Black Enlistment: Kentucky Was Against it, Before it Was Mostly Against it

By Tony Curtis

White Kentuckians, including Governor Thomas E. Bramlette and most Kentucky political leaders, were adamantly opposed to Civil War-era black enlistment, until it benefited themselves.

A series of official federal acts and proclamations brought black enlistment to the United States. The Second Confiscation Act and Militia Act, both of July 1862, allowed President Abraham Lincoln to accept “persons of African descent” into the United States service. Lincoln first utilized this power in the fall of 1862 to create black regiments in the Union-occupied southern states. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, officially creating the Bureau of Colored Troops in the United States military; however, this did not immediately spur black recruitment efforts in Kentucky. Enlistment of Kentucky enslaved men, with their owner’s permission, and freeman occurred in February 1864, however, unrestricted enlistment of all enslaved men did not occur until June 1864. Bramlette reluctantly embraced black enlistment and shifted his focus to how black enlistment could most benefit white Kentuckians in meeting their draft quotas.

The governor discussed this in his message to the Kentucky General Assembly on January 4, 1865.[1] Bramlette argued, “That the State should have credit for the forces furnished in proportion to their term of service as well as the number is enforced by additional considerations.” He continued his case to the Legislature, “Three fifths of the negroes are estimated in fixing our representation in Congress. All are estimated on the enrollment. The effect is to increase our military assessment above our representative voice, to the extent of two fifths of the negroes enrolled, and, at the same time, diminish the assessment of other States below their representative strength to the extent of two fifths of the negro enrollment added to us.” Bramlette urged adoption of calculating draft quotas by this matrix—integration of United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) recruits in state tallies on a one-to-one basis; inclusion of the terms of service in calculating state quotas; and credit for all additional troops engaged “against a common foe” through home guard, State guards, & State forces.

How did Governor Bramlette acquire accurate returns for U.S.C.T. units inclusive of all formerly enslaved Kentuckians? At the adjourned 1863 session of the Kentucky General Assembly, Governor Bramlette appointed non-slaveholding merchant, tailor, and Hopkinsville resident James P. Flint, Commissioner and Agent for Kentucky. Flint received his official commission on April 8, 1864, which appears to have been renewed on an annual basis through 1866. Bramlette charged Flint with visiting various camps within and outside of Kentucky to procure an accurate account of enslaved Kentuckians enlisted in bordering states. The governor received the final report,[2] entitled “REPORT OF THE STATE AGENT FOR KENTUCKY, IN REGARD TO CREDITS ON DRAFTS AND CERTIFICATES FOR SLAVES MUSTERED INTO THE U.S. SERVICE,” on December 20, 1865, and presented it to the General Assembly on January 18, 1866. In the report, Flint recounts his methods to and troubles with identifying enslaved Kentuckians who enlisted in the bordering states of Tennessee and Indiana, as well as members of the 4th United States Colored Heavy Artillery (U.S.C.H.A.) organized in Paducah, Kentucky. Organizing at the county level from the beginning, Flint identified 3,448 enslaved Kentuckians who enlisted in bordering states and was able to obtain proper certificates for each formerly enslaved enlistee. Why Governor Bramlette selected Flint remains unknown. However, it is possible that his place of residence—Hopkinsville, Christian County, Kentucky—and his occupation—as a merchant, tailor—were motivating factors. Both provided Flint with the geographical connections and social networks needed to effectively pursue his objectives.

In the course of his investigation, Flint stated, “the present records of the colored troops who have enlisted in the service of Kentucky, I find a large number who have not given their former owner’s name, and, in many cases, have assumed a different name and owner, thereby making it difficult for a claimant to identify his slave from the record.” Flint asked General James S. Brisbin, Superintendent of Organization of Colored Troops for Kentucky, for his attention to the matter. Brisbin proposed, “To have each regiment re-enrolled, by taking their statements under oath, giving, first, the name; second, when where, and by whom mustered; company and regiment; name of former owner; his residence; name of wife, if any, number of children, &c.” The result of this was a more extensive accounting of ten U.S.C.T. regiments organized and still present in Kentucky at the time of Brisbin’s order—an order Brisbin requested the Governor expand to include all U.S.C.T. units recruited and organized in Kentucky. Thanks to James P. Flint and James S. Brisbin, this project can reconnect Flint’s 1865 report with the descriptive rolls preserved in the archives of the Kentucky Military Records and Research Branch of the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs (K.D.M.A.).

[1] Thomas E. Bramlette, “Governor’s Message,” The Frankfort Commonwealth, January 4, 1865, 2.

[2] Legislative Document No. 23: Report of the State Agent for Kentucky, in Regard to Credits on Drafts and Certificates for Slaves Muster into the U.S. Service by James P. Flint, Kentucky Documents (Frankfort, Ky.: State Printing Office, 1866): 1-8.