12th US Colored Infantry

The 12th US Colored Infantry was at various times named the 2nd Alabama Regiment (African Descent) , the 3rd Tennessee Volunteers (African Descent) and the 1st Regiment US Colored Infantry. Men were recruited into its ranks across the state of Tennessee from July 24 to August 14, 1863.

Soon after mustering in, the regiment was engaged in guard duty at various points in Tennessee and Alabama along the railroad lines. During this time, they were in Johnsonville, Tennessee during the Battle of Johnsonville on November 2, 4 ,and 5, 1864,  and the Battle of Nashville December 15-16, 1864. The 12th USCI pursued Confederate General Hood's defeated  Army of Tennessee to the Tennessee River December 17-28, 1864. The 12th USCI mustered out in December 1866.

The 12th USCI was the second most popular regiment for Williamson County's Black men to have enlisted in. 55 men - about 14% of Williamson County's USCT soldiers - enlisted in the 12th USCI. 

Company G - "The enlisted men of this Company were impressed as "Contrabands" and put to work on Fort Negley and other public fortifications about Nashville, Tenn. in Aug &Sept 1862. They remained as laborers until Aug 12, 1863 when they enlisted as Volunteers." Statement in pension records of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Men from Williamson County Who Enlisted in the 12th US Colored Infantry

Company A:

Company B:

Company E:

Company F:

Company G

Company H

Company I

Company K

No Company Specified

Recruitment Into the 12th USCI In Franklin

In the book, God Struck Me Dead, Pvt. Freeman Thomas described how he escaped from slavery in Franklin to go to the US Army, first as a laborer and then as a soldier:

I ran off from my master when I was about fifteen years old and joined the army. I was in the field shucking corn on the Murfreesboro Pike. All at once I heard a band playing. Everybody in the field broke and ran. Not a man was left on the place. We all went and joined th army. The captain asked what we wanted, and who our master was. We told him who our master was, and that we had come to join the army. 

In his pension application, Pvt. Thomas described that time this way:

I wasn't very old when the Civil War began. I had just turned into my sixteen year. I remember when the Yankees come to this town. My old boss hit me that morning' and he didn't know the Yankees were in town, and when he found it out he come back beggin' me to stay with him, and said he was sorry.

"Impressing the Contrabands at Church in Nashville"

From Fitch, 

Annals of the Army of the Cumberland. 

(Philadelphia, J B. Lippincott, 1864), p. 665. 

12th USCI and Fort Negley.

Many of the men who ultimately enlisted in the 12th US Colored Infantry were first laborers at Fort Negley and other US Army fortifications in Nashville. Some of them volunteered but many were impressed (forced) to work. About 60% of the men from Williamson County who enlisted in the 12th USCI appear on the lists of men who worked on the Federal forts (Employment Rolls and Nonpayment Rolls of Negroes Employed in the Defenses of Nashville, Tennessee, 1862-1863). The majority of the work to build Fort Negley occurred from August 13 to December 7, 1862.

On November 23, 1863, Major General George Stearns, the Commissioner for the Organization of African American troops in Middle and East Tennessee gave testimony before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission. He was very candid when described one example of the injustices suffered by the formerly enslaved:

One case will suffice for all. Brig. Gen. Morton, now of the Engineer Corps, was ordered by Gen. Buell, a year ago last July, to superintend the fortifications of Nashville. It was a very important work; and, as he told me this morning, they collected by impressment and by voluntary offer of service, some three thousand negroes to work on the fortifications. They were obliged to give them poor food, because they had nothing better; they had no tents, and slept in the open air. These men lived upon inferior meat & bread,–the refuse, of course, of the army supplies,–& slept on the hill-side at night. He says they worked well, and through all that were cheerful, although in the fifteen months that they have been employed at that fort–Fort Negley–about 800 have died. He says he thinks it was necessary, because, by the building of that fort, at that time, the safety of Nashville was secured, and we were enabled to hold Nashville, instead of making a stand at Fort Donelson.

