With the ominous specter of civil war looming in 1860, most of Kentucky’s leaders came to the conclusion that their economic and political stability and the maintenance of Kentucky’s time-honored racial codes could only be accomplished by staying in a union that respected federalism and protected slavery. Moreover, although these white leaders were sympathetic with the rebellious southern states, they knew that if Kentucky seceded, it would become a major battleground during the rebellion and that stability and those racial codes that were undergirded by slavery would be imperiled. Ironically, Kentucky became a battleground nonetheless and neutrality could not be maintained. Still, Kentucky’s white leaders hung on tenaciously to the system of slavery even as it was imploding in the rebellious states. That left black Kentuckians to strike for freedom on their own despite the state and local laws, customs, institutions, and extralegal vigilantes arrayed forcefully against them. In their bold assertion of freedom, one of the most critical staging grounds for liberation was an expansive 4000 acre field occupied by Camp Nelson, an encampment that in many ways came to symbolize black Kentuckians’ “field of dreams.”
Several Kentucky historians, most recently Anne Marshall, have argued that after the Civil War white Kentuckians began to embrace the “Lost Cause” of southern independence.1 Perhaps as a result, earlier Kentucky historians have studied the emancipation of slaves in Kentucky emphasizing its social, political, or military impact on the state from a white perspective. As late as 1974, Kentucky University graduate student John David Smith argued that “by the summer of 1864 fewer and fewer Negroes were attracted to the army by lures of freedom, the excitement of a shiny rifle, and a blue uniform.”2 Setting aside for the moment that this statement discounts the flurry of recruitment in 1864 and 1865, the idea that Smith seems to be promoting, that black Kentuckians were like children enticed to the army for a shiny new rifle, completely ignores the fact that these were human beings who risked life and limb to gain freedom for themselves and ultimately for their families. To fully comprehend the impact of black liberation, it is imperative to examine that event from the perspective of the most significant actors who made liberation a reality, the freedmen themselves. The excitement, the individual meaning, the familial and cultural impact of liberation, as well as the significance of service in the United States military, were intensely personal and evident.
In 1860, despite the fact that a minority of white Kentuckians-about twenty percent-were slave holders, most white Kentuckians saw slavery as the logical, natural answer to the biracial society in which they lived and thus opposed the idea of emancipation to the bitter end.3 Like most white southerners, white Kentuckians in essence saw the planters who dominated western and middle Kentucky as the “American dream” of success, a success that was invariably accompanied by social, political, and economic dominance. Perhaps most importantly, like much of the rest of America, white Kentuckians as a group were deeply racist. Slavery was the vital “peculiar” institution that was the cornerstone of white supremacy, even for the some of the poorest of the state’s white population.4 Thus, when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, most white Kentuckians were aghast and outraged, despite Lincoln’s clear exclusion of Kentucky from the proclamation’s provisions. Governor Thomas Bramlette, a loyal unionist Kentuckian, sent angry letters to Lincoln suggesting that despite Kentucky’s exclusion, it would be difficult to keep loyal white Kentucky regiments in the field if they believed the fight threatened white racial superiority.5 Beyond that, escaping slaves from the rebellious states would be streaming into Kentucky and the question for both white Kentuckians and for Lincoln would quickly become how long the institution of slavery could survive in this loyal border state. The news of the Emancipation Proclamation spread quickly throughout the black south, including Kentucky’s approximately 225,000 slaves.6
Whether enslaved Kentuckians understood that Kentucky was exempt from the Emancipation was irrelevant because they fled to United States armies moving through Kentucky. Although some were returned to their former masters, many of the U.S. Army regiments refused to give up these escaped bondsmen.7 Even when escaped black Kentuckians were turned out of the army encampments, they would often return the next day, refusing to give up on the promise of freedom.8 In the same year as the Emancipation, Congress passed the Conscription Act and Secretary of War Stanton eventually made it clear that black Kentuckians would be recruited both to fill the army’s labor needs and to meet Kentucky’s draft quotas if white recruitment was insufficient.
It is absolutely correct to assert as several historians have done, that the actions of the Lincoln administration, the support of the Congress, and the subsequent actions of the War Department in Kentucky and in the other slave states made black liberation possible. But the critical element in this liberation, the sine qua non of black freedom was the determinative action of enslaved Kentuckians who struck for their own liberation. As early as 1863, the Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth newspaper published scores of advertisements for escaped slaves.9 These black Kentuckians, engrained with fear as a daily weapon in their enforced subservience, nevertheless threw off their collective yolks and strove for their freedom despite the racist violence that awaited them on the roads to their field of dreams. One of the most preeminent field of dreams they found was in central Kentucky at Camp Nelson.
