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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Williamson County's African American Soldiers in WW1

When World War I began in Europe, America initially clung to neutrality and did not enter the conflict for the first three years. However, on April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.  He argued that "The world must be made safe for democracy." 

Among the first regiments to arrive in France were National Guardsmen who were already organized and trained. Some of those units were African American National Guard units including the 368th Infantry, the famous 369th - also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters," and the 372nd Infantry. All three groups contained among their ranks National Guardsmen from Williamson County.   These regiments were assembled into the 92nd Division.  The next group of African American soldiers to arrive in France were those who had been drafted.  All told, nearly 200 black men from Williamson County served in World War I.

Participation in the war effort was full of contradictions for many African Americans. While America was on a crusade to make the world safe for democracy abroad, the same was not happening at home. The US Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 had - in a now widely discredited decision - allowed for separate but equal treatment under the law. In 1913 President Wilson had ordered the segregation of federal office workers. Additionally, lynchings of African Americans were continuing across the south - including in Tennessee. In 1917, 10,000 African Americans had participated in a silent parade in New York City to protest the violence. The following year, as the war raged, 2,000 men marched in Nashville to the Tennessee State Capitol to implore Governor Rye to intervene to stop violence against African Americans.

Front page of The Nashville Globe, Fri, Feb. 22, 1918

As the Army began drafting both black and white soldiers, the men were divided into segregated units and the black soldiers initially had to serve under white officers - similar to the way things had been done in the US Colored Troops during the Civil War. As a result of protests, the Army relented and began to train African American officers; however, these soldiers were never allowed to command white troops. 

As a result of the draft and enlistments, 380,000 African American soldiers served in the Army during WWI. Approximately 200,000 were sent to Europe. More than half of those sent abroad were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions, where they performed essential support duties, building roads, bridges, and trenches in support of the front-line battles. Approximately 42,000 African American soldiers were involved in combat.

True Sons of Freedom, Chas. Gustrine, Chicago, 1918. Library of Congress.
Black National Guardsmen from Middle Tennessee Who Served in WWI
At least ten men from Williamson County have been identified as serving in the advance troops who were first sent to France and served with French Infantry Troops. These men were: 

367th Infantry

368th Infantry

· Pvt Ollie Epps, born in Williamson County, served in Company K
· Pvt George Kinnard, born in Franklin, served in Company D
· Sgt. Edward Lawrence, lived on Natchez Street, Franklin
· Pvt Joseph Moore, born in Brentwood, served in Company K
· Pvt Robert Williams, from Franklin, machinist, served in Company K

369th Infantry – the Harlem Hellfighters

· Pvt James Thomas Johnson, born in Franklin, served in Co G; he was killed in France and is buried there – his mother died of grief shortly after his death

372nd Infantry

· Pvt Dan Carter, born in Brentwood, served with Company K
· Pvt Richard Fleming, born in Franklin, Company K, 386thInfantry – then Co L, 372nd Infantry
· Pvt James Nesbitt, Company K, lived in Franklin
· Pvt Henry Perkins, lived in Hard Bargain in Franklin – didn’t come home on the Leviathan with everyone else because he had been evacuated to a hospital (his mother was listed as Maggie Kinnard of Nashville)

At the bottom of the post, I will list all the names of the African American men from Williamson County who served in World War I, but first I wanted to explore more deeply the story of one particular group - the men who served in "Unattached Company G."

The Nashville Globe Friday, Aug 2, 1918
An immense crowd gathered at Union Station in August 1918 to send off the black troops from the Nashville area.

372nd Infantry / Unattached Company G

The story of the local African American World War I veterans who served in Company G has been largely untold. At the time that WWI began, Company G was touted as the only black military organization in the south – the other four national guard units were from northern states – and middle-Tennessee’s African American community was justly proud of its well-drilled and organized men. 

As early as 1881, newspapers refer to African American national guard units from Nashville participating in reunions - the forefathers of Company G.

The Nashville Tennessean,
Sunday, November 13, 1881, page 1

 Later, numerous newspaper accounts provide insight into the black community's pride in Company G; they would come out to see them perform at special holidays and events.

