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NPS History E-LibraryScene in Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers



Twenty-four-year-old Elijah P. Marrs was a most unusual slave. Born in 1840 to a bondswoman and a free black man, infant Elijah assumed the status of his mother, according to standard practice in Shelby County, Kentucky. He was the property of Jesse Robinson, a very successful planter, who, Marrs remembered, "was not hard on us," so long as the work was done. In early youth, Marrs embarked on a quest for education. "I was convinced that there would be something for me to do in the future that I could not accomplish by remaining in ignorance," he recollected. Marrs convinced white boys whom he had played with to teach him basics in reading. For one year, the chattel stole away afer dark to an illegal school, taught by an elderly black man, where he learned to write and honed his reading skills.

Marrs's conversion to Christianity at age eleven offered even more opportunities. Slaveholder Robinson was a deacon in the local Baptist church, and once Marrs was baptized, his master permitted him to attend Sunday school and study the Bible. Robinson disregarded the law against slaves learning to read; in his eyes, spiritual enhancement superseded man-made statutes.

As war between the North and South erupted, the Robinson plantation became a focal point of slave gatherings, with the literate Marrs at their heart. He would read newspaper articles about the war to fellow bondsmen and even decipher mail from black soldiers to illiterate kin. Notoriety for these actions spread to such an extent that local whites branded him the "Shelby County negro clerk" and his owner warned him of repercussions if secessionists laid their hands on him.

By September 1864, Marrs concluded that it was time for him to enter the fight for emancipation. One day, he secretly declared his intention of enlisting in the Union army to his friends. Marrs called on all who wanted to join him to roll up their shirtsleeves as a signal for participation and to rendezvous at the black church. Rumors of a Rebel raid on the house of God shook his followers, yet Marrs's wise counsel fortified his uneasy band of twenty-six. If they stayed, he explained, they might be murdered; and if they joined the army, they might also lose their lives. But at least they would die "fighting for principle and freedom."


After divine service, the prospective enlistees parted company with loved ones. They began the weary night march for Louisville, armed only with clubs and a single rusty pistol. Shortly after daybreak, the column entered the Union lines at Louisville, and by 8 A.M., they assembled outside the door of the recruiting office. Four hours later, their masters hunted the thoroughfares and shops of the city, looking for their escaped slaves. It was too late. Uncle Sam now "owned" Marrs and his comrades for the next three years, and after that, no one could ever own them again. Federal law granted emancipation to all slaves who enlisted.

For Elijah Marrs and black Americans North and South, this transformation was almost incomprehensible. By late 1864, bondsmen had not only gained their freedom by the hundreds of thousands, but the Federal government welcomed their entry into the Union ranks to carry weapons that would crush the secessionist spirit and extinguish all vestiges of slavery from the Confederate States.

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