ever) allowed to testify on their behalf. Additionally, the federal policy strengthened its punishments for those found in violation of not enforcing the law, including exorbitant fines and lengthy jail sentences. Thus, the Rothwell family’s activism was critical in saving lives while directly opposing the racist federal law because they were in direct violation of a federal law that prioritized white enslavers “property” ownership over the humanity of African Americans.

Despite this racial climate, Alfred still created a meaningful life. He married Elizabeth Harris in 1857. Between 1858 to 1862, the couple had three children—James, Isaac, and Hannah. Life for the growing family was difficult for numerous reasons as they tried to survive and combat racism. Little did their family know that their lives would forever change when the Civil War began.

In the years leading up to the mobilization of USCT regiments, many white people (including numerous northerners) questioned if African Americans would make good soldiers saying they lacked the courage. Their flawed assertion ignored that African Americans demonstrated bravery in their battles against white supremacy Any person questioning the willingness of African American men to serve in the U.S. military ignored the fact that Black men served in the U.S. Navy throughout the war’s entirety.

USCT recruits were a diverse group with a legion of reasons to become U.S. Army soldiers. For some African American men, soldiering allowed them to simultaneously refute denigrations of their manhood while making public demands for full and equal national citizenship. Other men desired to engage in armed combat to destroy slavery. Some men needed the one-time cash injections that some enlisted men could amass during the enlistment process. Unfortunately, enlistment records rarely reveal what motivated young men, such as the Rothwells—Alfred, Isaac, Jr., and Samuel—and George Potts, all to enlist in the Third USCI in July of 1863. Regardless of their motivations, their actions had the potential to impact the men’s kin as well, for the Rothwells and Potts they were families that now had personal connections to Pennsylvania’s first (of eleven) USCT regiments.

Families, and the larger community, were critical supporters of the war effort, and numerous war propagandists agreed. African American women, more specifically, received frequent public praise from a racially diverse group of northerners for their prominent role in getting able-bodied men to enlist. For instance, Pennsylvanian Congressman William D. Kelley proclaimed that African American mothers, such as Elizabeth Powell and Sarah Potts, and wives, such as Elizabeth Rothwell, were vital to the war effort.[5] The Weekly Anglo-African (published in New York City) printed similar statements in widely circulated newspaper articles.

For Alfred’s young family, however, his enlistment disrupted their already destabilized family economy since he was his family’s only documented full-time wage earner. His July 4, 1863 enlistment immediately ended his civilian wages. He also never received his $100 enlistment bounty due for his service. Additionally, throughout his military career, he received seven dollars monthly due to U.S. War Department policies. At the same time, white soldiers (of the same rank, in the same army, and doing the same work) made thirteen dollars per month. Not only was his life cheapened, but it also directly impacted Alfred’s wife and three young children, who would rely on his soldier’s income to survive. Incorporating the material realities of northern African American families when discussing the consequences of soldiering ultimately provides more depth and better uncovers the complexities of familial life (in and outside of the military).

The training process was complex, and for many enlisted men and their kin, the forced familial separation did not cease them from seeking to remain connected to each other. For northern African American women, like Emilie Davis, visiting and supporting USCT soldiers was a priority, but not solely for the spectacle of seeing African American men in U.S. Army uniform.[6] In many instances, African Americans used various forms of public transit, placing themselves in volatile (and sometimes life-threatening) situations as they tried to support men who trained. Northern African American women made U.S. Army camp visits routine occurrences.  Mary Leighton (the wife of Benjamin Davis) brought their infant son, Jerome to Camp William Penn to spend time together. Little did the young family know it would be the last time they would all be together, as Benjamin would die as a prisoner of war later that year. Perhaps Elizabeth Rothwell also brought her children to camp. However, raising multiple children alone may have limited her ability to see Alfred, highlighting how familial dynamics became even more chaotic during the war.

