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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Freeman Thomas 1845-1936, USCT Veteran 12th US Colored Infantry

Freeman Thomas was born in Williamson County on May 17, 1845. His parents were Alfred Thomas and Nancy Carothers and he had three brothers and two sisters - one was a younger sister named Mary. The fact that we know those bits of information about a man who was enslaved is unique.  Generally, it can be difficult if not impossible to determine exatly birthdates, and the names of parents and siblings.  But Freeman Thomas was different.  He has left an extraordinary trail of information.  Not only have I obtained his US Army pension application but I have found two published interviews with him. It has been a privilege to knit all this information and share his story.

The initial research into Freeman Thomas was a bit complicated by the fact that he used the name "Freeman Cruthers" as a young man and "Freeman Thomas" later in life.  In his Army pension application he describes his name change this way:  
"My full and current name is Freeman Thomas and my post office address is Franklin, Tenn. When I enlisted in K 12 USC Inf. I enlisted as Freeman Cruthers.  Cruthers [Carothers] was the name of my slave owner. My mother was a Cruthers and my father was a Thomas. Up until I left the army I was known by Cruthers. After the war I married my first wife Pattie under the name of Cruthers. While I was married to Pattie I changed my name to Freeman Thomas. I have been known by Freeman Thomas for the last thirty years. Some of the old people in Franklin, Tenn. still call me Cruthers."

According to an interview he gave in the 1920s to a Fisk University researcher, he says this about his childhood,
"I belonged to Jim Caruthers. He was a good man, and he had about one hundred darkies. I was just a little motherless child, kicked and knocked about. . . .I can just recollect when my mother died and the funeral was preached right over there by Farmer’s Bluff [today's Park at Harlinsdale Farm]. . . . Slavery was not such a bad time for me. I was young and my mother and father died when I was real young. We'd play marbles and run rabbits, and there was always eighty or ninety little child on our place. They had an old woman there to look after them - one that had broke down. When company would come, they would put clothes on them and march them up to the house so they could see his little n******."
In the 1850 Slave Schedule, James Caruthers is shown owning 64 slaves in the Eastern District of Williamson County - including two five year old black boys - either one of them could have been Freeman Thomas.

By the 1860 Slave Schedule, J. Carothers is listed as owning only 30 slaves at his farm in the Eastern Subdivision of Williamson County. This time, I suspect Freeman Thomas is listed as the 17 year old male on this schedule. He says they lived "one and a half miles from the depot".

In 1860, James Carothers died.  In his will he, written that same year, he divided up some of his enslaved people by name and devised that Freeman should go to his son James Jr.

Portion of James Carothers' will dated October 29, 1859 devising his enslaved men
Carroll, Jesse, Jackson, Freeman and Sam to his son James Jr.
Freeman Thomas would have grown up on Carothers' Pleasant Exchange plantation on the east side of present-day Franklin.  On this section of a Civil War map of the country between Franklin and Columbia drawn of Franklin during the Civil War you can see the Carothers plantation marked on the right side of the map with downtown Franklin on the left. 

Hand-drawn map, dated May 1863 and made under the direction of Union cartographer Capt. William Merrill, of the country between Franklin and Columbia. It was made from Capt. Dunham'sSurvey and information collected by cartographic engineer Thomas Sedgwick. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Work as a Young Slave

In his Fisk interview in the 1920s, Freeman Thomas talks about being hired out when he was "nearly sixteen" which was a common way for slaveholders to make money off of their slaves. You can learn more about the practicing of hiring slaves here.  He also says this about working on the Carothers farm, "When I was on the farm I was not big enough to do much. I could chop cotton, but I was quite young." Also he describes that the adult field slaves would "have to shuck corn at night when they'd come from the field. There was so many of them on our place it wouldn't take 'em no later than ten o'clock to get through."

Punishment of Slaves

In the interview Freeman Thomas also gives several insights into the treatment of slaves on the farm where he lived:
My old boss never would have his hands up before day. If he had an overseer thet was bad the slaves would run away so's he'd have to get another one. They wouldn't suffer it. He wouldn't sell none of them that he raised; but he just wouldn't give them no meat at night. He would expect you to steal what you got at night. If he would read of a reward being out for something that was stolen, he would come around tell us, and say, "If I catch any of it there, damn you, I'll kill you.
And also includes this description of the comparison of different slaveholders' behavior and attitudes about their enslaved people:
Some of ‘em treated ‘em mighty tough and some pretty well. The Hodges were good feeders; Bill Matthews was, too. I know a man Bill Matthews undertook to whip him, and he wouldn’t let him do it, so the white men were all there in droves to whip him, and he just fought ‘em till they shot him down and killed him. Sure, they would kill a n*****; he’s no more’n a wolf.
This description of how adult slaves were bucked and gagged is horrifying.  And its interesting that his discipline, as a child, would have been left to the older female slaves and that his owner Jim Caruthers would not get involved - perhaps because he was just a child: 
I’ve seen ‘em buck and gag ‘em; they’d tie your hands here and put a stick there and then roll you about and whip you. The biggest whipping I ever got was from the old women (slaves). Marster would shake my ears, but he seldom would hit me.
Medical Care, Food and Clothes

