Biographical Profile of Sgt. Major Henry C. Marrs, 5th U.S. Colored Calvary

Image Henry C. Marrs, Company Descriptive Henry C. Marrs, Company Descriptive Book
Henry C. Marrs, Company Descriptive Book

Sgt. Major Henry C. Marrs
5th Regiment U.S. Colored Cavalry
Born 1838 or 1839, Shelby County, Kentucky
Died 1884, Jefferson County, Kentucky

Henry C Marrs Muster-out Roll
Henry C Marrs Muster-out Roll
These school reports were sent to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, known more simply as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Anticipating the needs of the formerly enslaved Black population, the Bureau was established by President Lincoln and Congress on March 3, 1865.1  One of its missions was to educate newly freed African Americans, something forbidden by law in many slave states. Education itself was not illegal in Kentucky, but many enslavers punished those who attempted to learn to read and write.

Marrs, however, had learned to read and write as a young man while still enslaved by Jesse Robinson of Shelby County. According to Henry’s brother, Elijah Marrs, Robinson encouraged literacy in all enslaved young men so they could read the Bible.2
That literacy led to Henry’s promotion to Sergeant Major while serving in the 5th Regiment of the United States Colored Cavalry.

After the war, Henry decided to use his skills to become a teacher. Within weeks of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April of 1865, Oliver O. Howard, the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, ordered the assistant commissioners of each state to facilitate the creation of schools to educate the Black population of the South. It was part of the federal government’s plan to help the formerly enslaved become self-sufficient. According to the Louisville Daily Union Press, Black students poured into the schools throughout the South.   During a three-month tour, the Freedmen’s Bureau Inspector General, William E. Strong, found that many schools were flourishing and that the “ease and eagerness with which old and young freedmen went through elementary textbooks was astonishing.”3

But not everyone wanted to see Black Kentuckians educated. Beginning in 1866, the Kentucky legislature passed laws requiring that only the taxes paid by the Black population would be used to pay for their education. That money was then further divided to pay for Black indigents as well as for public education, with the designation that funds should be used first by county officials for the poor,  then whatever was left over could be used for Black schools. The legislature also added the burden of a tax on all adult Black men, thereby taxing the least who could afford it.4  Starting at a school in LaGrange, Kentucky, Marrs was careful in his reports to answer “taxation of freedmen” to one of the many questions of how his school was financed.

Even with assistance from the Freedmen’s Bureau and benevolent societies from northern states,  such as the American Missionary Association, Black schools struggled to recruit and pay teachers. Another question in the monthly report hinted at a possible, and more dire, reason why: 
See Footnotes
1 “The Freedmen’s Bureau,” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, last reviewed October 28, 2021,
2 Marrs, Elijah P. “Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, First Pastor of Beargrass Baptist Church, and Author.” Documenting the American South. : 15,
3 “Negro Destiny,” Louisville Daily Union Press, September 16, 1865, page 2​​
4 Howard, Victor B. “The Struggle for Equal Education in Kentucky, 1866-1884.”The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 46, no. 3 1977, 305. (Crossref),
5 Colored citizens of Frankfort, KY (1871 :. Frankfort. “Memorial of a Committee Appointed at a Meeting of Colored Citizens of Frankfort, Ky., and Vicinity, Praying the Enactment of Law for the Better Protection of Life.” N/a, n/a, 1871,
6 Marrs, Elijah P. “Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, First Pastor of Beargrass Baptist Church, and Author,” Documenting the American South: 143, We could not ascertain what college Henry would have attended in the early 1880s. 

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, 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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