Black Kentuckians risked life and limb to get to recruiting camps like Camp Nelson, braving guerrilla patrols and loyal but hostile Kentucky regiments. Vulnerable black recruits “became a special target for the guerillas.”10 Despite these dangers, “The servants of the loyal and southern sympathizers left…for these [recruiting] camps by the ‘hundreds and thousands, and [once they arrived] received protection against being reclaimed by their former masters.’”11 And this, despite determined white resistance by loyal Kentucky army officers, most notably Colonel Frank Wolford, who, echoing the sentiments of Kentucky’s governor and lieutenant governor, denounced enrollment of black soldiers as “unconstitutional and unjust.”12 In one notable incident, Kentuckians who had escaped slavery were protected by northern troops from loyal white Kentucky soldiers and that protection nearly resulted in armed conflict.13 Nevertheless, once Kentucky failed to meet its draft quotas, the War Department issued orders to “receive and enlist as soldiers all able-bodies slaves and free blacks of lawful age who applied.”14 As William Dobak, author of Freedom by the Sword asserts, “the Enrollment Act of 1864 changed everything.” It specified that male slaves, even those of loyal masters, for the first time became eligible for the draft.15 By 1864, recruitment of black Kentuckians into U.S. Army regiments was fully underway, and Camp Nelson in Jessamine County became the leading recruitment center for blacks in central Kentucky.16 Black Kentuckians struck for their freedom in droves, and so the entire draft quota for Jessamine County was quickly filled by black enlistments.17
The experience of Camp Nelson as a field of dreams is instructive in any study of the liberation of black Kentuckians. As one United States Colored Troop (USCT) sergeant remarked, “It used to be 500 miles to get to Canada from Lexington [Kentucky], but now it’s only eight miles. Camp Nelson is now our Canada.”18 USTC Elijah Maars recalled that, “Camp Nelson was overrun with troops at that time, and the place looked gay. Thousands of people were coming in from all directions, seeking their freedom. It was equal to the forum at Rome. All they had to do was to get there and they were free.”19 In 1864 and 1865, enslaved black Kentuckians struck for their freedom at Camp Nelson, but continued to do so even after the war was over. The fact that the recruits who came to enlist were escaped slaves is evident in Kentucky’s official recruitment records. The rolls of enlistment for 1864 at Camp Nelson indicated that virtually every black Kentuckian who was enlisted there identified a master by name when asked by the recruiting officer.20 Ages from the enrollment records vary generally from 17 years of age to 45 without any notation of rejection.21 By the spring and summer of 1865, there is a marked shift in the attitude of the enlisting officers evident by the absence of masters’ names in the last of the recruiting ledgers: both escaped slaves and their recruiting officers realizing that slavery was dying, and despite white Kentucky resistance, black Kentuckians not only realized they were free, but understood clearly that the most secure path to freedom at the end of the war was through enlistment. As historian Aaron Aston notes, 57 % of all able bodied black Kentuckians enlisted rapidly in 1864 and 1865.22 By late 1865, the enrollment ledgers for Camp Nelson support this fact as former slaves, from ages 16 to 63, apparently regardless of physical condition, were welcomed into the Army’s rolls.23 It becomes obvious that even after the war ended, with the enthusiastic support of the U.S. Army commander of Kentucky General John Palmer, black recruitment continued apace and thus paved the way for real racial liberation and family reunification.
