17th US Colored Infantry

OVERVIEW: Organized at Nashville, Tenn., December 12 to 21, 1863. Attached to Post of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Dept. of the Cumberland, to April, 1864. Post and District of Nashville, Tenn., Dept. of the Cumberland, to December, 1864. 1st Colored Brigade, District of the Etowah, Dept. of the Cumberland, to January, 1865. Post and District of Nashville, Tenn., Dept. of the Cumberland, to April, 1866.

SERVICE: Duty at Franklin, Saundersville. McMinnville and Murfreesboro, Tenn., till November, 1864. Battle of Nashville, Tenn., December 15-16. Overton Hill December 16. Pursuit of Hood to the Tennessee River December 17-27. Decatur December 28-30. Duty at Post of Nashville, Tenn., and in the Dept. of Tennessee till April, 1866. Mustered out April 25, 1866.

All of the 37 men listed below were born in or raised in Williamson County and served in the 17th US Colored Infantry.

Company A

Company B

Company C

Company D

Company E

Company F

Company G

Company H

Company I

Company K

March 1864 - 17th US Colored Infantry in Franklin

In the spring of 1864, a portion of the 17th USCI was garrisoned in Franklin. On March 1, 1864, Moscow  Branch Carter of the Carter House wrote a letter to his brother Tod in which he said a company of USCT was garrisoned in Franklin and he expected a regiment to be sent here. He was probably referring to Company K of the 17th US Colored Infantry. 

We have for the first time during the Federal occupancy of this town, a Corps of  “n*****” soldiers, or as I heard a soldier call them the other day, “Smoked Yankees” quartered in this vicinity. I think there is but a company yet though. I understand it will be increased to a regiment. 

Pvt. Samuel Cox "went to the Yankees"

On February 2, 1863, Rev. Jesse Cox, a white enslaver of the Fairview area of western Williamson County, TN, wrote in his diary, "My servants all left today 3 young men and two women and child, and went to the Yankies [sic]." One of the young men was likely 18 yo Samuel Cox, whom Jesse had mentioned before in his diary

When Samuel Cox "went to the Yankees" he appears to have escaped bondage to Franklin, TN.  By early March, records show that a portion of the 17th US Colored Infantry was camped in Franklin. This may have been one of the first times that Sam saw Black uniformed members of the US Army. On March 21, 1864, Samuel Cox enlisted into Co C of the 17th USCI.  When he was discharged for disability a few months later, his captain Christopher Bateman certified that he "do[es] not consider that [Cox] will ever be of any service." Thus far, no more information about Samuel Cox has been uncovered.

Deaths of Three USCT in Franklin

While Company K of the 17th USCI was garrisoned in Franklin, three enlisted men died here.

On March 4, 1864, Pvt. Levi, aka Lee, DeBow of the 17th US Colored Infantry, Company K, died in Franklin of lung disease. DeBow was about 27 years old. His younger brother, John Turner Debow, served in Company G of the regiment and was killed at the Battle of Nashville. Their father applied for a pension after the War. 

On March 24th, 1864, Cpl. Erasmus Turner died in the Company Camp in Franklin of a gunshot wound. 

On April 6, 1864, Pvt. Israel Stonebreaker died in Franklin from smallpox in the “quarantine hospital”.

Following the War, US soldiers discovered the remains of two soldiers from Company K of the 17th US Colored Infantry who were “Found in Vicinity of Squire Carter’s on Battlegrounds.” These men were later buried in the Stones River National Cemetery. These remains probably belonged to two of the men described above. None of the three appear to have headstones identifying their remains in any of the area National Cemeteries.

Recruitment of Soldiers 

Into the 17th USCI

Recruiting agent and preacher James T. Ayers accompanied cavalry expeditions from Nashville into northern Alabama to enlist Black men into the US Colored Troops, including into the 17th US Colored Infantry Many of the men he enlisted were former field hands working along the railroad line from Bridgeport to Decatur. He carried with him copies of the attached Recruiting Picture. He described it this way in his diary:

"Well children see here," getting off of my horse then and handing them one of my Recruiting Pictures "here is what Father Abraham is doin for you" showing them the Darky in Center with flagstaff flag waving and on the write, men knocking off the chains from the slaves wrists and some Just has got Loose and hands stretched upward shouting and Praising God for there Deliverance and on the left side A free school in full Opperation with miriads of Little Darkies Each with his Book, then on the other side in Large Letter "All slaves were made free by Abraham Lincoln President of the United States Jan 1st 63. Come then Able boddyed Collered men and fight for the stars and stripes." You would have to be present to understand the Joy of those pore down trodden Abused People. "Well now Children" said I "Father has been good haint he."