When Freeman Thomas was young, he was very ill once. He described how he was treated by his enslaver this way:

My master gave me to my mistress when I was a little boy. I remember when he carried me to her and said, 'Here is a little n*****. If you can raise him, you can have him.' I was sick with the fever. She put me to bed in the big house, and she used to come in to see about me all through the night.
In another interview he described the event this way:
I was sick once and Dr. Clifford said, "Let him eat anything he wants, 'cause he can't be raised." Master told old missus if she could raise me she could have me, and she took me in the house with her and nursed me till I got well.
Freeman Thomas' interview with the Fisk researchers provides a detailed look into the kinds of food that he ate and how the slaves were clothed:
We had beef soup, cabbage, beans and things like that for dinner. Of course we had meat and bread for breakfast; but you could go in the cellar and get all the meal you wanted. We stole so many chickens that if a chicken would see a darkie he'd run right straight to the house. I always wanted some boots and one old lady said, "If you'll kill me a pig I'll get you a boot." I give her three or four pigs, but I never did get no boots. Oh, yes, long in the fall he'd give his darkies shoes, and he'd have 'em half soled once a year. We'd get a coat every other year, and he'd give you a thin suit and two pair of pants that winter. And he'd give you two course cotton shirts to carry you through the winter. Little children wore what their parents put on 'em.
Wistfully he remembers about special occasions, "They had some kind of biscuit mixed with sweet potatoes and I thought it was the best eating."

Dating, Romance and Weddings

We are so fortunate that Freeman Thomas gave such detail about all facets of his life - including the dating years of a young teenager.  He provides this glimpse into his early romantic efforts:
I wasn’t big enough to court; I had to slip. I knowed the road she’d come, and I could slip off and meet her sometimes, but we had to dodge the old folks ‘cause they would whip me sho’. I’d walk a little piece with her, but I didn’t’ know what to say. Young folks then wasn’t like they are now. If I was at some old folks, house and started cutting up they would whip me, and when they’d see my mother they’d tell her and she would whip me again. But you just hit somebody’s child now and they’ll have you in court. I would just ask her (girl) what was the news, and I thought I doing big courting then; I would brag to the boys about it.
He also had this to say about weddings:  "‘Course I seen ‘em marry. We had one to marry right at my boss’ front gate. The preacher married them there. They would always give ‘em a kind of supper and big dance. They wouldn’t marry ‘less they could have a dance."

Paddyrollers and Runaways

Given that Freeman Thomas was born around 1845, most of his memories of time as a slave are probably best during the years of 1855-1861 (the immediate pre-war years).  So they provide us with a snapshot of how slaves were being monitored, traded and controlled during those turbulent times.  He describes in this passage how the guards or "paddyrollers" would wait outside of the slaves' church meetings to catch slaves who were there without passes:
They had guards at the church meetings, waiting for you to come out, to see if you had a pass. Those that had 'em would come out and the others would run away. They had padderollers after night. They came to masa's one night and I was there. They took me out to whip me, and he said "Lay down there right close, so my rig' won't be in the sun," He had a broad strap and he whipped me fourteen licks. He was counting and I was counting, and at the fourteenth lick I was up. He said, "How come you run?" and I said, "I didn't know your voice, masa. If I had, I wouldn't of run."
In this passage he describes how the slaves would sing or speak into a pot to catch the sound of their voices and avoid detection:
Sometimes they would have a dance and would turn the pot down to keep the white folks from catching 'em. The padderollers would come there and couldn't find nobody, but they would go away and stay about an hour, and when they come back they'd be pretty sure to catch some.
Here Freeman Thomas describes a dance that the slaves held without permission - and what happens when he gets caught:
We was feared to go up to the house. I 'member once he built a house for young master and he said he was gonna let the darkies have a dance there, and they thought he was sure 'nough; but he didn't so they decided to have a dance anyhow. It was a moonlight night, and they had had this big dance in the field, and the padderollers come and caught one man and threw him right on me, and he come and got me and said "God damn you" and keep this hand right in my collar . . . and took me home to master. He told master that he had told me that if I would tell who all was there he wouldn't whip me, but if I didn't he would whip me all day light, and you ought to heard me telling! It was around the time when the n****** was rising, and they asked me did I hear them shooting? "Did you see any guns?" And I said, "No, I didn't see no guns, but I heard them shooting." I hadn't heard a thing, but I knowed what they wanted to hear, so I said I did. They caught Tom Hodge, too, and he had to tell. I couldn't go to none of the parties after that. The n****** would kick me out if they saw me; they wouldn't have me there.
Regarding runaway slaves, he says that, "I’ve seen many a one (runaway slaves) and darkies would help ‘em round."

