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Researching African American Slavery in Kentucky: Military and Pension Records

Using primary sources and documents to discovery more on the history of those enslaved in Kentucky

NOTE

Enslaved Africans and free men have always served in some capacity with the military in Kentucky, during peacetime and wartime.

U.S. Civil War enlistment and discharge records will include the names of formerly enslaved Africans, and the names and locations of slave owners. 

Some men used their self-chosen names when they enlisted.

Pension applications have the names of family members and narratives about the veterans' lives during and after service.

U.S. Revolutionary War 1775-1783, and War of 1812

Before Kentucky became a state in 1792, there were Black men who had served in the Revolutionary War, then came to Kentucky to make their home. There is an entry in the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (NKAA) that will provide additional information (click here). It has been estimated that 5,000 Black men were soldiers, sailors, or employed in some capacity with the Continental Army, and 20,000 with the British Army. Though, there were laws that forbid Black men from joining the military, the shortage of enlisted men led to various amendments that allowed free Black men to serve, and the same and freedom were promised to runaway slaves. Confiscated slaves were also used as military payment to those who had served in the Revolutionary War.

The research is ongoing in search of enslaved Africans and free men in and from Kentucky who served during the War of 1812.

EXAMPLE:

Pension Application of John Sidebottom (Sydebotham) W8775, transcribed and annotated by C. Leon Harris (online .pdf). Revolutionary War Veteran 

SOURCES:

U.S. Civil War 1861-1865

Kentucky provided more African American soldiers to the U.S. Civil war than any other state, except Louisiana. Almost 25,000 African American men from Kentucky fought for the Union. Newspaper sources from 1865 state there were as many as 30,000 African American men from Kentucky ["Military matters in Kentucky," Chicago Tribune, 04/22/1865, front page]. The Kentucky African American Civil War Memorial in Frankfort honors the service of these men. During the war, the Union military camps gave refuge to runaway slaves and impressed the services of the enslaved as laborers in the camps. With the need for soldiers, the Union army began receiving African Americans as enlisted soldiers. African American men also served in other branches of the military and with the Confederate Army. The military documents will give the names of the men and may include the names of slave owners and family members.

EXAMPLE:

NAME: George Combs

FROM: Lexington, Kentucky

SLAVE OWNER: William Crumell [Cromwell]

ENLISTMENT DATE: July 22, 1864

SOURCE: U.S. Colored Troops U.S. Service Records in Ancestry.com

World War I, 1914-1918

Kentucky provided more than 84,000 men to the armed forces during WWI. More than 40,000 African American men in and from Kentucky registered for service. A small number of these men were born during slavery in Kentucky, 1865 and earlier.

SOURCE: Selected U.S. WWI Draft Registration Cards in Ancestry.com.

  • Isaac Edwards from Louisville, KY, born 1864
  • Henry McClair from Scott County, KY, born 1865
  • James W. Vaughn from Hardin County, KY, born 1863
  • Will Smith from Harlan County, KY, born 1863
  • Kinc Moore from Bell County, KY, born 1865
  • Ed Lewis from Scott County, KY, born 1863
  • Charley Cowen from Pulaski County, KY, born 1862

EXAMPLES:

 

 

NOTE: See the list of military record sources in the columns to the left.