Voices of Emancipation

Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files

232 pages

5 illustrations

May, 2008

ISBN: 9780814775875



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Elizabeth A. Regosin is Associate Professor of History at St. Lawrence University and author of Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation.

All books by Elizabeth A. Regosin

Donald R. Shaffer is Assistant Professor of History at Upper Iowa University and author of the award-winning After the Glory: The Struggles of Civil War Veterans.

All books by Donald R. Shaffer

Voices of Emancipation seeks to recover the lives and words of former slaves in vivid detail, mining the case files of the U.S. Pension Bureau, which administered a huge pension system for Union veterans and their survivors in the decades following the Civil War. The files contain an invaluable, first-hand perspective of slavery, emancipation, black military service, and freedom. Moreover, as Pension Bureau examiners began interviewing black Union veterans and their families shortly after the Civil War, the files are arguably among the earliest sources of ex-slaves reflecting on their lives, occurring decades before better-known WPA Slave Narratives of the 1930s took place.

Voices of Emancipation explores the words of former slaves topically, beginning with recollections of slavery, moving on to experiences of military service in the Civil War, the transition to freedom, and finally to reflections on marriage and family before and after emancipation. With an introduction that places the pension files in context and presents the themes of the book, and historical commentary interwoven throughout the excerpts of the interviews themselves, Elizabeth A. Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer effectively introduce the files and the treasures they contain to students and general readers, but also provide specialists with an indispensable research tool.


  • ”Regosin's and Shaffer's careful editorial work makes the U.S. Pension Records come alive.”

    —Laura F. Edwards, author of Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction

  • ”Regosin and Shaffer have shone a spotlight on an extraordinary resource, one of the most voluminous bodies of records on nineteenth-century black life in existence, and one still relatively untapped. I especially appreciate their clear-eyed commentary, which demonstrates the riches to be mined and beckons the reader toward deeper inquiry.”

    —Dylan Penningroth, author of The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

  • “An immensely useful reader that showcases the kinds of information the records contain about the men who served in the US Colored Troops…. Collectively, these records document the soldiers' experiences under slavery and during the emancipation process; marriage, family, and community relationships before, during, and after emancipation; African Americans military service; and postwar employment, geographic mobility, and health….Essential.”


  • "The central objective of Voices of Emancipation is to expose readers to a sample of the Civil War pension file of ex-slaves in order to learn more about their individual and personal experience during slavery, wartime, and the postwar era."

    —Jeffrey R. Kerr Ritchie, H-Net Reviews

  • "Voices of Emancipation is a critical new resource for historians and scholars exploring antebellum life and the new opportunities afforded to African Americans after emancipation."

    —Tony Yang, Journal of African American History

  • ”This collection will speak in an entirely unique way. . . . There is no question that this will be an important contribution to historians.”

    —Stephanie Camp, University of Washington

  • ”Civil War pension records offer an unrivaled view into the lives of ordinary Americans during the nineteenth century, and Regosin and Shaffer, scholars who have published important books drawing largely from the pension records, have unrivaled familiarity with them. Their selections and annotations provide a fascinating glimpse not only into a complex and deeply moving historical process but also into the lives of persons who experienced it at the cutting edge. Voices of Emancipation is a treasure trove of insights that will surely appeal to scholars, students, and general readers alike.”

    —Joseph P. Reidy, Howard University