Slave Sales and Slave Droves

Freeman Thomas candidly states that, "All my bosses were n*****-traders till they married, and then they settled down." He also gives this heartbreaking description of the slave droves - large groups of slaves chained together and marched by the farm.
I've seen them sell women away from little children, and women would be crying' and they'd slap 'em about crying'. . . . I’ve seen ‘em handcuffed long as from here to the fence out there, women screaming and hollering about leaving their children.
Regarding his own family, he describes how his siblings were separated: "I had two sisters and they were sent off, and there was three brothers. My sisters were given to my young mistress when she married."

Biracial Children

Additionally, Freeman Thomas explains that there was only one family of "half-white" children on the Caruthers plantation - and that Mrs. Caruthers was not happy about it:
. . . there wasn’t but one family of half-white chillen on our place. The old lady would be meaner to them than she was to the black ones. Some of them was marster’s chillen and old mistress would not have one of them for a house servant. She would get one right black and wouldn’t have none of them in there looking as white as her.

Regarding religion and religious services, we learn from Freeman Thomas that the slaves were allowed to have their own preachers, but those leaders may not have had the freedom to preach the way they would have liked to:
We had some n***** preachers but they would say, “Obey your mistress and marster.” They didn’t know nothing else to say. The white preacher would tell you what you had to do, too. If you had prayer meeting you would have it on the sly. We’d sing old time hymns then, but you youngsters have done away with them now. Yes, mam, I’ve heard them pray for freedom. I thought it was foolishness then, but the old time folks always felt they was to be free. It must haved been something ‘vealed unto ‘em. Back there if they’d catch you writing they would break yo if they had to cut off your finger, and still they knew they would be free. It must have been ‘vealed to ‘em.
First Exposure to Union Soldiers in Franklin

In the book, God Struck Me Dead (Clifton H. Johnson & Paul Raden), Freeman Thomas describes how he claimed his freedom this way:
I ran off from my master when I was about fifteen years old and joined the army. I was in the field shucking corn on the Murfresboro Pike. All at once I heard a band playing. Everybody in the field broke and ran. Not a man was left on the place. We all went and joined th army. The captain asked what we wanted, and who our master was. We told him who our master was, and tht we had come to join the army. 
In his pension application, Freeman Thomas described that time this way:
I wasn't very old when the Civil War began. I had just turned into my sixteen year. I remember when the Yankees come to this town. My old boss hit me that morning' and he didn't know the Yankees were in town, and when he found it out he come back begin' me to stay with him, and said he was sorry.
He recalls that "When the Yankees got near Nashville, the n*****s started running to ‘em." Nashville was under Union occupation beginning in February 1862. 

Impressment and Work to Build Fort Negley

During that time, African American men had been impressed into labor to build fortifications such as Fort Granger in Franklin and Fort Negley in Nashville. These laborers were cutting down trees, hauling bricks, rock, soil and other raw materials, and, the skilled ones, were building the stone Fort Negley. 

In the book, God Struck Me Dead, Thomas described how he came to work on the forts:
He [a US Army captain] sent us back to work on a fort they were building [probably Fort Granger in Franklin]. When we finished this, I was sent along with others to work on Fort Negley in Nashville. 
In his pension application in 1888, Freeman Thomas gives us this great detail about how he came to enlist in the US Army: "The authorities had me and a good many others (colored men) at work on the [works?] on Fort Negley and they took us and put us in the Regiment and made soldiers out of us."

In this sketch of Ft Negley you can see the Union soldiers' tents at the base of the hill -- is likely that the freedmen who built the Fort lived in other areas around the sides of the hill as well.

