What's In a Name?

The names and titles that people give us make a difference. Throughout history, various people and groups have been labeled as different things, which in turn dictated how they were treated.

The Civil War file found at the National Archives for Abraham Johnson, a soldier in the US Colored Troops, is an interesting study in the power of these titles, and a secret that he was forced to keep during his time in the war.

As a child and young adult, Abraham was labeled as a slave. In the 1860 US census enumeration, he was nothing more than a tick mark on the list of slaves owned by R. R. Burrows. Despite being a son, a brother, and a friend, he was impacted the most by one title– a slave.

The Civil War began in 1861, when he was a young man. The Emancipation Proclamation allowed African Americans to enlist in the Union Army in 1863. Abraham Johnson enlisted that year, and he added another title that wouldn’t have been possible a year earlier– a soldier.

When the war ended, those being held in the bonds of slavery were emancipated. Abraham Johnson was no longer a slave. He acquired another title for himself at that point– a free man.

After being emancipated, the former slaves were given the choice of what to call themselves. Those who were enslaved were only known by their first names before being set free. The fact that Abraham Johnson even had a last name was something that he wouldn’t have been able to claim previously. He had another title that he didn’t have a year earlier– a last name.

His Civil War pension file, however, revealed a secret: he was not really named Abraham Johnson. He explained in his pension file that he was afraid of using his real name while he was a soldier, for fear that if he was captured he would be killed when they found out who he really was. He enlisted and fought in the Civil War under the name of Abraham Johnson, using yet another title to protect himself. He gave himself another title when he enlisted– Abraham Johnson, an alias.

After the slaves were set free, there was debate as to what to do with them. Were they going to be given full citizenship and rights that other Americans enjoyed? The 14th amendment was ratified shortly after the war, granting citizenship to those who were formerly enslaved. This directly impacted him and he now had another title– an American citizen.

It was probably during this backdrop in history that “Abraham Johnson” named himself and gave himself a new title. His real first name was likely given to him at birth. His last name, however, was one that he chose himself. Abraham Johnson’s real name was the name that he proudly used for the rest of his life– James Citizen.

Abraham Johnson's real name was James Citizen, a name that reflected the wish and desire of many of the formerly enslaved. His full name that he chose for himself reflected his journey from slave to soldier to free man to full citizen.

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