The Rothwell family forever changed on August 26, 1863. As part of the Third USCI’s siege on Fort Wagner at Morris Island, South Carolina, Alfred was killed while digging a trench. Thomas R. Rockhold, a first sergeant in the Third USCI, spoke to Alfred as he said his last words. According to Rockhold, Alfred proclaimed, “Goodbye dear wife. Please don’t grieve for (me), for I died in a good cause.”[7] Assuming that Alfred’s last words were actual, then it meant that he wanted to assure his kin that he had what some historians refer to as the “Good Death.” In short, dying servicemembers expressed their adoration for their relatives or partner before dying. It is important to note that the “Good Death,” at its core, was meant to provide some solace to grieving individuals who could theoretically take pride in the symbolic and meaningful sacrifices.[8] While it is certainly understandable why people on the home front might want, even need, the knowledge of their kin thinking of them at the end, the fact remains that they were still dead. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she was now a widow raising three young children.

Immediately following the tragic news, Elizabeth successfully received a widow’s pension of eight dollars per month. The money was undoubtedly a welcomed addition to her household, but it would never replace the loss of Alfred. Like countless Civil War widow pensioners, Elizabeth, receiving the money also meant that she, per Congressional laws, stipulated that she must remain celibate (and void acting in “a manner unbecoming of a woman”) for the remainder of her life. Otherwise, she could lose her pension and possibly face jail time for pension fraud. In short, widow’s pensions (through federal policies and oversight) sought to control women’s private and intimate lives. She did not apply for the children to receive minors’ pensions in 1863 for unknown reasons.

Even though politicians and federal government agencies attempted to control Elizabeth’s life, she made decisions that gave her agency over her family. In 1868, she wed Robert Anderson, demonstrating that she lived on her terms.[9] It also meant that, after getting married, she lost her widow’s pension, as stipulated through pension laws. Perhaps in response to the changes to their family size and finances motivated the Rothwell children (under Elizabeth’s guidance) to apply for minors’ pensions, which all three children had approved. Each pension (of eight dollars monthly) continued until each child turned sixteen, with Hannah’s being the last one to end in 1878).

Their collective minor’s pensions illustrate that Elizabeth remained committed, to the best of her abilities, to ensuring some financial stability for her family. Even in the face of unending racial discrimination, she ensured that her children graduated from the Soldiers’ Orphan School in Bridgewater, Pennsylvania. Isaac and James Rothwell were so proud of their scholastic endeavors that they shared their diplomas with the Bureau of Pensions, in 1916.

In 1919, Elizabeth passed away. She left behind a legacy of fighting racial and gender discrimination. Her life was so inspiring that one of her descendants, Michelle Marsden, conducted years’ worth of self-funded familial research that took them to numerous archives as they sought to discover more about their ancestors. Conducting this personal research was difficult and time-consuming, but their commitment to reclaiming the histories of their kin kept them going. It is important that scholars not only illuminate Marsden’s efforts, similar to other USCT descendants, but also recognize that our work as scholars have the potential to either empower or do harm to the kin and communities of USCT soldiers, even today.[10]

[1] History of Pennsylvania Hall, which was Destroyed by a Mob, On the 17th of May, 1838 (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Gunn, 1838), 12, 70—72, 122.

[2] Nicholas Wood, “ ‘A Sacrifice on the Altar of Slavery’: Doughface Politics and Black Disenfranchisement in Pennsylvania, 1837—1838,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 2011), 75, 77, 79, 81, 84, 87.

[3] R.J.N. Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 42-55.

[4] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro (reprint edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 98.

[5] Address at a Meeting for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments, Philadelphia (Philadelphia: n.p., 1863), 4.

[6] Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, ed. Karsonya Wise Whitehead (Columbia, South Carolina: The University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 44.

[7] Letter from Thomas R. Rockhold, on August 27, 1863, in Alfred Rothwell, Third USCI pension file.

[8] Drew Gilpin Faust, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 17.

[9] 1917 Pension Bureau document, in John Poulson, Third USCI pension file.

[10], Accessed on 8/24/2023.

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.

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