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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.

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