The Nashville Globe Fri July 9, 1909 page 1
Company G had performed at a July 4th Celebration

The Nashville Globe Friday, Aug 2, 1918
Photograph of Company G in Camp in Nashville prior to the War.
February 1, 1918 Nashville Globe
In August of 1917, Company G was called into Federal Service and sent to Memphis for 10 weeks guarding bridges. They were under the command of Captain Charles Hadley, a Fisk and Meharry graduate.  While in Memphis, reports were received in Nashville that the soldiers were not receiving adequate food or supplies and not being paid. Women in Nashville organized care packages for them and relief programs for their families back home in Middle Tennessee. By December 1917 Company G was sent to Camp Sevier, Greenville, SC and then to Camp Stewart, Newport News, Virginia. 

The Nashville Globe Friday August 2, 1918
Before their departure, in the Spring of 1918, they were renamed Company K of the 372nd US Infantry and assigned to the 93rd Division. 

Each of the four segregated infantry regiments of the 93rd Division [the 369th, 370th, 371st & 372nd Infantries] were divided among French military divisions. The soldiers were issued French rations (including red wine) and equipment, most memorably, the distinctive French helmet. 
Red Hand Helmet

The 372nd was attached to the well-known French 157th "Red Hand" Infantry Division. During their time in France, the 372nd took part in the Meuse-Argonne, Lorraine and Alsace campaigns. A full discussion of these bloody battles is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I urge readers to educate themselves about the "War to End All Wars" and the trials our local men encountered.

Flag of the French 157th Infantry Division
with American flag section commemorating 
the service of the 371st and 372nd 
US infantry regiments 

The New York Age Sat March 8, 1919
Sergeants of the 372nd "somewhere in France" just before their offensive against Germany
During their time fighting in France, members of the 372nd regiment had the distinguished record of never surrendering or retreating and their participation in the Meuse-Argonne advance was decisive in ending the war after they took nearly 600 prisoners, and secured large quantities of engineering supplies and artillery ammunition from the Germans. 

German Propaganda Targeting African American soldiers
On September 26, 1918, James Thomas Johnson of Franklin, Tennessee was killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and his body was buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.  According to records compiled after the War, his mother Julia died of grief a few months after his death.  He was survived by his father and two brothers Elmo and Samuel.  Samuel was also serving in France and later lost his sight due to exposure to poisonous gas.

Headstone of James Thomas Johnson in France

November 8, 1918 Nashville Globe
Private Harry Harrison, Company K of the 372nd
writing from France and sending regards to the Brooks family.
He says their motto is “Old Glory Will Never Hit the Ground”
and says the men sang the song
“What a Great Time we Will Have When we Reach Berlin!. . .”

The New York Age Sat Feb_8, 1919

The New York Age Sat Feb 8, 1919

While the men were in France, the racial tensions had not completely dissipated.  This poignant letter from a member of the 372nd eloquently articulates that while they had been fighting in France for democracy, they wondered: "Will we get our share? [All those with] loved ones fighting for democracy should pray to God that we receive what is due to us after the war is over. . . . Pray that our colored boys, after the war, will get their just division of democracy."
The New York Age Sat Oct 12, 1918
On the day of the signing of the Armistice, November 11, 1918, the regiment was at Ban-de-Laveline. How the termination of the war was celebrated is told by Sergeant Wm. J. Huntley of the 372nd Infantry, whose account follows:
One of the most inspiring scenes I ever witnessed was today about 11:05 A.M. The Regimental band played 'Marseillaise', 'The Star Spangled Banner' and 'God Save the King.' As soon as the last note was sounded, hilarious cheers, by both soldiers and civilians, were almost deafening. Old men jumped and threw up their hats, women, whose hearts were heavy from a strain caused by a relentless war, waved their hands and aprons in exultant joy and children romped joyously up and down the streets. The bell and chimes on the church, which had been previously silent, sent their resonant peals far and near. Indeed, they rang out 'glad tidings of joy.' In the meantime, the band struck up a lively march and started up the street followed by 'Old Glory', the regimental colors and soldiers, Americans and French. The scene was a beautiful blending of colors---the khaki and the blue. It seemed as if they wanted to assemble in one great family to celebrate the glorious events, and to see the reflection of their own gladness in the faces of their fellow comrades. The street was filled with a solid, slowly-moving and seething mass of humanity. It appeared to me that the brotherhood of the trenches was heralding the brotherhood of men. . . . And thus Monday. the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, was passed.
Postcard of Ban-de-Laveline dated June 11, 1915.
For its actions during the Meuse-Argonne, every member of the regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm, one of France’s highest military honors by having it pinned to their regimental flag. 