When asked by the Commission how these laborers had been paid, he answered: "They never have been paid." Later he added, "At this time, there are a large number of them [the laborer's wives and children] who are destitute because the soldiers and laborers on the fortifications have never been paid."

The (Boston) Liberator, May 6, 1864 

Major General Stearns quoted in a Boston newspaper describing the impressment at Fort Negley.

Enlistment Into the 12th USCI.

On August 12th and 13th, 1863, exactly one year from the date the work on the Fort commenced hundreds of Black men enlisted in the 12th Colored Regiment in Nashville - among them were 54 men from Williamson County.

In the book, God Struck Me Dead, Franklin's Pvt. Freeman Thomas described how he enlisted:

I didn't work there [Fort Negley] no more than about three weeks before they started to recruiting colored soldiers. I was sent to Tullahoma for training. This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life. I felt like a man, with a uniform on and a gun in my hand. 

This was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life. 

I felt like a man, with a uniform on and a gun in my hand. 

-- Pvt. Freeman Thomas

Building and Guarding Railroads

On August 27, 1863, Major General W. S. Rosecrans advised Brigadier General Andrew Johnson, Military Governor of Tennessee: 

“I wish to place under your orders the building of the Northwestern Railroad. * * * It is probable that we can spare you Colonel Thompson, and the 1st and 2nd Regiments Colored Troops [the 12th and 13th USCI] to be employed on the line.”

On September 2, 1863 the regiment, under Colonel Charles R. Thompson, was at the Elk River Bridge, near Decherd, and orders were issued that the regiment should be left together as much as possible, and never divided so that less than one third should be by itself, until Colonel Thompson had time to thoroughly organize it. On September 14, he suggested the Elk River Bridge would be a good place for the regiment to be concentrated for drill and instruction, and that it could, at the same time, act as guards for the bridge. On October 13, the regiment, 800 strong, was reported as part of the forces at the Elk River Bridge under Colonel W. Hawley. By October 31, then called the 3rd Tennessee Volunteers (African Descent), Assistant Adjutant General C. W. Foster listed it with 976 men.

On November 3, 1863, the regiment was ordered to report to Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem, at Nashville, for duty on the Northwestern Railroad, also called the Nashville and Northwestern, which was then being extended by the Federal forces to connect their main depot, at Nashville, with Johnsonville, on the Tennessee River, so that supplies could be shipped up the river to Johnsonville, and then by rail to Nashville. According to a report by Chief of Engineers W. W. Wright, construction was completed May 10, 1864, and in a tabulation of the work done by soldiers he stated that an average of 200 men from the 12th U. S. Colored Infantry were employed from November 15, 1863 until they were relieved April 23, 1864. Meanwhile, the rest of the regiment was engaged in guard duty along the line of construction.

After completion of the line, the 12th USCI guarded the trestles, bridges, and blockhouses along the railroad. Consequently, the regiment’s headquarters shifted up and down the line between Kingston Springs and Johnsonville. 

Photograph, 1st Michigan Engineers And Mechanics Building The Elk River Bridge

Grand Rapids Public Museum. 

The photographic history of the civil war

Book by Francis Trevelyan Miller

Buffalo (New York) Morning Express Saturday May 7, 1864

Regarding construction of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad: "The heavy work has been done by the 12th and 13th U.S. colored troops, who have been engaged on it since November last. What an immense amount of labor has been necessary, is evident from the fact between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers there is one vast series of ridges, all of which have been pierced by the black soldiers, who are carving their history in this war, beyond the power of any biased chronicles of deny or distort."

Battle of Johnsonville

The 12th US Colored Infantry spent much of the rest of the War west of Nashville near Johnsonville helping to build and guard the railroad line to the Tennessee River.  In early November 1864, they were involved in an attack by Confederate John Bell Hood's forces on the Johnsonville battery.  

