First USCT Recruits at Camp Nelson

Historical Marker #2388 in Danville notes the community's African American contributions to the Union army during the Civil War. In many instances, slaves and free men of color who tried to join the Union army faced substantial danger.

The recruitment of African American soldiers into the Union army was slow in coming to Kentucky. The state's resistance to the idea of arming slaves and free blacks was expressed from the beginning of the war to its bitter end. Early opposition in the commonwealth was clearly made during the first year of the conflict, when Secretary of War Simon Cameron suggested that the Union arm slaves. When the Kentucky legislature learned of Cameron's idea they formally requested that he be removed from office.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, gave African Americans the opportunity to serve in the Union army. President Lincoln's edict, however, did not legally affect Kentucky since it was a loyal state. In addition, Lincoln's concern for offending the pro-slavery Bluegrass State allowed Kentucky to delay the recruitment of African American soldiers. That Kentucky was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation did not prevent state newspapers from decrying the act. On January 3, 1863, the "Louisville Democrat" wrote, "We scarcely know how to express our indignation at this flagrant outrage of all Constitutional law, all human justice, all Christian feeling."

Although African American men were officially authorized to enlist in Kentucky in the spring of 1864, opposition, persecution, and violence continued. In Danville, citizens threw stones and shot pistols at 250 black recruits who were marching to Camp Nelson. In Louisville, black troops were harassed by stone throwing youths. In Adair County, one young slave who attempted to enlist was told that he could not do so without his master's consent. Upon his return home he was severely whipped. In Taylor County, some recruits were beaten and thrown in jail. White officers who attempted to enlist African Americans were also persecuted. In Spencer County, the deputy provost marshal was beaten and run out of town, and, in LaRue County, a recruiting agent was captured and almost killed by angry citizens.

Historian John David Smith explains the fear-induced white opposition to African American recruitment. "In 1863 the mention of armed Negroes frightened many white Kentuckians," Smith wrote. "Envisioning possible insurrection, they also recognized the implications of social change which the use of blacks as troops implied. The fears of editors, politicians, soldiers, and private citizens were justified. They felt uneasy supporting the Union when victory meant the destruction of a key feature of their ante-bellum social and economic fabric. Colored soldiers failed to usher in a reign of terror against the whites. Yet their enlistment helped seal the fate of slavery in the Commonwealth."

Despite harsh persecutions, Kentucky's African Americans understood that their service in the Union army was a step toward freedom, citizenship, and equality. Black men enlisted in force in 1864 and 1865. Eventually, nearly 24,000 Kentucky African Americans joined the ranks, the most from any state except Louisiana.