The French Croix de Guerre

The New York Age Sat. Feb_1, 1919

Upon the cessation of fighting in Europe, the American government felt that it faced a dilemma.  Now that African American soldiers had fought to spread democracy abroad the fear was that as they celebrated and relaxed, they would want to socialize and mingle with French women - perhaps even marry them.  A letter from the "Negro Subversion" department of the Army encouraged military leaders to bring these soldiers home quickly to avert an "American race war" abroad because when it came to "contact with white women . . . the white man draws the line."

November 18, 1918 Letter Regarding the Concern that White Soldiers Will Cause an "American Race War in France"

Coming Home

In December 1918, orders were issued for the return of the men to America. The regiment did not immediately leave France, however. While waiting for transport, it was decided by the officers and men of the regiment that they would erect a monument with the permission of the French Government, to mark the ground on which so many of their comrades had fallen in battle. 

372nd U.S. Infantry Memorial
This monument was erected and the inscription reads: In Memory of the Members of the 372nd U. S. Infantry, killed in action on September 26, 1918, to October 7, 1918

Soldiers of the 372nd Infantry preparing to board ship in France for their return home and discharge in March 1919. Note they are wearing their 93rd Division "Blue Helmet" shoulder patches. One man has a souvenir German helmet hanging from his belt. (Photo by National Archives and Records Administration)
After sailing for home, the men were met in Boston, New York, BaltimoreOhio and elsewhere with parades and celebrations. 

The New York Age Sat  Apr 12, 1919
Famous New York [African American] regiment. [African American] children gathered along line of march to extend royal welcome to their daddies of [the] 369th (old 15th New York City) regiment, as the famous fighters pass up Fifth Avenue in welcome home parade. National Archives

In Nashville, I have found no evidence of a special parade for the men of Unattached Company G.  They were probably celebrated as part of a larger parade in March 1919 for the veterans of the War.  The relatives of the soldiers needed special badges for admission to the stands to see their men march down Capitol Boulevard.
The Tennessean Thursday, March 20, 1919

In March 1919, plans were underway in Tennessee to erect a memorial to the fallen soldiers of the state from the War.  The State Memorial Commission and other groups were planning to refurbish the Parthenon in Centennial Park and turn it into a War Memorial. However, Jim Crow segregation prevented African Americans from visiting the Park and the Parthenon.  When AME Church leaders objected, the plan was scrapped and the current War Memorial Auditorium was constructed instead.


In Franklin, a group of local women had formed the Army Comfort Circle to honor the 26 white and 6 African American soldiers who died in the War with a marker at the Courthouse. Those plans came to fruition in 1922. Reflecting the customs and values of the time, the names of the Black soldiers were listed separately (and second) under the heading "Colored."


Tablet Installed on the Front of the Williamson County Courthouse

Although the regiment was deactivated after World War II, the 372nd is perpetuated by the Ohio National Guard's 237th Support Battalion and the District of Columbia's 372nd Military Police Battalion. Both states provided men to support the War effort.

A good resource for further reading on this topic is the book American Negro in the World War.  In addition, many documents are on display at the AFrican American Heritage Society of Williamson County's McLemore House - which is open for tours Friday and Saturdays from 10 am - 2 pm.