Enlistment in the US Colored Troops

In the book, God Struck Me Dead, Thomas described how he enlisted:
I didn't work there [Fort Negley] no more than about three weeks before they started to recruiting colored soldiers. I was sent to Tullahoma for training. This was the biggest thing that every happened in my life. I felt like a man, with a uniform on and a gun in my hand. 
After completion of the Fort, and when African-Americans were finally allowed to serve in the military as soldiers, not just as laborers, Freeman Thomas enlisted in the 12th Infantry of the US Colored Troops on August 12, 1863, along with 50 other men from Williamson County who enlisted in the same unit.  His enlistment records describe him as a 22-year old farmer, however later in life he says that, "When I went to the War I was turning seventeen."

He served under the name Freeman Cruthers - Cruthers (or Carothers) was his mother's last name. These are his enlistment records:

Service in the 12th US Colored Infantry

In the book, God Struck Me Dead, Thomas provided this detail about his daily routine:

Some of the old men couldn't learn how to do nothing. The officer of the day used to come around to inspect our uniformss and our arms. When he came along each man was to come to "present arms" and hand his piece to him. When he was through he would throw the gun back at you. One day he was inspecting old man Ike, an old man and very nervous. When the officer of the day came to him he snatched his gun to "present arms," and instead of handing it to the officer of ht day he threw it at him. The gun hit him right square in the face and almost knocked him down. "There by God, you have almsot killed me," the officer said, "Sergeant, take this man out of ranks and teach him how to handle his arms.
Originally his unit assisted in the construction of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad, built to link Nashville with the Tennessee River at Johnsonville. The new railroad, designed to supplement the overtaxed Louisville and Nashville Railroad and the steamers supplying the Cumberland, was a crucial link in the Union supply lines stretching toward the vast armies doing battle around Chattanooga.  During this time, around October 1864, Freeman Thomas appears to have become sick with the mumps - this is detailed in his pension application. His fellow Williamson County comrades from the 12th USCI, Company K, William Reece and George King who testified to this on his behalf. Then, shortly after his recovery, in the beginning of December 1864 his friends again testify that while on a march to Nashville their company was cut off and had to wade the Big Harpeth River "about 8 times"

In his 1920 interview, Freeman Thomas gives a vivid account of his encounters - and those of other African American troops - with the Confederates; its particularly interesting his perception that the Confederates were very invested in keeping the USCT prisoners away from the Union and the Union's retribution of the Confederates for their actions at Fort Pillow and elsewhere:
The first battle the colored ever got into was Fort Pillow; they buried some of ‘em (colored soldiers) alive. Then when they went to Mobile, Alabama, they would just shoot ‘em down, and they would just say that he broke to run and they had to shoot him to keep him from getting away. They’d do that any time they got afraid that they would run into the Yankees and they would take the n***** prisoners from them. I saw ‘em hanging the Rebels right there in the penitentiary during the War. They tried to hang everyone that was in that battle, for the way they done the colored soldiers . I saw ‘em captured just as barefooted, and it was snow on the ground. 
The 12th US Colored Infantry provided railroad guard duty at various points in Tennessee and Alabama on the line of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad until December, 1864. During his time near Athens, Alabama he was nearly arrested - as he describes here:
I never got ‘rested bit once. And that was in the War. We all got in a contest as to whether I would want a n***** or a white man to arrest me; I said I don’t want no n***** to arrest me ‘cause it made him too biggity, and one of the n***** officers told to take me to a guard house ‘cause I said, “Damn a n***** officer.” They started after me but I went running to the Captain and told him what had happened. He said to the officer, “You told him to spend his opinion, didn’t you? Well, you are not going to take him nowhere.” We used to do all kind of tricks in the army, and once a man got shot at a trick. There was a young boy in the picket line, and they made it up to scare that boy, so they went up and the boy shot and hollered at the same time, and it shot that man right in the mouth and the ball came out through his jaw just done by foolishness.
While in Alabama, the 12th USCI was guarding the Elk River railroad bridge.  This picture from the book Freedom by the Sword (p. 264) from September 1863 shows a scene of what that could have looked like while FreemanThomas was there.

