Article-a-Day #84: Black Perspectives-‘A White Man Took Her’: Trauma, Loss, and Grief among the Enslaved

In November 1864, a formerly enslaved man named Peter Bumper and his fiance Bucinda Nelson had their marriage registered with the federal government. Long denied access to a legally-recognized, protected union, Bumper and Nelson pursued a path to freedom taken by many formerly enslaved people during the Civil War era. Their heroism in escaping Confederate-controlled territory and finding a Union minister is compelling enough, but the brief information provided on their marriage certificate reveals the trauma such couples endured before they sealed their commitments through legal matrimony. To prevent the spread of bigamy, governing officials required formerly enslaved registrants to disclose information about their previous relationships, usually phrased in two parts: “lived with another woman/man ___________;” and “separated from him/her by ___________.”1 In many respects, this requirement was a naïve maneuver by Union officials, in that they were forcing people to revisit the trauma of slavery, in which their spouses, children, friends, and relatives were taken from them at the slaveowner’s whim. As they considered their answers, one can imagine they relived these moments of violent separation and they were reminded of the precarities of being Black in America, whether enslaved or free.