Williamson County's African American WW1 Veterans
* = confirmed service abroad

Died in the War
- *Pvt. James Thomas Johnson, born in Franklin, served in Co G, 369th Infantry
- Pvt. Leighton Hodge
- Pvt.Wesley N. Thomas, born & buried in Franklin, killed in France
- Pvt. Richard Allen Fly, died of disease, 158th Depot Brigade

Headstone of Wesley N. Thomas at
Franklin's Toussaint L'Ouveture Cemetery

  1. Beech Abernathy*, born in Maury County, lived on Natchez Street, Franklin
  2. Richard Alexander*, born in Thompson’s Station, POW EscortCharlie Andrews*, born in College Grove
  3. James Bailey, born near Spring Hill
  4. James Baugh, born in Franklin
  5. Joe Bell, born in College Grove, sent to School for Bakers and Cooks
  6. Robert Bennett*, born in Triune, living at 208 Lewisburg Avenue, Franklin
  7. William Berry*, born in Brentwood
  8. Roy Biggers, born in Lewisburg, living in Allisona
  9. Jessie Black /
  10. Robert Blackburn, born in Franklin
  11. Theoplis Blakemore, born in Franklin
  12. Jimmie Bloomfield*, born in Franklin
  13. Albert Bolyjack, born in Nolensville
  14. Sgt. Andrew Bolyjack, born in Nolensville
  15. Pearl Bostick, born new Franklin
  16. John H. Bowden*, born near Franklin
  17. Columbus Boyd
  18. Larkin Bradley*, born in Franklin
  19. Morris Brice*, born in Franklin, buried in Toussaint L’Ouveture Cemetery (d. 1967)
  20. John H. Britten, born in Williamson County
  21. Harvey C. Brooks*, born in Thompson’s Station
  22. Lee N. Brooks*, born in Thompson’s Station
  23. Gabe J. Brown*, born in Franklin
  24. Gus Brown, born in Franklin
  25. Howard Brown, born in Williamson County, Student Army Training Corp – Fisk University
  26. James Brown*, brown in Franklin, POW Escort
  27. John W. Brown*, born in Boston, Williamson County
  28. Willie Brown*, born in Franklin
  29. Thomas Buford, born in Spring Hill
  30. Will Carney*, born in Arrington
  31. Dan Carter*, born in Brentwood, served with Co K 372ndInfantry
  32. Sam Carter, born in Franklin, wounded
  33. Major W. Christman*, born in Spring Hill
  34. Clarence Church, born in Franklin
  35. Alonzo Clay*, born in Franklin
  36. Felix Claybrooks, born in College Grove
  37. Will D. Claybrooks*, born in Williamson County
  38. Columbus Boyd, born in Franklin
  39. Pomp Compton, born near Brentwood
  40. James Conn, lived in Franklin
  41. John Copeland, born in Nolensville
  42. Maurice Covington, born in College Grove
  43. Charles Cowans, born in Hillsboro (Leiper’s Fork)
  44. Robert J. Cowans, born in Franklin
  45. George Davis*, lived in Franklin, POW Escort
  46. Samuel Dobson*, born in Brentwood, Company K, 386thInfantry
  47. Robert Dotson, born in Thompson Station 
  48. John Douglas*, born in Marshall County, living in Franklin
  49. Thomas H. Douglas*, born in Davidson County, living in Bethesda, Williamson County
  50. Eugene Downing, born in Williamson County
  51. Ollie Epps*, born in Williamson County, served in Co K, 368thInfantry
  52. Aaron Fitzgerald*, born in Thompson’s Station 
  53. James Fitzgerald*, born in Williamson County
  54. Percy Fitzgerald*, born in Franklin
  55. Richard Fleming*, born in Franklin, Company K, 386thInfantry – then Co L, 372nd
  56. Charlie Floyd*, born in Williamson County
  57. Sam Fuller*, born in Franklin 
  58. Willie Gardner, born in Franklin (lived in Hard Bargain)
