Fighting for Their Freedom—How Black Soldiers Came to Fight in the Civil War

Men of Color to Arms Recruiting Poster
Recruiting Poster, Courtesy of the family of Frederick Douglass

This recruitment poster calling “Men of Color To Arms!” was written by Frederick Douglass after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Douglass and 53 other prominent members of Philadelphia’s abolitionist movement signed the flyer, encouraging Black men to enlist in the Union Army during the American Civil War. 

Frederick Douglass, 1863
Frederick Douglass, 1863

Barney Stone was holed up in a culvert when Confederate soldiers discovered his hiding place. Stone had run away from his enslaver’s plantation in Spencer County, Kentucky, hoping to join the Union Army that he’d heard was moving through the area nearby. Whether the rebels planned to return him to his enslaver, Lemuel Stone, or shoot him for running away, we’ll never know, because Union troops swooped in and saved Stone. He was able to make his way to Louisville and join the 108th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. This was just one of the ways that Black Kentuckians left slavery behind to become soldiers.


At the beginning of the war in 1861, Black men, whether free or enslaved, from the North or the South, were not allowed to join the United States military. Black men had been left out of serving since the early days of America by the second Militia Act of 1792. That law explicitly cited “free able-bodied white male citizen[s]” as the men eligible for the armed forces. But with the Confederates knocking at Washington D.C.’s door just over the river in Alexandria, Virginia, Congress passed two laws that gave Black men a chance to enter the Union ranks.


On July 17, the Militia Act of 1862⁠ made it legal for African-American men to enlist in the United States Army—not to be armed with guns—but “for the purpose of constructing entrenchments, or performing camp service or any other labor, or any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.” That same day Congress also passed The Second Confiscation Act, which declared that all enslaved persons captured from anyone engaged in the rebellion against the federal government would be free and “not again held as slaves.”⁠1


The 1862 Act did not apply to the border states like Kentucky; those that were still loyal to the Union were allowed to continue holding slaves. Nevertheless, the new laws alarmed many white Kentuckians. President Lincoln, knowing he could not afford to lose Kentucky to the Confederacy, stated that his goal was not to deprive Kentucky of its slaves, or to put guns in their hands because “to arm the Negroes would turn 50,000 bayonets from the loyal Border States against us that were now for us.”2 However, news of the recruitment of formerly enslaved men in other parts of the country was hard to miss. Kentucky Congressman George Dunlap went so far as to introduce a resolution in the House denouncing the General who initiated the recruitment⁠ of Black men in South Carolina. Dunlap and other white Kentuckians publicly worried that the war was shifting from one of saving the Union to one that would dismantle slavery. Their suspicions weren’t without merit. A few short months later, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, and once the Proclamation became law on January 1, 1863, the recruitment of Black soldiers ramped up. African American leaders such as Frederick Douglass spoke around the country to encourage Black men to enlist.3⁠ All-Black regiments quickly formed in Massachusetts, Tennessee, and South Carolina. The trickle of Black soldiers turned into a flood, and on May 22, 1863, the War Department established a Bureau of Colored Troops4⁠ to organize African American soldiers in the Union Army.


The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the border states like Kentucky, but many Black Kentuckians saw the regiments as an opportunity to prove they were worthy of full citizenship. Men like Mason Bulger of Mays Lick, Mason County, were already free when they left their homes to join regiments formed in other states, such as the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, made famous in the movie Glory . And many other Black men around the country, enslaved or free, rushed to join the Union army in large numbers. In August of 1863, the U.S. Army finally authorized the impressment of enslaved African Americans in central Kentucky.5 So, enslaved men, too, began an exodus from their enslavers, heading for places like Camp Nelson in central Kentucky. So many ran away that by November 1863 the Nashville Union noted that many Kentucky slaveholders admitted that “slavery was hopelessly destroyed” in the state.6


As the war entered its third grueling year, and with troop losses mounting, Congress again decided to amend the draft laws7 to increase the number of men serving in the Union Army. The 1864 amendment made room for Black men in Union slave states to become soldiers, and enslavers loyal to the Union, to be compensated for their lost workforce. Many Black Kentuckians, such as Barney Stone, didn’t wait for permission from their enslavers to join the military. But in some cases, Black men enlisted with the blessing of their enslaver. Brothers Joseph and Manuel Taylor were enslaved by Henry B. Grant of Jefferson County. Grant was already a captain in the 27th Kentucky Infantry when he bought the two men from his father-in-law⁠ in May 1864. A few weeks later Joseph and Manuel Taylor also joined the Union Army, in the same regiment as Barney Stone, the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry.


Joseph Taylor would rise to Sergeant in Company F of the 108th, and he and Manuel traveled with their unit for garrison duty at Rock Island, Illinois. They both survived the war and returned to Kentucky afterward. Mason Bulger and the 55th would be part of the many battles fought in the Carolinas, including the Battle of Honey Hill. Bulger mustered out at Charleston, South Carolina, and returned to Mays Lick after the war. Barney Stone also returned to Kentucky immediately after the war, then moved to Noblesville, Indiana, where he became a court bailiff and chaplain to a local veteran’s organization.8


These men are just four of the more than 24,0009 Black men from Kentucky who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Notes
1 U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, vol. 12 (Boston, 1863), pp. 589–92. As found at: Freedmen and Southern Society Project, “The Second Confiscation Act,” Section 9, http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/conact2.htm.http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/conact2.htm.
2 Lincoln, Abraham, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, page 357. As found at: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln5/1:776?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.
3 Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass Papers: Speech, Article, and Book File, -1894; Speeches and Articles by Douglass, -1894; 1863; Mar. 2, “Men of Color, to Arms!”. 1863. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mss1187900395/.
4 U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “War Department General Order 143: Creation of the U.S. Colored Troops (1863),”https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/war-department-general-order-143.
5 National Park Service, “Camp Nelson: Impressed Enslaved Laborers,” https://www.nps.gov/cane/impressed-enslaved-laborers.htm.
6 Howard, Victor B., “The Civil War in Kentucky: The Slave Claims His Freedom,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 67, No. 3 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 245-256.
7 Congressional Record, 38th Cong, 1st Sess, Ch. 237, 1864, February 24, July 4, 1864, “An Act to further regulate and provide for the enrolling and calling out the National Forces, and for other purposes.” As found at: . https://glc.yale.edu/act-further-regulate-and-provide-enrolling-and-calling-out-national-forces
8 Heighway, David, “Two Degrees of Separation from Slavery,” . https://www.hepl.lib.in.us/two-degrees-of-separation-from-slavery/
9 Kentucky Historical Society, “Kentucky African American Civil War Memorial,” . https://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/191

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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