This piece was graciously written for us by Sherri Price Bruen about her third great-grandmother Caroline Halsey (Robinson) Freeman in honor of Mothers’ Day.
“It is my duty to write to you upon the painful subject of your husband’s death…”
Holding the official-looking letter, Caroline Freeman’s hands must have trembled with dread. Her mind must have spun furiously, like a child’s out-of-control whirligig, even if she didn’t quite know why yet. Born in 1835, Caroline had never learned to read or write, so she needed help to decipher the contents.
The time it took to find that someone would have been interminable, even if only minutes. And yet, hearing the words of Captain Albert B. Hull of the USCT 20th Regiment—the subject of your husband’s death—rather than reading them for herself, couldn’t have softened the blow.
It’s a mistake. It’s somebody else. He can’t be dead! One can imagine the chaotic thoughts and emotions whirling through her. Surely, Charles was still alive, and when he came home, she would have so much to tell him about all that had transpired during his absence: cute stories about the children, and all the gossip and goings-on in the village. Most importantly, his new daughter—she would finally introduce him to little Frances. To fathom that she would never see his face again, never hear his voice, never feel the touch of his hand must have been near impossible. After all, they still had a whole life to live.
In 1855, when both were 19 years old, Charles Freeman and Caroline Halsey Robinson married. Over the next few years, they created a home with their four young children: Amelia, Mary Elizabeth, Mellissa, and Lewis. Then, the War of Rebellion broke out in the south, and Charles answered the call to arms. He would serve his country and fight for the freedom of fellow black men as well as the future of his children to enjoy American citizenship. He enlisted in December 1863, leaving his pregnant young wife to care for their family. No doubt as all departing soldiers did, he promised to come home safe and sound. Except he didn’t. Not even his body was sent home to make this news feel real—to give her the closure of saying a proper goodbye to her husband and life mate. Yet, it was all too real. Charles Freeman was dead, and all her memories couldn’t change that.
Eventually, the full import of Charles’ death and what it would mean for her, and her children, must have set in. What they’d both expected to be a temporary separation, with Charles one day returning home to resume life as they’d planned, was now permanent. Still, despite the cruel twist of fate that had stolen her husband or the brokenness she likely felt, Caroline had to pick herself up and forge ahead to support her family, including her aging parents who lived with her. She had to rise to the occasion and don the roles of father, mother, and breadwinner.
One bright spot in her situation would have been the financial relief she could expect in the form a veteran widow’s pension. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic nightmares of today were alive and well in the nineteenth century. She applied in December 1864, four months after Charles’ passing. The process would prove to be arduous and lengthy, requiring documented proof of Charles’ service and death, proof of their marriage and the birth dates of the children sworn to by physicians who attended the family. She needed to gather affidavits from neighbors, friends, and acquaintances attesting to her character and life in the community. It would be a laborious undertaking for anyone to gather all these required documents. For an uneducated woman, it must have seemed a herculean task, but Caroline accomplished it all and submitted the paperwork.
Then, she waited. And waited. And waited some more. During that time, Caroline made ends meet employed as a day servant in private homes, caring for the welfare and conveniences of prominent families. At night, she would trudge home to care for her own family. Also during that time, the infant daughter Frances she’d born in Charles’ absence became ill and died. After two trying years had passed, the government finally approved this waiting widow’s pension. Caroline received her first check of $8 a month plus $2 each for her three qualifying children under 16 years of age.
Life as widow and mother went along normally for a time, and then, another unexpected loss touched too close to home. Caroline’s younger sister, Julia, died in 1875. Having married on the same day, had their babies in tandem, and partnered in caring for their elderly parents, it is probably safe to say Caroline and Julia had a strong sisterly bond. With her sister’s death leaving three young daughters motherless, Caroline rose to the occasion as many an elder sister would for their little sister. She moved into the home of her brother-in-law, Robert Williams, to care for her nieces. And in the blink of an eye, she became full-time mother to a total of six children—three of her own, her sister’s three, and a grandchild.
Like most women, Caroline lived day-to-day life in a supportive, but indispensable role in the lives of her family—providing a clean home with meals, washing and mending clothing, teaching manners and social skills, soothing bruises and nightmares, and always smothering children with love to keep them balanced and prepared for the world ahead. Time moved along, and Caroline’s children grew up, married, and made her a grandmother. She was present at the birth of most of these babies, which in those days was at home rather than a hospital. And always, she was there to lend a helping hand. When her daughter, Amelia Bruin, became a young 38-year-old widow with children, a by-now wise and seasoned Caroline had been there, done that. She knew the ropes all too intimately. And she stood right by her daughter’s side to help raise her seven, now fatherless grandchildren.
This brought Caroline into her mid-50s when most people today begin to think about hanging up their working shoes and adopting an easier lifestyle. Not Caroline, because tragedy once again reached up from the bowels of hell to catch her in its grip. In painfully quick succession, two daughters passed away—Mellissa in 1890 and Amelia in 1891. As with her sister, both daughters left behind children needing a mother’s love, and Caroline neither hemmed nor hawed at the prospect. Seamlessly she stepped into the role of caregiver for those she loved, particularly for the Bruin children who had also lost their father two years before.
Still, as unstinting as was her love and devotion to her family, Caroline’s own health began to fail. No longer able to care for her young grandchildren, they were parsed out to work in private homes as live-in servants or sent to an orphanage. For a woman who had spent her life working hard to keep her family together after her husband’s death, this must have been one more terrible blow to her. Not very much later, at the age of 62, Caroline passed away from heart disease. Caroline Freeman died on 29 December 1897 and is buried at Washingtonville Cemetery. Her husband Charles lies in parts still unknown somewhere in Louisiana.
Some people make headlines. Some become rich and famous, some even world-renowned. Most of us live quiet lives, and memories of our time here fade with the passing generations. Little by little, no one talks about us anymore, and our mark on the community is no longer readily visible. Caroline might seem like just such a person. Her life was defined by loss, but also by uncommon fortitude and resiliency. She never remarried, perhaps never healing from the heartbreak of losing Charles. However, she was able to move through her pain and loss to make a powerful example of motherhood for her descendants. And she demonstrated how to survive the hard knocks. While there are no diaries to learn about Caroline in her own words, a paper trail paints a picture of her life and her contributions as a mother and grandmother. Quiet as her life may have been, she has not been forgotten. Descendants have spoken of her for generations, and still do, more than one hundred years after her death.
And so, on this Mother’s Day, I wanted to memorialize in writing Caroline Halsey (Robinson) Freeman, my third great grandmother—the unsung hero who overcame life-altering events to provide a mother’s love and support to a long line of children and children’s children. A cousin of mine once dubbed a few of us genealogy nuts “Caroline’s Daughters.” It has a nice ring to it, I think, and a deep sense of generational baton-passing. I am proud to be a fifth-generation Daughter of Caroline, and I hope she is proud of the family she built.