  59. Earl Garrett, lived in College Grove
  60. German Gentry *, born in Franklin
  61. Homer J. Gentry, born in Franklin, Student Army Training Corp – Normal School, Pine Bluff Arkansas
  62. Joseph Gibson, born in Franklin
  63. Walter Gipson, born in College Grove
  64. Walter E. Gooch*, born in Nolensville
  65. Andrew L. Gosey*, born in Franklin
  66. Dave Gosey*, born in Williamson County
  67. Melvin Green, born in Brentwood
  68. Robert L. Guthrie*, born in Nolensville
  69. Gary Haddox*, born in Thompson’s Station
  70. Alexander R. Hardeman*, born in Franklin
  71. George Hardey, born in Franklin
  72. Alex Harper, born in Franklin
  73. Charles Harrison, lived in Arrington
  74. John H. Harrison, born in Franklin
  75. Jim A. Hatcher*, born in College Grove, POW escort
  76. Marvin P. Hatcher, born in Williamson County
  77. Elwood Hawkins, lived in Brentwood
  78. Arthur Haynes, born in Franklin
  79. Corporal Robert Henderson*, born in Franklin
  80. James House, lived in Franklin
  81. Jim Hughes, born in Franklin (lived on Natchez Street)
  82. Corporal Henry Hunt Jr., born in Brentwood
  83. James Hunter*, born in Franklin
  84. Walter Hunter, born in Franklin (lived on Natchez Street)
  85. Ike Hyde, born in Nolensville
  86. Earnest Jenkins, lived in Franklin
  87. Early Jobe*, lived in Arrington
  88. John H. W. Johnson, born in Eagleville
  89. Samuel L. Johnson*, born in Franklin
  90. James T. Johnson*, born in Franklin, served in Co G 369thInfantry (Harlem Hellfighters) – KIA (buried in France)
  91. Will Johnson, born in Nolensville
  92. Wilson Johnson, born in Franklin
  93. John H. Jones, born in College Grove
  94. James King, born in Nolensville
  95. Clim Kinnard, born in Franklin
  96. George Kinnard*, born in Franklin, Company D, 368thInfantry
  97. John Kinnard, born in Franklin, attended School for Bakers and Cooks
  98. Robert Lane, born in Arrington
  99. Sgt. Edward Lawrence*, 368thInfantry (Natchez Street)
  100. Henry Leach, born in Franklin
  101. Leslie Legg*, born in Franklin
  102. James F. Lester, born in Franklin (Hard Bargain)
  103. Harvey Love*, lived in Thompson’s Station
  104. King S. Marks, born in Franklin
  105. Gid (Gideon) Mayberry, born in Franklin
  106. Lee N. Mayberry*, born in Franklin
  107. Robert F. Mayberry, born in Leiper’s Fork, buried in Toussaint L’Ouveture in Franklin
  108. Robert Mays, lived in Allisona, Williamson County; buried in Nashville National Cemetery
  109. Crockett McLaren*, born in Franklin
  110. John Henry McGavock, born in Franklin
  111. Henry A. McKissack, born in West Harpeth (Southall)
  112. John H. McLemore*, born in Franklin
  113. Allen Meggs Jr. born in Franklin
  114. Tom Mitchell*, born in Franklin, Company K, 356thInfantry
  115. Joseph Moore*, born in Brentwood, Co K, 368thInfantry
  116. Major Moore*, born in Franklin
  117. Russell Moore, born in Franklin
  118. George G. Moss, born in Franklin
  119. Albert Murray*, born in Franklin (lived in Hard Bargain)
  120. Harry Murray*, born in Franklin (lived in Hard Bargain)
  121. Robert Murray, born in Franklin
  122. James Nesbitt, lived in Franklin*, Co K 372ndInfantry
  123. Hugh Nichols, lived in Frankin
  124. Tyree North, born in West Harpeth (Southall), Student Army Training Corp (Hampton Institute)
  125. John T. Oden, born in Thompson’s Station 
