Biographical Profile of Pvt. Randall Edelen, 125th U.S. Colored Infantry

Photo of Randall Edelen's Muster-in and Descriptive Roll
Randall Edelen, Muster-in and Descriptive Roll

Pvt. Randall Edelen
125th Regiment U.S. Colored Infantry
Born 1821, Washington County, Kentucky
Died April 29,1888,
Washington County, Kentucky

My 3rd Great-Grandfather on my mother’s side, Randall Edelen, was born in 1821 in Washington County, KY. He married Mary Edelen (Crouse) in 1842, and they had seven children (John, Susan, William, Sallie, Daniel, Scott, and Silas) together.

He enlisted in the Union Army at age 44 on April 12, 1865 “without consent” of his owner, Jane Edelen, a month after an act of congress guaranteed the emancipation of the families of all slaves who enlisted. He also had the additional incentive of earning a $100 bounty and $300 total at the completion of three-years of service for volunteering.

Though stricken with sickness and injury numerous times during his service, he completed his full tour of duty. He served as a private in Company G of the 125th Colored Infantry and after several illnesses, including cholera and acute dysentery, was assigned daily duty as a cook until being mustered out on October 31, 1867.

He and Mary had an additional child, Addie, in 1870, and when not too infirmed, he worked as a blacksmith and was listed in the 1870 and 1880 Census as such.

According to his very extensive pension files, he suffered from significant health complications during the last years of his life that included a back injury suffered attempting to move a box of blacksmith tools that may have fallen into a swollen Rio Grande River while serving in the USCT in Fort Bliss, Texas. His files indicate that he was also diagnosed with piles, prolapsus ani, cystitis, lymphoma, cholera, dysentery, acute rheumatism, and eventually died on April 29, 1888, from Uremic Poisoning, which is a consequence of kidney failure.  

Author’s Note

The Edelen family’s challenges that were documented in 90 pages of pension files, military service records, census records, and Freedman’s bank notes, were simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking to read. The most moving part was getting to see Mary Edelen, my 3rd Great-great grandmother’s mark on multiple documents and most powerfully on the affidavit where two of her own children serve as witnesses. Seeing the X in place of her signature made the X, from a legal name change in my own name, even more significant. It was as if my ancestors had been speaking to me from across time.

The poems “Check Out Time,” “Affi-davits,” and “Mother May I” are persona poems in the voices of Mary and Randall Edelen, and they were inspired by these documents. Discovering that Randall Edelen “enlisted without consent” was a reminder of the degree to which enslaved peoples resisted bondage and a point of pride to imagine all the subtle and outright ways my ancestors insisted on their own freedom. The poems “Grove” and “Coming of Jubilee” are ekphrastic poems inspired by the Camp Nelson photo that appears as the cover photo on the Kentucky U.S. Colored Troops Project web page.

Frank X Walker 


Photo of Troops outside the Colored Soldiers

Barracks, Camp Nelson


The first time

we really see each other

and not be able to tell

who master the cruelest

who sorrow the deepest

who row been the hardest to hoe


we was lined up like trees in the yard

all standing with chins up,

chests out, shoulders back,

and already hollow stomachs, in.


Not slaves, not nobody’s property

—just solid, oak-like men.


The only thing taller or straighter

than us, be the boards

holding up the barracks at our backs.


Though most our feets feel pigeon-toed

and powerful sore

from marching back and forth, everyday

for what seem like more miles

than we walked to get here,

it take more than pride to stand still

‘neath these lil’ hats not made for shade.


Soldiering ain’t easy, but it sure beat

the bloody shirt off bondage.



Mary Edelen


Them make me scratch out

a X in ink with two witnesses

on afta-Davids

to prove we was man and wife.


I fetched afta-Davids

from every doctor still living

that examined

my husband’s piles

and old man’s bladder,

witnessed his pain,

and still doubted his suffering

while he rot from the inside out.


Them even bade me make my mark

afta-David with more witnesses

to prove my Randall dead and gone.


They made me X the page

with witnesses so many times

on so many gov’ment  pension papers

that though I can not read

or write a lick,

I come to recognize

my own name when I see it

crawling ‘cross the page.


They fancy M on Mary look like

a woman keep changing her mind.

And the E them put on Edelen

a tired old bitty in a bonnet

who done set herself down      an quit.


Them first think my mark look like

a tired ol’ cross,

but after a while they come to see

the long sharp knife

like my Randall’s old scabbard

from de war.

Check Out Time

Randall Edelen


It was good money

if you lived to collect it.


I was luckier than most.

It took a strained back

to slow me down enough

to catch one a them fevers

that travel through camps

with bad water

and not enough places to shit.


More of us catched the runs

an died

than fell in battle from rebel bullets.


When I had the cholera

they mark me present,

but sick.


When I catched the bloody flux

they mark me present,

but sick.


Some how I survive,

but is this really what them mean

when they say

the price a freedom is death?

Mother May I?

Randall Edelen


It took almost four years

and a whole lot a dead, white bodies

to figure out they needed Kentucky

to win the war.


In March of ‘65 the gov’ment said joining

the union army

guaranteed freedom for each new soldier

and our families too.


In April, I found my way to Lebanon

an made my mark for my Mary

and our John, Susan, William, Sallie,

Daniel, Scott, and Silas.


I’m sure Miss Jane felt like

she been robbed

losing ten slaves all at once

with the power of my X.


I know she had some unkind words

for good ol’ Lincoln and Gov Bramlette

who had only offered her $300

for what them called com-pen-sated



I knew she’d be fit to be tied so,

I didn’t ask.

I enlisted  without consent.


Coming of Jubilee


It might look like we standing

on solid ground,

but we got all our feets on faith,

not in a country or a president,


but in the belief

that waiting on the other side

of whatever the Lord see fit

to put in front a us

be a chance to be free.


We ain’t running away

to find freedom for our families,

but marching toward it

—with guns in our hands.


Pen Man Ship

Mary Edelen


i woulda knowed

who longhand was who

even if I didn’t see ‘em

scratch out they names

‘cross from mine

on the paper

to swear my X is mine.


my William, be proud

like his daddy

he dress his letters as pretty

as he address his self

his ink ease off the quill

just as confident and smooth


as words off his tongue,

but my Scott and his letters

seem to take the long way


make big slow loops,

and care not if they back

stand up straight or not.


my Will glides ‘cross them lines

like they pretty hardwood floors

while my Scott,

more accustom to dirt,

seem half ‘fraid to touch ‘em.


Frank X Walker

The first African American writer to be named Kentucky Poet Laureate, Frank X Walker is Professor of English and African American and Africana Studies and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Kentucky in Lexington where he founded pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture. He has published eleven collections of poetry, including his latest, Masked Man, Black: Pandemic & Protest Poems, Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers, which was awarded an NAACP Image Award for Poetry and the Black Caucus American Library Association Honor Award for Poetry. He is also the author of Last Will, Last Testament, winner of the Judy Gaines Young Book Award, Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York, winner of a Lillian Smith Book Award, and Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride, which he adapted for stage. Voted one of the most creative professors in the south, Walker, a Danville native, coined the term “Affrilachia” and co-founded the Affrilachian Poets. A Cave Canem fellow, his honors also include a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry.

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