John and Edward Fields didn’t know what was in store for them when they decided to leave their enslavers in the early summer of 1864 to enlist in the U.S. Army. Owensboro, Kentucky, sits right on the Ohio River, and all during the spring, Black men from around Daviess County, where the Fields brothers lived, had left their enslavers and headed for the Union Army lines. Diary entries and newspaper articles compiled into the 1883 History of Daviess County, Kentucky
talk of “negroes running away in great numbers, crossing into Indiana.” Once the Union Army was allowed to officially recruit Black soldiers in Owensboro, Kentucky, Black men reportedly “thronged the Provost Marshal’s office so boisterously that violence was feared.”1
On June 3, John and Edward also made their way to Owensboro to enlist. John, who was just 16, was deemed too young to go to war. In two interviews conducted in 1937, one for the Indianapolis Recorder
and another for the Federal Writer’s Project
John Fields says that despite being rejected by the Army, he was determined to be free and recounts how Union soldiers helped him cross the Ohio River to Indiana. Then, under cover of night, he followed the northern bank of the river until he landed in Evansville in late summer. He tried once more to enlist but, again, was turned down because of his age. A Union officer came to his aid and bought John a train ticket to Indianapolis. Upon arrival, the officer told him “he was a free man, and it was up to him to look out for himself.”4
Edward, meanwhile, was accepted into the United States Colored Troops of the
Union Army and most likely joined a group of 165 Black men who left Owensboro on June 6, on the steamer the Grey Eagle,
headed for Louisville.5
By July 3, Edward was mustered into the 109th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry (USCI)
and began his three-year service in the American Civil War.
Edward and the 109th would then be ordered to the Army of the Potomac and later attached to the Army of the James to become part of the African American division that saw battle at Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. Edward was promoted to Corporal in January of 1865 during the six-month Union campaign against those two Confederate strongholds. After those battles, Edward and the 109th were part of the forces that moved on to Appomattox, where the regiment was in attendance the day Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered.6
From Virginia, Edward and the 109th were sent to Indianola, Texas, for duty. Finally, in March 1866, Edward was mustered out at Port Lavaca, Texas. We lose track of Edward after the war, but his brother John would go on to flourish in Indianapolis and Lafayette, Indiana.
Young John had found work in Indianapolis as a laborer and eventually moved to Lafayette, about sixty miles northwest of Indianapolis. He met his wife, Elizabeth Scott, whose family had built the first house on what is now North 20th Street. John vowed to be the one to build the second. He saved enough money and eventually built that house and bought a number of houses that he rented out. He went on to help found the Second Baptist Church in Lafayette and became a sought-after lay minister. When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Indiana Recorder
came calling, asking for interviews, he was 89 years old and had two living children, one grandchild, and four great-grandchildren. Kim Bettie, who grew up in Detroit, remembers hearing about her second great-grandfather from her older siblings. They described him as “a tall thin man and that he liked to eat green apples.”7
Bettie says that she didn’t know the depth of John Fields’ enslavement history until one day, while at a personal low point in her life, she was praying and heard a voice say, “Google your second great-grandfather”.
“I found his WPA interview, and that put me on the path to finding out about who he really was and what he had lived through.”
Bettie says the most surprising thing about her second great-grandfather John’s interview with the Indiana Recorder
was the statement that his brother Edward had killed their original enslaver, a man named Bob McFarland. According to an 1850 slave schedule for Daviess County, Kentucky, McFarland enslaved about twenty people on his farm.8
Intriguingly, several newspaper articles from June 1853 report the murder of a Robert W. McFarland of Daviess County. One account says he was killed in his sleep by three men with an ax.9
A few weeks later, an enslaved man named Perry was arrested under the suspicion of murder,10
but whether he was put on trial or executed is unknown. The other perpetrators were apparently never located. If, as John reported years later, his brother was involved, Edward would have only been about 10 or 11 years old. Could this have been a case of murder that young Edward got away with?
McFarland’s death, however it happened, had the consequence of splitting up the Fields brothers’ large family. John, who was only six years old, was given to a relative—the newly widowed Minerva McFarland, who would soon marry Dr. Alfred David Hill John described his years of enslavement as “a repetition of hard work, poor quarters and board”. He also witnessed the severe treatment of some of the other enslaved, memories that still haunted him even as he told his stories in 1937.
John was eventually able to reunite with some family members in Kentucky after the war, and one of his brothers, Abel Fields, also moved to Lafayette and became well known as a grocer and the town’s clock winder.11
Kim Bettie says finding her second great-grandfather’s story has been a revelation. “I was truly changed after learning his story and proof of his resilience. I was so inspired after digging deeper and discovering countless articles of him being honored for his preaching, public speaking, and community contributions. Learning that he was able to overcome, maintain such an open heart, and make a difference has not only impacted me, but it has become my mission to share his story to inspire others.”12