Kentucky African American Civil War Soldiers Project

Sergeant Samuel Smith, his wife Mollie Smith, and daughters Mary and Maggie Smith

While researching The Reckoning radio series, we stumbled on a pretty extraordinary resource at the National Archives. It is a set of ledger books that were created to keep track of African American men who joined the Union Army from Kentucky. There are roughly 15,000 soldiers listed in these ledgers, most of whom had been enslaved.

What makes these books so valuable is that, for every man listed who was enslaved, it provides us with an array of facts about him that would otherwise be preserved in no other document: his first and last name, his birth year, his birth location, when and where he enlisted, and it also lists the name of his enslaver, because Lincoln had promised those loyal to the Union that they would be compensated $300 for any enslaved man who joined the Union Army. We can think of this as a kind of Rosetta Stone that unlocks so much previously hidden information about enslaved people.

    • By knowing the name of the enslaver, it allows us to pinpoint where a particular enslaved person had been enslaved. For African American soldiers, all we knew about them prior to this point was where they enlisted. But in many cases, they had to escape from their enslavers and make a long and potentially dangerous journey to the nearest enlistment place. So this alone could be valuable information to African Americans who descend from these soldiers, not to mention future researchers.
    • By knowing the name of the enslaver and the age of the soldier (which is included in the ledger records), we can go backward in time, to the slave schedules from 1850 and 1860, and try to find the soldier on the list of the enslaved for that enslaver.
    • We can also look at wills, deeds, and estate settlements for the enslavers and their parents, to see if we can possibly reconstruct family units that include the soldier (many of these have already been digitized by some combination of Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org). It is common in such documents, especially wills, to refer to a person by first name, and then the names of their children. In this way, we may be able to look for siblings and parents of the soldier in the 1870 census–further widening what can be known about these enslaved families.
    • By knowing the first and last name of the soldier, we can look for the soldier in their Military Pension Card. What makes these cards so important, is that they often show us the name that the soldier used in freedom, which may differ from the name they were known by in the Army (which was often their enslaver’s last name). So in the case of the soldier whose card we have linked to, he was known as James S. Dixon in the Army, but James Sanders in the rest of his life.
    • We also intend to get digital copies of the pension records for each soldier (and/or their widow) who applied for a pension. These records can be a treasure trove containing medical information, correspondence to and from the soldier’s family, death records, and burial information. Here is a scan of James Sanders pension records. With the information contained in these records, his descendants were able to learn about a health condition Sanders suffered from which resembles a rare form of cancer which several family members may have had. They were also able to visit his grave in a military cemetery in Indiana.
    • By knowing the name the soldier went by in freedom (from the pension card), we can hopefully find him and other family members in the 1870 and 1880 census, and start to put together family groups around the soldier. Since many African American households at this time were multi-generational, we may be able to see the parents of the soldier, as well as siblings and in-laws either living in the same home, or next door to one another. With luck, we can construct a family tree for each soldier that extends forward in time to at least the 1940 census (with the 1950 census about to be released in 2022). These would then be available to African American genealogists to see if they connect with known relatives.

It is our vision that this research work should be done primarily by African Americans from Kentucky, especially students from local colleges and universities, and that they be paid generously for their work. It is also our vision that the fruits of this research should be freely available to the public into perpetuity, with no paywalls to inhibit access. We also plan to upload our work when completed to archive.org, which is perpetually endowed to preserve digital information.

We are undertaking a pilot program in 2021 in which a small group of student interns from Kentucky colleges and universities will research a subset of 230 of these soldiers who were born in Jefferson County, going as far back in time as possible through slave schedules, wills, and estate settlements, and as far forward in time as possible, through pension documents, census data, newspapers, and other resources, to create a set of primary source documents for each man and his family, coupled with a detailed family tree. The results of all this research will be published on our website and will serve as a vivid demonstration of the power of this overall project. We also intend to engage with a curriculum developer to create educational curricula around the soldiers’ stories, along the lines of what we have already done with oral histories of the enslaved.

We believe this project could have enormous benefit for at least three groups of people: scholars researching various aspects of slavery and the African American experience; K-12 educators and their students seeking to integrate primary source documents into their study of American history, especially around slavery, the Civil War, and the Jim Crow era; and, most importantly, African Americans who are seeking to learn the identities and stories of their enslaved ancestors. To that end, we intend to place family trees for these soldiers both on FamilySearch.org, as well as Ancestry.com, which have been used by millions of African Americans, so that it is available to any descendant that has been actively seeking to learn the identity of their ancestors.

If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation of any amount to support this project, please go to our donation page.