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Friday, November 8, 2019

Lest We Forget: Why Were Williamson County's Black Civil War Veterans Forgotten?

From the very first day that I began researching and recovering the stories of the men from Williamson County who joined the US Army during the Civil War, I have wondered - and been asked - why and how did we not know about them? How were their stories forgotten?  How is it that even their own descendants did not know that they had served?  It seems like such an important and significant thing -- to have escaped from slavery and joined the opposition to fight -- that this heroic act would be celebrated in family lore and passed down from generation to generation.  But it mostly had not been.

As the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, I can certainly appreciate the reticence many veterans feel about talking about the details of war. But this was different.  The basic fact of their service had been entirely erased. Only a few families seemed to have held onto those memories, and their experience is the exception and not the rule here in Williamson County and throughout middle Tennessee. Some of this may be due to the large numbers of veterans who left - either soon after the Civil War during the Exoduster Movement (discussed here) or later during the Great Migration.  

But for families who remained, and the broader (white and black) community, this "forgetting" at first seemed inexplicable - until I began to explore the history and context more deeply.  What I have started to understand is that their stories were not so much forgotten as intentionally suppressed and purposefully hidden.  I think two factors were primarily at work.  First, active intimidation by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to target former veterans and make it dangerous to have been a veteran or associated with one.  Second, the wide-scale adoption of the Lost Cause narrative that minimized and further helped suppress the history of the US Colored Troop veterans locally.

This blog post will focus primarily on the first factor - the violence targeting US Colored Troop veterans in the middle Tennessee area during the Reconstruction period.  These men were likely targeted due to the political power they represented and were likely to wield - in the summer of 1867 African American men embraced their right to vote and represented a significant political threat to southern white Democrats.  This threat was met with violence. The Equal Justice Initiative's report Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans confirms that 

no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans. . . . Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. .  .  black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.
One very early example of this violence from Williamson County involved a soldier who had not even mustered out yet.  Pvt. Henry Moon and his brother, both soldiers in the 17th US Colored Infantry, were part of the forces in place during the early Reconstruction period in middle Tennessee.  In February 1866, while on furlough to visit their parents, they were confronted by civilians in Triune in eastern Williamson County, and Pvt. Moon was shot and killed.

In the book, God Struck Me Dead, Williamson County's US Colored Troop veteran Pvt. Freeman Thomas described that during the immediate post-War period, he experienced intimidation and harassment by the KKK precisely because of 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 me. 
"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 they 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.
Pvt Thomas' experience in middle Tennessee was not an isolated one.  During this time, in the summer of 1868, the Tennessee State Senate convened a Commission to investigate "outrages committed by the Ku Klux klan in middle and west Tennessee."  They collected the testimony of scores of people - white and black - about the intimidation and violence they faced.  And one theme that emerged was the focus of the KKK on former veterans of the Federal forces during the Civil War.

For example, Charles Belefont, an 18-year-old farmer from Culleoka in Maury County, described how nine men came to his cabin one night and whipped him, giving him 200 lashes.  They said that "they were going to kill all that had been in the Yankee army."

Also, Wesley Alexander, a farmer from Maury County, described how: 
"They have shot at me seven or eight times and run me off from home. . . they told me that if I ever come back they would kill me. This spite is because  I . . . have been a soldier in the Union Army. . . They say they intend to kill every n***** that belongs to any of those things." 
 Wesley Alexander had served as a 15-year-old musician - perhaps a drummer boy - in the 15th US Colored Infantry during the Civil War. 

Gilbert Akin was a 33-year-old mechanic from Columbia in Maury County.  He told the Senate investigators that:  
"They say that they are determined to break up, and drive off every damned man that . . . has been a Yankee soldier."

W. A. Kelly of Maury County was a white veteran of the US Army.  He described how the Klan tore up his discharge papers, stole from him, and threatened his wife and his own life. "They said that no damned Union soldier . . . should live in the county."