He also provides this account of his interaction and relationship with one of his white officers:
I went out one night to Squire Henderson’s to get some apples and a Colonel turned the corner on me. He was with some girls and he passed on a little, but then he said to me, “Did you get permission?” and I said, “No,” so he made me double quick back for about half a mile. He said to the Captain, “There’s that prisoner out yonder,” and the Captain and him et dinner and then he (Captain) come and let me out (guard house). He asked me if I didn’t think that we had had ‘nough of Squire Henderson’s apples and I told him, “Yes, but when I joined the army I went to get some medicine for Squire Henderson’s wife and he said he would give me some apples for it, and I was just going to get them, and if he hadn’t given them to me I wasn’t gonna take ‘em.” That Captain was my friend. I wanted a furlough, and they all said, “You know he ain’t gonna let you go, and we got wives and chillen and can’t go,” but he let me and I come on home. 
After their time in Alabama, they were sent west to Johnsonville where they were involved in repulsing Confederate General Hood's attacks there on November 2, 4 and 5, 1864.
The Johnsonville "Colored" Battery (as it was called) where Freeman Thomas would have seen action in November, 1864. 
Johnsonville is about 1 1/2 hours west of Franklin at the southern tip of Kentucky Lake near Waverly, Tennessee or "New Johnsonville" today. A state park was built in 2012 that tells the story of this unusual naval vs. land forces battle. The actual Johnsonville site is under the water of Kentucky Lake now.

The 12th US Colored Infantry next saw action at Buford's Station, Section 37 of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad, November 24, 1864. Then they marched to Clarksville, Tenn., and skirmished near there on December 2, 1864. It's hard to know for sure, but since Freeman Thomas was with his regiment at this time, its likely he was involved in all of this fighting.

Battle of Nashville

The 12th US Colored Infantry's most significant fighting was during the Battle of Nashville December 15-16, 1864. Freeman Thomas was wounded in action here on Dec. 16, 1864 but survived. His pension file describes that he received a gunshot wound in the left ankle and was taken to Hospital No. 16 [in another application statement he thinks it may have been Wilson Hospital] in Nashville where he was treated until February 1865.

His pension application states that, "It was when we made the attack on Gen'l Hood we was not far from John Overton's place south of Nashville [today the museum site Traveller's Rest]. I received the wound in my left leg in John Overton's wood lot. It was during the fighting in defense of Nashville with Hood's Army. My regiment followed up the fight. I was carried back that evening to the Hospital in Nashville. I think the Wilson Hospital and remained there about six weeks. When I next joined my Regiment they were on camp near Nashville on the North Western R. R."

Nashville, Tenn. Railroad yard and depot with locomotives; the Capitol in distance. Barnard, George N., 1819-1902, photographer. Published 1864. Digital ID: (digital file from original neg. of left half) cwpb 02111. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-cwpb-02111 (digital file from original neg. of left half) LC-DIG-cwpb-02110 (digital file from original neg. of right half) LC-B8171-2651 (b&w film neg.). Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. LOC.

At some point after the Battle of Nashville and before he mustered out, Freeman Thomas was granted a furlough to visit his home. He describes that visit this way:
I went to see my mistress on my furlough, and she was glad to see me. She said, "You remember when you were sick and I had to bring you to the house to nurse you?" and I told her, "Yes'm, I remember," And she said, "And now you are fighting me!" I said, "No'm, I ain't fighting you, I'm fighting to get free."
At some point the 12th US Colored Infantry must have been detailed to Murfreesboro to assist in burying the Union dead at Stones River Cemetery.  He describes that grisly work this way:
I have buried many a man out in that cemetery on the Murfreesboro Pike. We had so many to bury a day, and we had to wait ‘till the wagon would bring ‘em in, and then we would put ‘em on our shoulders and take him and bury him; you could hear men cussing and saying, “Somebody’s got my man,” They would hide him and go off to see the girls, and then come back going to bury him late that night, and somebody would steal him and bury him. I wouldn’t do that now. 
Stones River National Cemetery, 1867
Courtesy of Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs, Civil War Collection
 Freeman Thomas was honorably discharged on January 16, 1866 with his regiment in Nashville - well after the end of the Civil War.

Reconstruction Period 

When the war ended, Freeman Thomas went in search of his older sister who had been "carried away from" him to Sheffield, Alabama, and he managed to find her. I found him next in the 1870 Census (dated July 16, 1870) living in Limestone, Alabama working as a railroad laborer - presumably a place and work he had become familiar with during his time in the Army. He marries his wife Pattie Thatch there just a few days later on July 21, 1870.

This photo shows laborers repairing the Nashville-Chattanooga railroad - this is likely what Freeman Thomas' days would have looked like during his time in Limestone, Alabama after the War.

Based on their children's birth location it appears as though shortly after their wedding the couple moves to Williamson County and started their family. 

