High Expectations: African Americans in Civil War Kentucky

Article excerpt

Most civilians in Kentucky suffered during the American Civil War, but no class was less fortunate than the commonwealth's Americans of African descent. Caught between the conflicting policies of unsympathetic northern generals and the harsh attitude of southern leaders, Kentucky's blacks were often resented as a class by federal troops while disliked and blamed for causing the war by white Kentuckians and rebel soldiers.

The early years of conflict were especially difficult for blacks. Kentucky's "Proclamation of Neutrality" placed blacks virtually in a state of limbo. Still bound by Kentucky's race code and unsure of their relationship with the Union army, free blacks and those enslaved were forced to fend for themselves as competing armies took turns occupying the state. During this period daily life clearly changed for the worse for Kentucky's African American inhabitants, a people already at the bottom of society. But with change came opportunities, thus the Civil War presented blacks with their first viable opportunity to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all Americans were created equal--a hope, unfortunately, frustrated by events.

In Kentucky's Civil War environment whites found new opportunities to harass slaves and freemen alike. Negrophobes and law enforcement officers challenged and molested freemen on the streets, and when their houses were entered and searched, African Americans had no redress. "Home guards" menaced slaves, forcing them from the streets under threat of whippings, while state and local military authorities limited the movement of free blacks by invoking vagrancy laws. A handful of freemen, fearing re-enslavement, fled northward where they hoped for better treatment. (1)

Some blacks, however, were able to turn hostile conditions to their advantage. Wages for skilled laborers escalated because of wartime demands, and sometimes black mechanics secured better jobs, even working alongside whites. A few African Americans, such as Elizabeth Thompson the mother of five children, were able to improve their conditions considerably. Thompson found a job paying $7.50 a week during the conflict and claimed that the police never harassed her. An enslaved black man improved his income by "moonlighting" in the river trade. With this additional income he purchased, at considerable cost, himself, his five children, and two nephews. In addition he sent three of his children to school and eventually one nephew to Oberlin College in Ohio. Nevertheless, the feeling lingered among blacks that no matter how hard they worked or whatever progress they made, Kentucky whites refused to treat them honorably. (2)

That blacks exhibited more independence and self-reliance after the war began is well documented. Some whites commented that African Americans were no longer willing to work--that they appeared "dissatisfied" and no longer "content." Presumably, whites meant that African Americans were no longer willing to "work like a slave." Slaves were more likely to threaten to "leave & never return" when unreasonable demands were made on them and less reticent to respond disrespectfully when questioned sharply. Some whites eventually concluded that the only way to get slaves to continue working was to employ them essentially as free persons even though technically they were still enslaved. (3)

If blacks exerted a new independence, it was not without consequence. Ministers, leaders in the black community, came under increasing scrutiny during the early years of the conflict, and in some areas whites objected to, or even prevented, black church services. In Louisville threats from city or military authorities occasionally forced black churches to cancel services, and in a few instances authorities appropriated black churches for military hospitals or barracks. (4)

Black educational institutions, always associated with churches, were early casualties of the Civil War. …