These statements are all consistent with a report issued in 1868 by the Secretary of War to Congress that stated that black soldiers in Kentucky, “[h]aving served in the Union Army, were the special objects of persecution, and in hundreds of instances have been driven from their homes. H. Exec. Docs., Report of Secretary of War, 40th Cong., 3rd Sess., No. 1, Vol. I, 1868-69 1056. One example was, Peter Branford, a US Colored Troop veteran, who was shot and killed “without cause or provocation” in Mercer County, Kentucky. At Bardstown, Kentucky, a mob brutally attacked a US Colored Troop veteran, stripped him naked, beat him, and castrated him. He was then forced to run half a mile to a bridge outside of town, where he was shot and killed.

This violence was rampant throughout middle Tennessee and Williamson County during this period. It crested in the summer of 1867 with the so-called Franklin Riot which involved many former federal veterans and continued with a series of lynchings in the summer of 1868 that, while not aimed directly at federal veterans, certainly had an impact on all African Americans in the area.  

By 1870, the situation had not measurably improved for black Federal veterans locally.  The Nashville Union and American newspaper ran a lengthy article detailing some of the violence still occurring throughout middle Tennessee, and it is significant to note how much of it was continuing to be focused on former US veterans.  

For example, W. J. McAnnally, a "discharged Federal soldier" of Pulaski in Giles County, was shot three times by a group of masked men. 

On the west side of Nashville, an "ex-Federal soldier, by the name of Walsh" had his horse shot by a former Confederate - who called the animal a "d--d Yankee horse."  

Also near Smithville, an ex-Federal soldier was killed, and his "murderers were not seen."

The reporter also stated, "I have heard of the hanging of an ex-Federal soldier since I left Nashville . . . I think it is certain that his body was found on an island in Stone's River, near Nashville."

The article continued, "a son of Gen. Jno B. Rodgers, who had been a Federal soldier, was shot and badly wounded in his own house."
The reporter also said that he remembered hearing of the killing of two men who had been Federal soldiers in late 1868 or early 1869, "and the perpetrators were disguised."

Also, "Samuel Morrow a federal veteran from Maury County and belonged to one of the Tennessee regiments; was honorably discharged from the United States service; was an old man, sixty years of age; was murdered in his own house by a band of masked men, on the night of the 4gth of August 1869."


By 1877, federal Reconstruction efforts came to an end in the South as political forces changed hands, and African American veterans were left with even less recourse than they had had before.

A portion of Table of Contents
Goodspeed's History of Tennessee
In fact, the African American veterans of the War were not even a footnote in the history being conveyed at the time.  The gold standard of Tennessee history was Goodspeed's History of Tennessee, published in 1886, and still relied on by many historians and genealogists. The tome spent 36 pages reviewing the regimental histories of the federal troops in Tennessee during the Civil War - with no mention of the US Colored Troops in the state.  It also dedicated more than 100 pages to the state's Confederate military history during the Civil War. 

Another example of this whitewashing of our history was a textbook from 1889 entitled, "School History of Tennessee" which included not a single reference to the black federal soldiers during the Civil War. 
In 1890, the Federal Census included a special count of federal veterans of the Civil War.  I think it is revealing that in Williamson County, only a small number of black men identified themselves as being veterans. I know from my research that many black veterans were living in the County in 1890 - some were even collecting pensions for their service - but they did not self-identify.  Additionally, many of these same veterans were eligible for free US Civil War headstones, but their families did not apply for them. Of the more than 300 men that I have identified from Williamson County (so far) who served in the US Colored Troops, only three men (1%) have Civil War headstones here.  

I believe the terror inflicted upon black veterans and their families drove many of them to conceal their military service. By 1899, the Confederate monument was installed in the center of the Public Square in Franklin. The message was clear to those aging US Army veterans that their story was not appreciated by the broader community and certainly not one that would be celebrated.  It is no wonder that the history of their service had been erased.  

The attached newspaper article written five years after the monument was installed shows that the press only counted  the white soldiers from Tennessee who fought in the War - leaving out the 20,000 Tennesseans who served in the US Colored Troops. The accounts of the more than 300 black federal soldiers and sailors from Williamson County had been erased from our local, collective history.


We have the opportunity now to correct this omission and restore these lost chapters of Williamson County's history to their rightful place. Please remember these long-forgotten veterans of Williamson County this Veterans Day and always. 

Help the #SlavesToSoldiers project ensure that these veterans are never forgotten again. Consider sponsoring a paver at Williamson County's Veterans Park in honor of one of these men on our website

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