About two weeks later, at the time of General Nathan B. Forrest’s attack on Johnsonville, Colonel Thompson was in command of the forces there, and the 12th was part of his command. On November 29, the regiment was reported at Kingston Springs, and Lieutenant Colonel Sellon reported on a scouting trip made by Captain Everett, “with my mounted companies,” so at least a part of the regiment was serving as Mounted Infantry at this time.

Description of Camp of 12th US Colored Infantry by Paymaster, April 1864

"In connection with this camp I found a school in operation, under the charge of the Chaplain; an octagonal log school house, say forty feet in diameter, had been erected, and I had the pleasure of seeing about fifty of the men exercised upon McGuffey's charts. They read in concert, and [omitted]. Although this was their second lesson, nearly everyone present had learned to read the short sentences displayed upon the charts as soon as pointed at, without any assistance from the teacher, except in their pronunciation. The avidity with which they seek to learn is truly interesting. In passing around I noticed groups making letters upon the ground, upon bits of board, or anything that would receive an impression, all intent upon progress in the choreographic art.

After the payment had been completed ... we were invited to attend dress parade. Here again was a fine exhibition of discipline, and proficiency in the art of arms-bearing. Everything was right up to tactics and regulations."

Chicago Tribune Friday, April 1, 1864

Relics from the United States Colored Troops (USCT) camp near Johnsonville, Tenn.

Found in a trash pit at the camp site of the 12th and 13th Inf. Regts., USCT along the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad line, the relics include sardine cans, a drumstick holder, a bullet mold, a side knife, a U. S. eagle hat device for a Hardee hat, two hunting horn insignia infantry hat badges, a Federal canteen with a homemade lead stopper, a gun tool, and two worms (wipers) used to clean out a .58 caliber musket.

Tennessee Virtual Archives

12th US Colored Infantry and the Battle of Nashville

General Steedman’s report stated that about 8:00 A.M. on the 15th, Colonel Thompson’s command moved across Brown’s Creek, between the Nolensville and Murfreesboro Pikes, and attacked and carried the left of the front line of the enemy works resting on the Nolensville Pike, and held the position until the morning of the 16th. On the morning of the 16th, they made the bloody assault on Overton’s Hill, which was unsuccessful, but “the troops exhibited a courage and steadiness that challenged the admiration of all who witnessed the charge.” In this charge, the 12th lost about a fourth of their number in casualties, including Major A. I. Finch, who was severely wounded. The command of the regiment devolved upon Captain Henry Hegner. While Thompson’s Brigade was reforming to renew the attack, the Confederate line was broken beyond Overton’s Hill, and the rout of the Confederate Army began.

Captain Hegner's Official report that day contained the following comment:

"Among the enlisted men I must mention Corpl. Miner Carter, Company C, who took up the national colors after two of the color-bearers had been shot down; also, Private E. Steel, Company I, who took the regimental colors, and, after the regiment was falling back, remained alone in the open field, in spite of the murderous fire of the enemy, until called by his officers to return."

Source: Official Records PAGE 546-93 KY., SW. VA., TENN., MISS., ALA., AND N. GA. [CHAP. LVII. [Series I. Vol. 45. Part I, Reports, Correspondence, Etc. Serial No. 93.]

Williamson County Men Fighting in the 12th USCI at the Battle of Nashville

At least 53 men from Williamson County served in the 12th US Colored Infantry.  One of them, Freeman Thomas stated in an interview in the 1920's that, "I was in the Battle of Nashville, when we whipped old Hood." In his pension application, he described,   "It was when we made the attack on Gen'l Hood we was not far from John Overton's place south of Nashville [today the museum site Traveller's Rest]. I received the wound in my left leg in John Overton's wood lot. It was during the fighting in defense of Nashville with Hood's Army. My regiment followed up the fight. " Six Williamson County men were wounded and two of those would ultimately die from their injuries.

Hood's Retreat

The regiment joined in the pursuit through Brentwood and Franklin on December 17 & 18, 1864, and concentrated at Murfreesboro on December 18. From there it moved to Decatur, Alabama, and was the first regiment to cross the river at Decatur on December 27, where a sharp engagement took place. It returned to Nashville on January 9, 1865, having lost three officers and 10 men killed, three officers and 99 men wounded. 