In the book, Good Struck Me Dead, Freeman Thomas described that during this period he experienced a shocking threat of violence by the KKK due to his military service:
After the war, times got worse for a time. The KKK were raising the devil on every hand. They were especially hard on us soldiers. Once a bunch of them caught me out. "Where were you born?" they asked m. "Franklin," I replied. "You are the very Negro we want. You belong to that Union League, and we are going to kill you." "No sir, Mars's, I don't belong to no league, and I am a good man, I work for Ole Mars' and Missus and do whatever they tell me to." "You will have to prove this," they told me. They took me to a man that knew me, and he told them that I was once a soldier. This made them madder than ever. I denied that I had ever been a soldier, and when they tried to make me march I pretended not to know how. One of them stuck a pistol to my nose and asked me what church I belonged to. I said, "None." They told me I had better pray and made me get down on my knees. They had caught and killed a lot of Negroes that htey found out to be old soldiers. I was good and scared. When I wouldn't pray, one of them started to praying for me and said, "Lord have mercy on this poor Negro that is coming home in about five minutes." I jumped up and said, "White folks, I just can't stand it no longer." They jerked me around for a while and made like they were going to kill me, but after a while they let me go. I took off my hat and ran like a deer. It is a wonder I didn't run into a tree and kill myself.
The Union League mentioned above was an organization largely of former pro-Unionists and US veterans - black and white - and had been involved in a political disturbance that turned violent on the Franklin square in 1867. It is likely that the threats involving Freeman Thomas occurred around or after this time period.

On February 18, 1879 Freeman Thomas applied for an "invalid's pension" from a Franklin address - for assistance resulting from his gunshot wound incurred in the Battle of Nashville. He stated that he was shot in the "left leg between the knee and ankle just above the ankle, the ball popped (?) entirely through his leg." His application was rejected.  

By 1880 Freeman was working as a farm laborer and he and Pattie eventually move into a home at 303 Franklin Road near today's Harlinsdale Farm, where he is believed to have worked.

In the 1880 Census the family appears to be living on or near the farm of Lee M Lewis, the constable. Freeman 36 and Patty 26 have 5 children - Ed Lewis (perhaps named for their employer?) 9, Anderson 7, Ola May 4, King Rainey 3, and Laura 7 months.  

On August 28, 1880, Freeman Thomas re-filed his pension with additional documentation.  In his application he states that he is 33 years old and a farmer, and he was farming before his enlistment;  W. H. Farmer and James Park are witnesses to his application.  W. H. Farmer was his neighbor on the census that same year; he lived in the farmhouse at Harlinsdale Farm that is still standing today. 

In the tax book of 1881 Freeman Carothers (not Thomas) is listed as owning a house & lot on Nashville Pike (this would be his house on present-day Franklin Road) valued at $300.

On March 1, 1886 his neighbors W. H. Farmer and J.K. Brown filed an "Affidavit for Neighbors and General Purpose" stating that they had known Freeman Thomas for about ten or fifteen years (which would mean that he was back in Franklin around 1871 or 1876 - consistent with our previous understandings), and that during that time he had suffered greatly from his gunshot wound.  They describe him as being a man of "good moral character" and "free from any bad habits."  That state they have "Never seen him under the influence of whiskey or have we ever hear of him being the least dissipated."

On August 7, 1888, George King, Freeman Thomas' former comrade in the 12th US Colored Infantry, Company K - also from Williamson County, and still living in Franklin, gave an affidavit as "Officer's or Comrade's Testimony" in support of Freeman Thomas' pension application stating that he had was present with him when he was injured in the Battle of Nashville and saw him carried off the field.  George King was living in Thompson's Station at the time.  That same day Byrd Johnson gave similar testimony.  Johnson was a Sergeant in the 12th US Colored Infantry 

Around 1892, it is believed that Freeman Thomas built the white house with the red roof shown below on Franklin Road just outside of Downtown Franklin.  The house was on the edge of Harlinsdale Farm, a famous Tennessee Walking Horse breeding operation, and it is believed that Freeman Thomas worked at least some of the time there.  
Freeman Thomas was the first owner of this house at 303 Franklin Road; it was built around 1892.  

In one of his interviews, Freeman Thomas boasted that "at the age of twenty-one years I had bought and paid for a home, all but seven dollars. I often tell my boys they don't know what life is. I have been through more than either of them can ever hope to go through. I was wounded in teh war, but I didn't let this stop me. I kept going."

1900 Census - Freeman 55 and Pattie 48 are living with only one child now - a daughter 
Ola Mai 23 who is a school teacher and a step-niece who is living with them and going to school. Freeman is working as a stonemason and Pattie is a washerwoman.   Their son Anderson (whom I believe is now using the name T. F.)  is married to a woman named Sallie from Tennessee and they are living in St. Louis.  Sadly, I don't believe that their youngest two children - King Rainey and Laura have survived.  