The Regimental Band of the 17th US Colored Infantry.

Pvt Noah Elmore was born about 1838 in Williamson County. He enlisted on Feb 21, 1864 in Murfreesboro in the 17th US Colored Infantry. He was described as a 26 year old farmer. He died March 3, 1864 at Murfreesboro of typhoid pneumonia. His remains are buried in the Stones River National Cemetery in Murfreesboro with an headstone marked "Unknown".

The 17th USCI at the Battle of Nashville - Rains' Cut

On December 15, 1864, the two-day-long Battle of Nashville commenced.  Several regiments of US Colored Troops were involved in intensive and deadly combat.  The  17th USCI served in the 1st Colored Brigade under the command of Col. Thomas J. Morgan.  On the first day of the Battle, the 14th US Colored Infantry, flanked by the 17th and 44th USCI, led an assault on the far eastern part of the battlefield (the Confederate’s right flank). The plan was for the ​​USCT soldiers to provide a feint, intended to convince Gen. John B. Hood that their attack was the primary assault in order to push the Confederates to support their right and weaken their left. That day, as the 14th USCI encountered some resistance, the 17th US Colored Infantry pushed through and took the Confederate rifle pits. They then pushed forward until they reached the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad at Rains’ Cut. Unfortunately, the US officers had not realized that the Confederates had constructed a lunette - a small fort flanked by cannons. This would prove deadly for the men of the 17th US Colored Infantry. One of the USCT officers described how the 17th USCI, 

“Pushing on, the right of the skirmish-line passing through an orchard and cornfield and the left through a field lately cleared of timber and thickly strewn with stumps and piles of brush, over the crest of the slope it had ascended, it found itself on a sloping field…and face to face with heavy earthworks on its opposite side, from which, came at once a heavy and deadly fire of both artillery and infantry.” 

As the 17th reached the railroad line they found their way blocked by a deep ditch cut to allow the railroad to pass through.  Confederate cannons opened fire from the lunette. The 17th was trapped. In order to escape, some soldiers jumped down into the railroad bed and 17 men were killed and 67 wounded.  Three Williamson County men from the 17th US Colored Infantry were killed and one was wounded but survived. 

On December 16, 1864, the regiment provided support during t the Battle of Nashville and participated in the pursuit of General Hood’s remaining forces until December 26, 1864. On December 19, 1864, James H. Alexander, who was born in Franklin, TN, enlisted into the 17th USCI in Nashville; perhaps his recruitment was an attempt to fill vacancies left by deaths following the Battle of Nashville. 

A week later, on December 27, 1864, the regiment was engaged in light skirmishing near Decatur, Alabama. For the remainder of its service, the regiment served on guard duty in the Department of Tennessee until it mustered out on April 25, 1866.  

The Barracks of the 17th US Colored Infantry

This newspaper article provides a wonderful account of the barracks of the 17th USCI when they were camped northwest of Nashville in the fall of 1865, following the end of the War.  Because many USCT signed up for 3-year-terms of service, many USCT regiments stayed on active duty well past the end of the War into 1866. 

"The barracks of this splendid regiment of colored troops is on the west side of the Buena Vista Pike, in the north-western suburbs of the city. A visit to it will satisfy one that the Government has made provisions for the comfortable accommodation of the men, and that the officers in command discharge their duties faithfully and conscientiously. The quarters are neat two story frame houses, well white-washed, and kept clean and in good order. The parade ground is large and one of the best we have ever seen. This regiment is under the command of Col Shafter, who feels a becoming pride in the maintenance of its high reputation as one of the best drilled fighting regiments left to the service. In the bloody battles in front of Nashville, which resulted in the utter rout of Hood, and in the assurance of no further trouble in this Department, the 17th participated, and won distinction for its efficiency and bravely. We had the pleasure yesterday afternoon of being present at the dress parade of the regiment, and were struck with the soldierly bearing of the men, and their proficiency in the manual. We were glad to see, too, what we had not witnessed before, a gymnastic drill, which has been introduced, - at the suggestion of Col Van Schrader, one of the most meritorious officers int he service - and which, we are assured, has proved to be of great benefits to the men, developing their physical organizations and giving them better use of all their muscles and limbs. 