Muster Out

The regiment mustered out of service on December 11, 1865. A few weeks later, the New York Times reported on the event:

A brigade of colored troops are being mustered out of the service in this city. This brigade has done some excellent service in several hard-fought fields. Its commander, Gen. C. F. Thompson has the reputation of being one of the bravest young men in the service. Colonels Harry Stone and Innes, commanding regiments in this brigade, enjoy the same fame.


Pvt. Freeman Thomas was born in Williamson County on May 17, 1845. His parents were Alfred Thomas and Nancy Carothers and he had three brothers and two sisters. Pvt. Thomas, his mother and siblings were enslaved by the Jim Carothers family who owned a large farm that stretched from Cool Springs to Highway 96. In two published interviews with Pvt. Thomas, he described life as a young enslaved boy in Franklin. 

In the book, God Struck Me Dead (Clifton H. Johnson & Paul Raden), Pvt. Thomas described how he enlisted in the 12th USCI:

I wasn't very old when the Civil War began. I had just turned into my sixteen year. I remember when the Yankees come to this town. My old boss hit me that morning' and he didn't know the Yankees were in town, and when he found it out he come back begin' me to stay with him, and said he was sorry.

Pvt. Thomas served with the 12th USCI for its entire term of service. He helped build railroads, guard bridges, and was at Johnsonville. His most significant fighting was during the Battle of Nashville December 15-16, 1864, when he received a gunshot wound in the left ankle at John Overton [Traveller's Rest]'s wood lot. During his recovery, Pvt. Thomas was granted a furlough to visit his home in Franklin. He describes that visit this way:

I went to see my mistress on my furlough, and she was glad to see me. She said, "You remember when you were sick and I had to bring you to the house to nurse you?" and I told her, "Yes'm, I remember," And she said, "And now you are fighting me!" I said, "No'm, I ain't fighting you, I'm fighting to get free."

Pvt. Thomas was honorably discharged on January 16, 1866 with his regiment in Nashville. He married and raised a family in Franklin. The home he built on Franklin Road in front of Harlinsdale Farm still stands. Despite being well-respected, he was harassed by the KKK after the War in Franklin. 

On May 17, 1936 Freeman Thomas died at 91 years old. He was living at his home at 108 Church Street at the time of his death. The obituary described how his funeral was held at the "First Colored Baptist Church" in Franklin - today's First Missionary Baptist Church.  Veterans of the Spanish-American War and World War I served as pallbearers.  His obituary states that Pvt. Thomas, "a lifelong resident of Williamson County, died Sunday morning, on his ninety-first birthday, at his home. . . He was an industrious and prosperous man and widely respected by whites and negroes alike in Williamson County."  The American Legion applied for an American Flag to be draped on his casket at his funeral. His family had a military headstone installed at the Toussaint L'Overture Cemetery in Franklin, Tennessee in his honor. You can read a longer description of his life here.


Sgt. Andrew Ewing was born in 1831 in Williamson County and was enslaved initially by Alexander Ewing who lived on Murfreesboro Road just east of downtown Franklin. When Sgt. Ewing was three years old, Alexander Ewing died and Sgt. Ewing became the property of Alexander Ewing's infant son William. Beginning in his adolescence, Sgt. Ewing was hired out from "year to year" and the fees he earned became the property of William Ewing. As he grew into young adulthood, Sgt. Ewing married Jane Briggs and the couple had a son and two daughters: Herbert "Hub" b. 1855, Annetta b. 1857, and Fanny b. abt. 1859.  In 1862, when Sgt. Ewing was about 31 years old, he made his way, along with thousands of other enslaved laborers to Nashville where he worked to build fortifications, including Fort Negley, for the US Army. His name appears on the list of nearly 3,000 "paid and unpaid" (mostly unpaid) laborers that helped to build forts during the Civil War.  His "owner" was listed as "W. Ewing" - William Ewing.

