8th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery

Historical Marker #2361 in McCracken County notes the Civil War service of the 8th United States Colored Heavy Artillery.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln believed that Kentucky-a loyal, slaveholding border state-was critical to the Union effort. Although the Union began recruiting African American soldiers in early 1863, Kentucky was allowed to delay the active recruitment of black troops until the spring of 1864. This, Lincoln hoped, would assuage the fears of loyal slaveholders.

The 8th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery (USCHA) was the first African American artillery unit to be recruited in Kentucky. First called the 1st Regiment Kentucky Heavy Artillery, African Descent, the unit was later designated as the 7th U.S. Colored Field Artillery before becoming the 8th USCHA. Most of the men came from Paducah and the surrounding counties, and the unit mainly performed garrison duty in and around Paducah, a strategic location where the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers converge. While helping garrison Fort Anderson in Paducah, the 8th USCHA saw combat in March 1864, when they fought Confederate cavalry led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

African American men who filled the ranks of Kentucky’s black units met with strident resistance from the state’s white citizens. Intent on keeping African Americans in a subservient social, economic, and political position, many whites believed that if blacks became soldiers, they would be considered citizens. Then, as citizens they could vote and be equals, something many white Kentuckians did not want to consider.

Efforts to block African American recruitment sometimes led to violence. One report noted that "On the 23rd of May, 1864, about two hundred and fifty able-bodied and fine looking men assembled from Boyle County, Ky., at the office of the Deputy Provost Marshal, all thirsting for freedom. When this body of colored recruits started from Danville for Camp Nelson, some of the citizens and students of that educational and moral center assailed them with stones and the contents of revolvers." Another account stated that some black recruits had their ears cut off, were whipped, stripped, beaten, shot at, and even killed for attempting to become Union soldiers.

Despite the persecution, and whatever their motivation-whether it be freedom, preserving the Union, or providing for their families-Kentucky African Americans rallied around the flag in astounding numbers. By the end of the war, nearly 24,000 of the commonwealth’s black men had served in the Union army. In fact, that number may have been larger. When Kentucky delayed African American recruitment, many enlisted in other states (including Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois). In fact, only Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union army than Kentucky.