We do not know what is the policy of the Government: but we think regiments like this ought to be retained in the service and incorporated into the regular army."

The Nashville Daily Union, Saturday November 11, 1865

Pvt. Henry Moon

About dusk on Sunday February 4, 1866, two men described as brothers, Lewis Moon and Henry Moon - both privates in the 17th US Colored Infantry Company E - were on furlough from Nashville and walking down Nolensville Pike heading to their home near Triune in eastern Williamson County.  They had both enlisted in Murfreesboro on January 17, 1864 and were described as 5'5" tall farmers.  It appears that their parents and a young Lewis and been sold from Virginia (where Lewis was born) to Wilson County (where Henry was born in 1846), and then later sold or taken to the Triune area - where they were now headed.  As the brothers walked down Nolensville pike that winter evening they were combat-tested veterans - both had fought at the Battle of Nashville. Pvt. Lewis Moon, was just 20 years old, and recovering from a wound he received on the first day of fighting on December 15, 1864.

According to the reports, John Henry Griggs, Jr. (a white man) and two other men - perhaps William Pogue and John Griggs Sr, confronted the soldiers and became involved in an altercation with them outside of John Bostick's gate south of the four-way intersection in Triune. John Henry Griggs shot Pvt Henry Moon during that incident.  Private Moon was wounded and taken to John Bostick's house where he was treated by Dr. Mills.  His older brother Lewis Moon went back to Nashville to report the shooting and Lt. Col Pickering of the 17th USCI sent an ambulance to retrieve the injured soldier.  However, despite their efforts, Private Henry Moon died on Friday, February 9th, 1866.  His official military records state that he "died from wounds received from a civilian." He was buried in the Nashville National Cemetery in Madison, Tennessee and his grave is marked with a military headstone.  You can read his full story here.

Gary Burke is a good friend and supporter of the #SlavesToSoldiers Project. His great-great-grandfather, Pvt. Peter Bailey was born in Wilson County, Tennessee and served in the 17th US Colored Infantry.

Sgt. George Singleton, 

Co. C, 17th US Colored Infantry. 

From the Looking Back at the Civil War collection. 

Tennessee State Library and Archives

Captain C. T. Bateman

Christopher T. Bateman was a captain of the 17th USCI. He was also a teacher and author. During his time with the 17th he wrote a book of poems entitled "Noah and Other Poems." One of those other poems was entitled, "Ode to Freedom." Here are a few stanzas:


O, Liberty! I've heard they name,

They worthy deeds, they wond'rous fame,

Where freedom's fires glow, 

Where freemen hang their banners high,

To stream along the azure sky,

The tyrant's dreaded foe.

O, Goddess! friend of God and man,

Arouse thy hosts, lead on the van,

And free the world from chains.

Let tyrant thrones in thunder fall; 

Let cruel lords for mercy call

Upon a thousand plains.

Leave not the world to slavery's doom,

Though Tyrants oft have worn they plume,

And fought for selfish ends,

And sons have recreant traitors proved,

Where freedom's hosts victorious moved

Against oppression's friends

Pvt. Daniel Dotson

Died at Nashville May 29, 1865 of scurvy also “rheumatism of the heart"; he “left no effects of any value”; his remains were buried in the Nashville National Cemetery

Cpl. Henry McPearson, wounded at the Battle of Nashville (gunshot wound and broken arm), and died February 21, 1865 at a hospital in Nashville. His remains are buried in the Nashville National Cemetery.

Fun Fact: "Pecos Bill"

The legendary "Pecos Bill" was Colonel of the 17th US Colored Infantry. William Rufus Shafter and his two brothers, James N.  Shaftner and John W. Shaftner (both 1st Lieutenants) were all officers in the regiment. Prior to his service with the 17th USCI William R. Shafter had served in the 19th Michigan Volunteers and was captured at the Battle of Thompson's Station in Williamson County. After spending three months in a Confederate prison, he was released and took an assignment in the US Colored Troops. By the end of the war, he had been promoted to brevet brigadier general of volunteers. He stayed in the regular Army and continued as an officer of Black Troops - commanding the 24th Infantry, a Buffalo Soldier regiment. It was during this time that he earned the nickname "Pecos Bill."

Generals Joseph Wheeler (left) and William Rufus Shafter in Cuba. From p. 386 of Harper's Pictorial History of the War with Spain, Vol. II, published by Harper and Brothers in 1899.