The Runaway Slave

official us government document freeing family of enslaved person George Vaughn
Document freeing the family of former slave and enlisted U.S. Army soldier George Vaughn.
One of the very last regiments of African-American soldiers raised during the Civil War brought a runaway slave to Fort Union. Recruited in Kentucky, the 125th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) was organized in Louisville in the spring of 1865. The regiment included 30-year-old George Vaughn. His enrollment papers say he enlisted "without consent" from owner Fielding Vaughn, a wealthy landowner who owned more than 20 slaves.

By Civil War standards, the 125th USCT had a very unusual experience. Instead of campaigning through the fields and meandering rivers of the South, the 125th was shipped down the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to Fort Leavenworth, and then marched out to New Mexico. Panic began to spread through the regiment during the river trip as word got out that the men were being sent to the Wild West. After a near mutiny in St. Louis, the troops finally got on their way to New Mexico. They covered the 700 miles from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Union in 2 months.
Veteran Affairs headstone for George Vaughn
Private Vaughn's headstone at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
When the regiment arrived in New Mexico, the individual companies were assigned to different forts. The commanding general for New Mexico, James Carleton, a former slaveowner, wrote to the fort commanders about the new arrivals with the 125th USCT, saying, "[I] bespeak for them kindness and consideration. They are all strangers, come to a very distant country, and with more or less of prejudice against them. The fact that they are men--not to blame for their color--and the consideration that they have had a hard lot to bear in this world, will awaken the sympathies of all in their favor." (Some 15 years earlier, as a junior officer with the dragoons, General Carleton brought the first African American slaves into New Mexico when he arrived with this family.)

Most members of the 125th USCT were assigned a variety of duties such as escort duty, various fatigue duties and herding of Army livestock. Private Vaughn stayed behind at the Fort Union hospital, sick with pneumonia. He never recovered, dying from pneumonia about a month later.

Sadly, Vaughn never returned to Kentucky to see his family, set free by an act of Congress about a year before he died--and two months after he enlisted in the Union Army. Vaughn and other burials at the Fort Union Cemetery were re-interred at Fort Leavenworth when Fort Union closed in 1891.

Last updated: January 16, 2021

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