By 1905 it appears as though Pattie has passed away because on February 16,1905 the 59-year old Freeman married 43-year old Mariah (Mary) Poynter, another formerly enslaved person from Williamson County.  In February 1907 Freeman Thomas appears to have filed for yet another pension - but this claim was not pursued and was dropped as "abandoned." However, later his pension must have been approved because by 1907 he is finally receiving $12 per month on account of his "age"; he would have been about 61 years old.

On July 9, 1909 the following item appeared in the African American newspaper in Nashville - evidently the new Mr. and Mrs. Freeman were entertaining in style!

Nashville Globe, July 9, 1909
In 1910 the couple appear in the Federal Census living in a new home on Church Street in downtown Franklin.  Unfortunately, these records are very difficult to read, although we can see that they are renting their home.

It is clear that Freeman Thomas must have been considered a leader in the Franklin community because he is again referenced in the Nashville Globe on March 3, 1911 in a story about the untimely death of another man.  Mr. Thomas is accompanying the body back to his home of Athens, Alabama - where Freeman Thomas had lived briefly with his first wife.  
Nashville Gobe, March 3, 1911

In the 1920s when Freeman Thomas gave his interview to Fisk University, he seems to still be loyal to his Union comrades and states, "Some of them say they don’t see why I vote for the Yankees; they say they didn’t do nothing for me, but I tell ‘em the Yankees done ‘nough when they set me free."  Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to locate Freeman in the 1920 Federal Census, although Mariah is living in their house on Church Street in downtown Franklin (which they now own) where she is working as a washerwoman and living with one of Freeman's sons - I believe.  Also boarding with them is Mattie Steward a school teacher.  Freeman may have been elsewhere working - in his pension application he stated that sometimes he was away from home when his work took him to other places.

Franklin Training School, 1925
Principal J. K. Hughes, Teacher Mattie Stewart
(Ms. Stewart was boarding with Freeman Thomas' wife in the 1920 Census)
In August, 1924 however he filed an application asking for a pension increase.  W. H. Farmer - his longtime neighbor at Harlinsdale was a witness to the application.  His application stated that his health had failed dramatically on December 29, 1923 due to a "rheumatism attack" and chronic nephritis such that he was in such poor health and so frail that he was unable to care for himself.  Over the years his pension had gradually grown and he was now receiving $50 per month but he needed additional assistance. Freeman Thomas was now a widower and, while still living in his house on Church Street, Cal and Josephine Hunter had moved in with him around 1920. According to Cal Hunter, although not confined to his bed, Freeman Thomas was "barely able to hobble around" and was "not physically able to do any work himself, nor is he able to dress or undress himself, nor attend to his physical needs without the assistance of an attendant. He suffers and complains . . . of his rheumatism, and says he cannot stay in bed, that he is easier and freer from pain sitting up than when in bed."

This September 1928 Map of Franklin shows Freeman Thomas' house and lot at 108 Church Street in the Bucket of Blood neighborhood - the site of today's Brownstones.

Freeman Thomas' house at 108 Church Street - Photo Courtesy of the Thelma Battle Collection, Special Collections Department, Williamson County Public Library, Franklin, Tennessee

1930 Census - Freeman Thomas re-appears in the 1930 Census.  Freeman was now 84 and widowed. He is still living in his home on 108 Church Street - worth $900. He is living with his granddaughter Patty Davis Swanson 26 - a school teacher and her husband Charles Swanson 28 - a clothes presser.

That same year, his daughter Ola Mae was enumerated as a college-educated married school teacher in Franklin. His son T.F Thomas appears living in St. Louis with his wife and working for the Post Office there. His son Ed lived in Nashville and worked as a waiter in the Andrew Jackson Hotel - the largest hotel in Tennessee at the time. In May 1933, Ed died at 62 years old. This obituary was placed in the Nashville newspaper.

On May 17, 1936 Freeman Thomas died at 91 years old. His death certificate states he was a "Com Lab" - a Common Laborer - and that he had worked at this occupation his "whole life". And I think the cause of death stated was senility. This document provides us with the names of his parents - Alfred Thomas and Nancy Carothers. The well-known African-American Patton Brothers Funeral Home handled the arrangements. He was living at his home at 108 Church Street at the time of his death. His son T. F Thomas was the informant on the death certificate. Dr. Dan German wrote out the paperwork.

