Biographical Profile of Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs, 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery

Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs, Company L, 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs, Company L, 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery

Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs
12th Regiment U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery
Born 1840, Shelby County, Kentucky
Died 1910, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs Muster and Descriptive Roll
Sgt. Elijah P. Marrs Muster and Descriptive Roll

Elijah P. Marrs became a well-known politician, educator, and minister after the Civil War, but like many Black people born in Kentucky before 1865, he started his life enslaved. He and his mother Frances worked the farm of Jesse Robinson, along with about 30 other people, including his brother Henry Marrs. Years later, Marrs described in a memoir how he and a number of other Black men left their enslavers and walked to Louisville to join the Union Army. Marrs, who had learned to read and write early in life, was a natural leader, as these excerpts from his memoir show:

I remember the morning I made up my mind to join the United States Army. I started to Simpsonville, and walking along I met many of my old comrades on the Shelbyville Pike. I told them of my determination and asked all who desired to join my company to roll his coat sleeves above his elbows, and to let them remain so during the day. I marshaled my forces that day and night. I had twenty-seven men, all told, and I was elected their captain to lead them to Louisville. 

The group gathered at a local Black church, wives and sweethearts tearfully saying goodbye, but rumors of nearby white Kentuckians loyal to the Confederacy caused many to panic:

But I did not despair. I picked up courage and rallied my men, and news soon came that the report was false. We held a council of war, and the conclusion of the boys was, that where I would lead they would follow. I said to them we might as well go; that if we staid [stayed] at home we would be murdered; that if we joined the army and were slain in battle, we would at least die in fighting for principle and freedom.

Late that night, Marrs marched his 27 men back to Robinson’s farm, got them something to eat, and then set out for Louisville some 20 miles away.

Our arms consisted of twenty-six war clubs and one old rusty pistol, the property of the captain. There was one place on our route we dreaded, and that was Middletown, through which the colored people seldom passed with safety. When we got within two miles of the place I ordered my men to circle to the left until we got past the town, when we returned to the Pike, striking it in front of Womack’s big woods. At this place we heard the rumbling of vehicles coming at full speed, as we supposed, towards us. I at once ordered the men to lie down in a ditch by the roadside, where we remained some twenty-five minutes, but hearing nothing further I ordered my men to arise and we took up our line of march.

By 8 o’clock in the morning, Marrs and the rest of the men were at the recruiting office in Louisville and in front of the Provost Marshal, George Womack, whose woods they had taken shelter in the night before.

By twelve o’clock the owner of every man of us was in the city hunting his slaves, but we had all enlisted save one boy, who was considered too young.

Marrs enlisted on the 26th day of September 1864 and was assigned to Company L of the 12th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Artillery. His ability to read and write led to a promotion to Sergeant, and he spent much of the war at Camp Nelson in Kentucky. There, he was reunited with his brother Henry, who was serving in Company C of the 5th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Cavalry. After the war, Elijah P. Marrs was active in the Republican party, serving as President of the Republican Club of Oldham County. He also continued his work as an educator and clergyman. In 1879, at the prompting of Henry, Marrs helped found what is now Simmons College in Louisville. He lived to the age of 70 and is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Louisville.

Marrs, Elijah P. “Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, First Pastor of Beargrass Baptist Church, and Author,” Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/marrs/marrs.html.

Loretta Williams

Loretta Williams is a Peabody award-winning reporter, producer, and editor interested in stories that delve into America’s cultural divides. She’s been a producer and editor for NPR and SoundVision Productions. Since 2008 she’s been a freelance journalist working on a wide range of projects such as ISeeChange.org, Scene on Radio from the Center for Documentary Studies, and the Us & Them podcast. Her paternal great grandfathers both served in the USCT, one in the 11th USHA and the other in the 26th USCT.


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