Accessibility navigation

The union of enslaved couples during the disunion of the nation: love, discord and separations in US slavery and thereafter

West, E. (2019) The union of enslaved couples during the disunion of the nation: love, discord and separations in US slavery and thereafter. In: Grey, D. and Gregory, J. (eds.) Union and Disunion in the Nineteenth Century. Routledge, London. ISBN 9781138354302

Text - Accepted Version
· Please see our End User Agreement before downloading.


It is advisable to refer to the publisher's version if you intend to cite from this work. See Guidance on citing.


The marriages of enslaved people in the Southern states of the USA were subject to complex issues of discord through antebellum times, the Civil War, and the era of emancipation. Focusing on the state of South Carolina, this chapter seeks to address both changes and continuities among enslaved couples’ intimate relationships, mindful that their marriages were recognized by wider society if not by US law. It is hard for historians to probe these more intimate lives, so often lacking from written testimony and hard to decipher from surviving evidence. But this chapter prioritizes limited evidence from enslaved people themselves, coupled with other available evidence, to suggest that clearly defined gendered roles constituted the main force of friction between enslaved spouses. While both partners worked together to survive the regime, a failure to fulfill one’s domestic duties (domestic for women, protecting and providing for men), often resulted in marital strife. The chapter addresses the way in which war presented enslaved couples with new sources of tensions, especially those families seeking refuge behind Union army lines. Army officials often had expectations of gendered roles that did not fit the typical familial roles of enslaved people. More broadly then, the chapter argues that war exacerbated spousal antagonisms and conflicts and it conveys how the routes to freedom from men and women differed. Finally, it explores the opportunities that freedom brought for the enslaved – some chose to validate their marriages under American law while others linked personal freedom with the wider process of emancipation and chose to live those to whom they had been unhappily wed, sometimes because they had been forced or otherwise cajoled into intimate relationships by white slaveholders. As such, the disunions of enslaved people replicated in microcosm the ending of union in the USA as a whole.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:77948


Downloads per month over past year

University Staff: Request a correction | Centaur Editors: Update this record

Page navigation