Beyond the enrollment of black Kentuckians in the United States Army at Camp Nelson, it was vitally important to the current and future respect of the USCT troops that they acquitted themselves well in battle. Pervasive white Kentucky beliefs that these men were not worthy of a soldier’s uniform were shaken by the USCT troops who performed gallantly under fire. The example of the 54th Massachusetts at Ft. Wagner has been eulogized by the modern movie industry, but a lesser known and more relevant example for Kentucky is the heroism of black Kentuckians at the battle of the Salt Works in 1864. The 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry was detached from Camp Nelson and ordered to participate in the battle on October 2nd. The commanding officer, Colonel James Brisbin, in his report to his superior officer asserted that the black Kentuckians acquitted themselves very well and significantly changed the opinions of their white army counterparts: “I have seen white troops fight in twenty-seven battles and I have never saw any fight better. At dusk the colored troops were withdrawn from the enemy works, which they had held for two hours, with scarcely a round of ammunition left in their cartridge boxes. On the return of the forces, those who had scoffed at the colored troops…were silent.”24
The Congressional Act that freed the families of black soldiers before the 13th amendment was ratified helped make recruiting centers like Camp Nelson a refuge for families, and before it closed, Camp Nelson became home to thousands of women and children. 25 As historian Victor Howard asserts, “one of the most decisive blows delivered to slavery was the [Congressional] act freeing the families of black soldiers.”26 Once General Palmer, who had assumed command of Kentucky, issued General Order 10 recognizing black marriage between any two adults who asserted their spousal union, the end of slavery in Kentucky was in essence sealed if black Kentuckians made it so. And so they did. Missionary John Fee reported from Camp Nelson that the order had “really lain the axe at the root of the tree.”27 A critical catalyst in this axing of slavery in Kentucky became the “free passes” (or as white Kentuckians called them, “Palmer passes”) that allowed black soldiers the opportunity to literally liberate their families from slavery. 28 General Palmer authorized the issuance of tens of thousands of these passes to, as he put it, “drive the last nail in the coffin of the institution [of slavery].”29 Howard estimates that as many as two thirds of the remaining slaves in Kentucky became free as a result of the combination of these acts before the 13th amendment was even ratified.30 In one incident, Sergeant Elijah Maars recalls being ordered by his white commander to find the wife of a USCT soldier and bring her back:
“ …furloughs were given to the colored soldiers to return to Kentucky to see their wives and families. One of them stopped at Bowling Green, his wife living about five miles distant, on the other side of Barren River. He informed our commanding officer, Col. Babcock, that the parties she belonged to had been treating her very cruelly, and to some extent on account of he, her husband, being in the army. The Colonel immediately sent for me, informed me of these facts, and ordered me to take a guard of ten men to accompany the soldier, who acted as our guide, and to bring the woman into camp; and further, that if the man who owned her had anything to say about it or offered any resistance, to put a ball into one ear so that it might come out of the other.”31
Obviously, the colonel giving these orders embraced and enforced the actions of the federal government and of his military commanders. But the actions of the black soldiers who pushed for and actuated the enforcement resulting in the reunification of these families, were vital in freeing thousands of Kentuckians who might otherwise have languished in restrictive labor conditions. As historian Manisha Sinha argues, “African-Americans were not passive recipients of the gift of freedom…black actions helped put slavery on the national agenda.”32 Moreover, she goes on to assert, “Black military service became a powerful argument for African-American citizenship and equality.”33 Black Kentuckians who strove for freedom found it for themselves and their families in the armed service of the United States. The post war southern manifestation of the “negro convention movement,” asserted in resolution after resolution that blacks had served their country honorably and deserved the right to vote.34 And although the actual acquisition of respect and citizenship would take more generations to come, the powerful seed of equality was planted in Kentucky by those brave individuals who found and gallantly fought for their field of dreams.
1 Marshall, Anne. Creating a Confederate Kentucky (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. 2
2 Smith, John David. “The Recruitment of Negro Soldiers in Kentucky, 1863-1865.” The Register of the Kentucky
Historical Society, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October, 1974), p.385
3 Harris, William C. Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press,
2011) p. 263
4 Turley, Alicestyne. “Slave Resistance and Agency in Kentucky” (Berea College. Carter Woodson Center for
International Education. 2013)
5 Howard, Victory B. Black Liberation in Kentucky: Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983) p. 33
6 Ibid. p. 22
7 Ibid. p. 39
8 Ibid. Recruiting poster. NationalArchives.
9 The Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth, March 23, 1863
10 Harris, p. 265
11 Ibid., p.52
12 Ibid. p. 58
13 Howard, p. 7
14 Ibid. p. 63 Appeal to slaves to join the U.S. Army, Library of Congress.
15 Dobak, William A. Freedom by the Sword (Washington. Center for Military History. 2011) p. 383
16 Howard, p.51
17 Ibid. p.63
18 McBride, W. Stephen and Kim A. Seizing Freedom (Washington: Department of Interior, 2013) p.2
19 Marrs, Elijah. Life and History of Elijah P. Marrs (Louisville: The Bradley and Gilbert Co., 1885) p.65
20 United States Colored Troops Muster, 1864-1865
22 Aston, Aaron. Lecture (Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, June 29, 2013)
23 U.S.C.T. Muster
24 Berlin, Ira, ed. The Black Military Experience in the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) p. 135
25 McBride, p. 19
26 Howard, p. 79
27 Ibid.Samuel Truehart, 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry
28 Palmer, John. The Personal Recollections of John C. Palmer (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke Co., 1901) p. 253
29 Ibid. p. 242
30 Howard, p. 79
31 Marrs, p.55
32 Sinha, Manisha. “Architects of Their Own Liberation: African-Americans, Emancipation, and the Civil War.
Magazine of History. vol. 27, no. 2 (April, 2013) p.5
33 Ibid. p.8
34 McPherson, James. The Negro’s Civil War (New York: Random House, 1990) p. 241-242
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