On August 12, 1863, Sgt. Ewing enlisted in the 12th US Colored Infantry, Company B.  He was described as 5"7" tall, 30 years old, a laborer, and born in Williamson County.   On December 1, 1863  Ewing was promoted to sergeant major of the regiment. During the Battle of Nashville, Sgt Ewing was injured when a cannonball broke a tree limb out of a tree that he was standing either in or under and the limb fell and injured his leg.  However he stayed with his company for the pursuit of Hood's Confederate Army of Tennessee - at least as far as Franklin.  When the US Army troops arrived in Franklin on the heels of the defeated Confederates, Sgt Ewing was "left sick at Franklin, Tenn."  

About a year later, in October 1865, Sgt. Ewing was discharged from the Army due to disability.  The reason stated was "rheumatism and stiffness of the knee and ankle joints . . . contracted in December [1864] during a campaign from Nashville, TN to LaGrange, AL in the line of duty resulting from cold and exposure after the Battle of Nashville."

Shortly after he left the Army, Sergeant Ewing returned to Williamson County. He lived in Eagleville and ran a blacksmith shop at "Cross Roads." On January 1st, 1866 he entered into a Labor Contract, negotiated under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau.  Sgt. Ewing and William B. Giles signed Labor Contract #368.  Andrew Ewing agreed to work in Giles’ blacksmith shop and Sgt. Ewing's wife agreed to help in the Giles' house; the Ewing's were to be paid $275 for the year.  The families were living in District 21 of Williamson County near Jordan's Store (south of College Grove). 

In 1868, Sgt. Ewing applied for a pension from the US government, and in 1869 Andrew's wife died.  Sgt Ewing worked for W. B. Giles learning the blacksmith trade for several years - at least through 1870. Andrew appears on the 1870 Census as a "domestic servant" working for the Giles family.  Soon after he seems to have married Mary Ellen Gadsey and the couple moved to Brentwood.  Andrew and Mary Ellen had 7 daughters together.  By 1880, the Ewings moved to Nashville to raise their daughters and Sgt Ewing was still trying to work as a blacksmith, although the pension examiners found him at this time to be nearly 75% disabled by his war injuries. 

Sgt. Ewing was a hard worker and despite his disability continue to try to work his whole life.  When he was almost 70 years old, in 1900, his daughter Lilly told a pension examiner that he was working at "Bush's brickyard in north Nashville", when he was able, "batching bricks".  On February 24, 1901, at the age of 70, Sergeant Ewing died of pneumonia at his home in Bryant Town in Donelson.  His grave has not been located.  You can read more about him here.

The Weekly Atchison Champion, 

3 Sep 1863, Thu · Page 2.

This article describes the Regiment's officer pool soon after it's organization.

Officers Enlisted From Among 

the Ranks of the 8th Kansas Volunteers

As the 12th USCI was being organized, one of the first needs was for officers.  The Army officials in Nashville looked to the 8th Kansas Volunteers.  One of the men who answered the call was Joseph Jagger, a 44-year-old immigrant from England. While in the area, Jagger met Catherine Elizabeth Nall, the daughter of a Franklin, Tennessee family. The pair married and their first child was born in Kingston Springs in 1866 while he was stationed there with the regiment.

Following the Battle of Nashville in late 1864 and during Hood's Retreat, several officers of the 12th USCI were ambushed near Triune in eastern Williamson County. Lt. George W. Fitch (Quartermaster of the 12th US Colored Infantry), Captain George G. Penfield (44th US Colored Infantry), Lt David Grant Cook (12th US Colored Infantry) and two other officers appear to have left Nashville on December 20, 1864, and traveled down Nolensville Pike toward Murfreesboro. They were following behind their regiments who were pursuing the defeated Confederate Army of Tennessee.  They were taken prisoner, and marched to near Columbia, Tennessee, where they were all shot in the head. Only one man, Lt. Fitch, survived to tell the tale. You can read a full description of their ordeal here.

Below, Capt. Joseph Jagger and Catherine Elizabeth Nall Jagger.