  126. Sherman Olledge*, born in Columbia (Maury), lived in Franklin
  127. James A. Osteen*, lived in College Grove
  128. Mark Owen*, born in Brentwood
  129. James P. Page, born in Franklin
  130. Dee Patton, born in Franklin
  131. Albert Brown Perkins, born in Triune
  132. Henry Perkins*, 372nd Infantry lived in Hard Bargain in Franklin
  133. Ike Perkins, born in Arrington
  134. John Perkins, born near Nolensville
  135. Will Perkins, mother listed as Maggie Kinnard living in Nashville, 387thCo K
  136. William Phillips, lived in Franklin on Strahl Street
  137. Hardy C. Pope born in Franklin
  138. John F. Reams*, born in Franklin
  139. Robert Reams, born in Franklin
  140. John T. Reynolds*, lived near College Grove
  141. Tom Ridley, born in West Harpeth (Southall)
  142. Pete Roberts*, born in Franklin
  143. Early Robertson*, born in Forrest Home community of Williamson County
  144. Clyde Robinson*, born in Franklin
  145. Will Robinson*, born in Tampa, Florida, lived in Franklin
  146. Jimmie Rose, born in Lynnville, Kentucky, lived in College Grove
  147. Clyde H. Rucker*, born in Allisona
  148. Tom Sanford, born in Thompson’s Station 
  149. Will Sanford, born in Thompson’s Station, attended School for Baker’s & Cooks
  150. Henry Sawyers, born in Arrington
  151. John H. Sawyers, born in Williamson County
  152. Alfred Scales*, born in College Grove 
  153. Ellis Scales, Jr., born in College Grove 
  154. Richard Scales, born in Triune
  155. William James Scruggs, born in College Grove
  156. Elbe Scruggs, born in Franklin (lived on Natchez Street)
  157. James Scruggs*, born in Franklin
  158. John Henry Scruggs, born in Franklin
  159. John W. Scruggs, born in Franklin
  160. Willie R. Secrest, born in Nashville, lived in Franklin
  161. Gennie J. Smith*, born in Franklin
  162. Robert Lee Smith, born in Franklin
  163. Tom Smith, born in Franklin
  164. Rob T. Southall, born in Franklin
  165. Tom Southall, born in Franklin
  166. James Starnes*, born in Brentwood
  167. Marvin Starnes*, born in College Grove
  168. Ellis Taylor*, lived in Franklin
  169. Lish Taylor, lived in Franklin
  170. Samuel H. Taylor, born in Franklin
  171. Brian Thompson*, born in Franklin, POW Escort
  172. Sam Taylor*, born in Franklin, 304thInfantry
  173. Lewis Thompson*, born in Thompson’s Station 
  174. Walter Thompson*, born in Franklin
  175. McKinley Voorhies, born in Brentwood 
  176. Quintard Waddy, born in Franklin (lived in Hard Bargain)
  177. Bennie Wagner*, lived in Franklin, POW Escort
  178. Allen Walton, born in Thompson’s Station 
  179. Wesley Watkins, born in Brentwood
  180. Cpl. Andrew Watson, born in Franklin (Hard Bargain)
  181. Lucian H. Webb*, born in Arrington
  182. Gus S. Webster*, born in Franklin
  183. Johnnie West 
  184. Jim White*, lived in Franklin
  185. Paul White*, lived in Franklin
  186. Eddie W. Whitsey, born in Franklin
  187. Albert Williams*, lived in Brentwood
  188. Ostranda B. Williams*, born in Franklin
  189. Alex Wilson*, born in Franklin
  190. Benjamin Wilson*, born in Franklin
  191. Charles Wilson, born in Williamson
  192. John L. Winstead*, born in Franklin
  193. Lee Winstead, born in Brenwood
  194. Noble Winstead*, born in Franklin
  195.  Joe E. Word, born in Franklin, Williamson County, lived on Natchez Street

