January 1, 1863 was an historic day in United States history. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect, freeing most slaves in the United States. But for enslaved men living in Kentucky and other border states, it was a bittersweet occasion. Lincoln desperately wanted to keep Kentucky loyal to the Union. It was not until 1864, when Kentucky became the last state allowing their enlistment that slaves could join the Union Army. Like many Kentucky-owned slaves, Newton Bush risked his life to escape from his owner and travel to Camp Nelson and enlist in Company E of the 5th Regiment United States Colored Cavalry.
Fighting for their freedom and a better life for the people they loved, Bush was one of 24,000 men of color from Kentucky who joined the Colored Cavalry. It didn’t take long for them to discover that joining the Army didn’t result in being treated with respect and dignity or that more value was placed on a horse than a colored solder. But their loyalty to the Union and bravery in battle eventually earned the respect of the white soldiers.
For Bush and the troops in the Colored Cavalry, the fighting didn’t end when the Civil War was over. They had endured slavery and risked their lives to preserve the Union, yet they spent the rest of their days in fear of being harassed and killed while fighting for freedom and equal citizenship.
Co-sponsored by the Kentucky Humanities Council & The Friends of the Library.