This obituary was found in his Pension file.   It appears to have been clipped from a local paper and describes that his funeral was held at the "First Colored Baptist Church" in Franklin - today's First Missionary Baptist Church.  The Reverends L. E. Coleman, J. R. Stratton and J. T. Patton officiated and the veterans of the Spanish-American War and World War I served as pallbearers.  His obituary states that Thomas, "a lifelong resident of Williamson County, died Sunday morning, on his ninety-first birthday, at his home. . . He was an industrious and prosperous man and widely respected by whites and negroes alike in Williamson County."  The American Legion applied for an American Flag to be draped on this casket at this funeral. 

His family had a military headstone installed at the Toussaint L'Overture Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee in his honor.

This is Freeman Thomas' will -- Freeman left his son T.F. Thomas (who lived in St. Louis) a life estate in his house at 108 Church Street and the remainder to his grandchildren Pattie Davis Taylor and Thelma Davis. Ola Mae Thomas Davis (his daughter) was given the house on Franklin Rd. All the rest was divided between Ola and T.F.

Ola Mae Thomas had married John Huston Davis, a successful carpenter, in 1903.  The couple had four children - two girls and two boys.  They lived in Freeman Thomas' house on Franklin Road after he moved to Church Street. 

This photograph of John Davis identifies him as the man on the far right, and I suspect the woman with him was Ola Mae - Freeman Thomas' daughter.  Perhaps one of their daughters (Pattie or Thelma) and son-in-law is the other couple. 
Courtesy of the Thelma Battle Collection, Special Collections Department, Williamson County Library (Tennessee). This photograph is in the Hughes Collection.

Freeman Thomas' granddaughters Pattie Davis Taylor and Thelma Davis were both Franklin school teachers.
Franklin Training School. The students are: first row left, 1. Andrew "Baby Shug" Patton, 2. Ora Mai Hughes Manier, 3. Winona Church, 4. Annie Neal Douglas Carter, 5. teacher Julia Williams Bently. Second row left, 1. Eddy Watkins Campbell Dotson, 2. Thelma Davis Ratcliffe, 3. Addie Gosey. Photo is courtesy of the Thelma Battle Collection, Special Collections Department, Williamson County Library (Tennessee)

Franklin Training School teachers, circa 1920's, enjoying a moment of sunshine.
Second left: Mrs. Pattie Davis Taylor, third left, Mrs. Pattie Carter Murry. The others are unknown. Photo is courtesy of the Thelma Battle Collection, Special Collections Department, Williamson County Library (Tennessee)

This historical marker describes the African-American neighborhood around Freeman Thomas' house at 108 Church Street.  But it cannot capture the fullness of his life and the legacy that he has left behind.



  1. I couldn't find them in the 1920 census either. Did Freeman and Mary/Maria live in the same house in 1910 and 1930? If so, one thing that could be done is get the microfilm of the 1920 census for that Census District and scroll through it. Since they're absent from the 1920 census on both and ancestry,com (different search engines), it's likely that they were somehow omitted from the census, but records were sometimes skipped in digitization.

  2. Is there a way to subscribe to this blog? I would love to follow it and mention it to friends who also have interest in the USCT.

  3. Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    Tina Cahalan Jones...thank you for your "Outstanding Work(s)" in regard to reclaiming and honoring the history of the two hundred and nine thousand one hundred forty-five (209,145) persons who served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

    Even though all members of the USCT have passed away, they continue to watch over and protect the U.S.A., now, as: "Members Of The Knight Shift"...Hoorah!!!

    At the Battle Of Nashville, Freeman (Cruthers) Thomas' 12th USCI Regiment was a combat unit of the 2nd Colored Brigade (i.e., the 12th, 13th, and 100th USCI Regiments), and, my gg-grandfather Alexander Miller's 17th USCI Regiment was a combat unit of the 1st Colored Brigade (i.e., the 14th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 44th USCI Regiments) at the Battle Of Nashville. The 1st and 2nd Colored Brigades fought very very efficiently at the Battle Of Nashville and their combat action(s) contributed substantially toward Lt. General John Bell Hoods Army (i.e., The Army Of Tennessee, C.S.A.) being "Beaten Like They Stole A Government Mule"!!!

    I have created a USCT Virtual Cemetery on the Find-A-Grave web site wherein many thousands of USCT Troopers are Memorialized. Herein below I have pasted a URL which will direct persons who are interested in the the USCT Virtual Cemetery.

    Tina...keep up your "Outstanding Work(s)".

    I am,

    Sincerely yours,

    Michael James Morton - USCT Cemetery Mgr. (#49120946)