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Fort Negley commemorates 2,771 laborers

Last night I participated in a program to remember the 2,771 men, women and children who worked to build Fort Negley from August 13 - December 7, 1862.  

Below is the text of the brief speech I gave:
It is a privilege to be here today to share some stories of a few of the men who helped build Fort Negley. Since we are here today to honor and remember them – in my talk today I am going to rely heavily on their own words and those of one of their officers in telling their stories. 

I am a board member of the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County and until recently the ties between this Fort and Williamson County were not well understood. Last year, Dr. Eleanor Fleming spoke at this event about her family’s ties from Marshall County, to the Fort and to Williamson County. We know that during the summer of 1862, thousands of enslaved people - men, women and children - fled businesses, farms and plantations in Williamson County -- and throughout middle Tennessee -- seeking freedom and protection that they believed would come from being close to the US military forces that had arrived in Nashville a few months earlier. However, many of them were instead impressed by these troops as laborers to build several fortifications, including Fort Negley. 

After the forts were constructed, some of the men next served the US forces by enlisting in the Army’s segregated regiments called the US Colored Troops. In Williamson County we have – so far – identified about 300 African American men who served in the US Colored Troops during the War. It is clear from reviewing historical records that in particular, more than 50 men from Williamson County who enlisted in the 12thUS Colored Infantry regiment had first worked to build Fort Negley. They made the same trek from Williamson County to this place that I did today – although their journey was entirely different from mine.
In 1863, Major General George Stearns, the Commissioner for the Organization of African American troops in Middle Tennessee gave testimony before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission about the conditions under which these men were conscripted to build Fort Negley and later enlist in the 12th Regiment of the US Colored Infantry. He said this:
One case will suffice for all. Brig. Gen. Morton, … was ordered … to superintend the fortifications of Nashville. It was a very important work; and, …they collected by impressment and by voluntary offer of service, some three thousand negroes to work on the fortifications. They were obliged to give them poor food, because they had nothing better; they had no tents, and slept in the open air. These men lived upon inferior meat & bread, –the refuse, of course, of the army supplies, –& slept on the hillside at night. [Gen. Morton] says they worked well, and through all that were cheerful, although in the fifteen months that they have been employed at that fort–Fort Negley–about 800 have died. He says he thinks it was necessary, because, by the building of that fort, at that time, the safety of Nashville was secured, and we were enabled to hold Nashville, instead of making a stand at Fort Donelson.

When asked by the Commission how these laborers had been paid, he answered: "They never have been paid." Later he added, "At this time, there are a large number of [the laborer's wives and children] who are destitute, because the soldiers and laborers on the fortifications have never been paid."

General Stearns was also quoted in a Boston newspaper describing the situation this way:
When I went to Nashville, colored men free and slave, were hunted daily through the streets, and impressed for labor on fortifications, railroads and in hospitals, and although promised ten dollars per month, it was rarely paid, and many of them worked from twelve to fifteen months without any pay. Let me give you one case of several that came under my notice. When our army occupied Nashville, in August 1862, calls were made for slaves to work on the fortifications. About 2,700 were employed. A large number ran from their masters. Many Union men sent their best hands, and some were impressed. These men, working in the heat of the Autumn months, lying on the hillside at night in the heavy dews without shelter, and fed with poor food, soon sickened. In four months about 800 of them died; the remainder were kept at work from six to fifteen months without pay. Then all who were able-bodied were forcibly enlisted in the 12thUS Colored Troops.
And lastly, in a report by General Stearns describing the recruitment of men into the 12th Regiment he stated this:
“This regiment was largely composed of laborers upon the fortifications about Nashville, the remnants of the large force impressed in the summer of 1862 for the service. It does not come within the province of this report to comment upon the treatment which this body of men while laborers received. . . . . It is sufficient to say that the change from the irregular and irresponsible treatment they received as laborers to that they had as soldiers was very grateful to them.”

The first of those 50 Williamson County men who enlisted in the 12thUS Colored Infantry – and who made the transition from slave to soldier - was, George Mays. He enlisted on July 21st, 1863 into Company A here in Nashville. He was followed by 40 Williamson County men who all enlisted on August 12, 1863.

Sgt. Andrew Ewing was one of these men. He was born in 1831 in Williamson County and had a mother Mary and sister Mattie. Initially – along with his mother and sister - Sgt. Ewing was enslaved by Alexander Ewing, and later by his son William Ewing. When Andrew Ewing was just 8 years old he was valued in the estate of Alexander Ewing at being worth $350. 

When Andrew was 21 years old, he married and started a family. When the Civil War broke out Andrew was 29 years old. He made his way somehow to Nashville and worked to build Fort Negley. There are two entries on the rolls for a laborer named “A. Ewing” - #953 and #2406. They are both identified as being enslaved by W. [William] Ewing. Either or both of them could be him. By the time he enlisted in the 12th Regiment he was slightly older than many of his comrades – 31 years old – and the father of 3 young children.

In his pension application another Williamson County soldier named Bird Johnson said this about the two men’s time working to build Fort Negley:
Both he and I lived here or near this City all of our lives. We both were fellow workmen together on the fortifications here in Nashville, Tenn during the late War of the Rebellion. We both were working on Fort Negley here in 1863 and left from there and we both enlisted into the 12thRegiment US Colored Infantry. …My comrade Andrew Ewing was a Sergeant of Co. B. . . and I was a Sergeant of Co. H.

The 12th US Colored Infantry was integral in the construction of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad, built to link Nashville with the Tennessee River at Johnsonville. They also provided guard duty along the railroad line at various points in Tennessee and Alabama. The men were involved in several skirmishes and battles during their service including one in early November 1864, at Johnsonville where they were involved in repulsing Confederate Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest's attack. 
December 18, 1864 - Andrew Ewing
was "Left sick at Franklin, Tenn"

The 12th US Colored Infantry's most significant fighting was during the Battle of Nashville December 15 & 16, 1864. Sgt Ewing was injured during the fighting when a cannonball broke a tree limb out of a tree that he was standing in and the limb fell and injured his leg. However, he stayed with his company for the pursuit of Hood's Confederate Army of Tennessee - at least as far as Franklin. When the US Army troops arrived in Franklin on the heels of the defeated Confederates, Sgt Ewing was "left sick at Franklin, Tenn” in a hospital. In October 1865, Andrew Ewing was discharged from the Army due to disability. The reason stated was "rheumatism and stiffness of the knee and ankle joints . . . contracted in December [1864] during a campaign from Nashville, TN to LaGrange, AL in the line of duty resulting from cold and exposure after the Battle of Nashville."

Shortly after he left the Army, Sergeant Ewing returned to Williamson County and he entered into a labor contract for the year 1866, negotiated under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau. Under the terms of the contract, Ewing became an apprentice in a blacksmith’s shop. Sgt. Ewing worked as a blacksmith for several years although it must have been fairly difficult for him. When he applied for a pension in 1880, he was found by the pension examiners – who were notoriously strict – to be 75% disabled. On February 24, 1901, at the age of 70, Sergeant Ewing died of pneumonia at his home near Nashville. I have not been able to locate his grave.

One of Sgt. Ewing’s comrades from the 12th Regiment was Freeman Thomas. Pvt. 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. Pvt. Thomas, his mother, and siblings were enslaved by Jim Carothers on the Pleasant Exchange plantation on the east side of Franklin where the Cool Springs area is today. He described his early childhood to an interviewer from Fisk University when he was an elderly man and recounted,

“When the Yankees got near Nashville, the [negroes] started running to ‘em. . . . 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 beggin' me to stay with him, and said he was sorry.” 

This apology must not have swayed Pvt Thomas. He appears to have made his way to Nashville and in his pension application he stated that,

"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." 

Like Sgt Ewing, Pvt Thomas served along the railroads, at Johnsonville and in the Battle of Nashville. In the Battle of Nashville, on December 16th, 1864, Pvt. Freeman Thomas received a gunshot wound in the left leg just above the ankle in John Overton’s woodlot at Traveler’s Rest. He was taken to Hospital No. 16 that night.

As a result of his injury, Freeman Thomas was granted a furlough to visit his home in Franklin. Jim Carothers, who enslaved him, had died during the war, but his widow was still alive. Pvt. Thomas described the 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."

It seems clear that, despite perhaps being “put into the regiment” rather than voluntarily enlisting, Freeman Thomas had come to understand the connection between his federal service and freedom. He was honorably discharged from the US Army on January 16, 1866, with his regiment in Nashville.

Following the War, Freeman Thomas married, returned to Williamson County and raised a family. He built a home on Franklin Road in front of Harlinsdale Farm that still stands today. 

His two sons were successful – one moved to St. Louis and worked for the post office. His daughter was a school teacher and her two daughters went on to be school teachers as well.

Pvt. Freeman Thomas died on May 17, 1936 in Franklin. His obituary stated 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." 

In honor of his military service, veterans of the Spanish-American War and World War I served as pallbearers and his casket was draped in an American flag. He is buried in Franklin and his grave is marked with a US Colored Troop headstone.

I know that Freeman Thomas – and Andrew Ewing and all the men from the 12th – would be honored to see all of these flags placed in their memory today. I hope that these two men’s stories have helped bring to life all of the 2,771 people who helped to build this Fort. Each one had a story worth knowing and remembering.

There is a saying, “A Soldier never dies until he is forgotten.” Thank you for being here today to ensure that not only have all of these soldiers, but also all those who built this Fort will never be forgotten. Thank you so much.