Elijah P. Marrs, Company L, 12th U.S. Colored Artillery, experiences an adventure-filled day in Kentucky.
A slave until running away mere months ago, the Union soldier and Baptist layman, his company tasked with recruiting new black soldiers, unexpectedly confronts the prospect of death at the hands of Confederate soldiers.
Fortunately, the encounter takes place in a Border State, rather than in the Deep South. In addition, the Rebel commander is a Baptist.
Sunday, the 8th of January, 1865, dawned upon us. Oh, what a lovely morning! The sun seemed to have put on all of his beauty, and the effect was noticeable upon all of us. The boys were all merry, singing with right good will their favorite army songs, and enjoying themselves fully. “No Rebs. last night, boys! They’ve got enough of old Company L, you bet!” is a sample of expressions heard on all sides.
Breakfast being over, and I having been appointed to take down the names of new recruits, who were coming in rapidly, about 7 o’clock I commenced forming them in line to march down to my headquarters for enrollment and to report to the commanding officer. Just as we were crossing the road, one of my recruits exclaimed, “Lord, God! Look at the rebels!” I turned to look toward the enemy, and I have never seen one of my recruits since. As I glanced down the road at the enemy, their line appeared to be about two miles long. Our Lieutenant commanded the company to fall out, and for two hours the opposing forces remained there, intently watching each other, but neither making an offensive movement. As we were not the attacking party, we awaited their action, and finally the rebel General Williams, a Baptist preacher, who was in command of the forces of the enemy, accompanied by one of his staff officers, advanced, bearing a white flag, the remainder of his staff being stationed at about five hundred yards distance. Our Lieutenant asked who would go down with him to meet the truce party, and Sergeant Thomas and myself volunteered at once for the duty. Advancing, Gen. Williams handed us a paper containing the words: “We demand an unconditional surrender.” The Lieutenant read it and turned it over to me. Having read it, I shook my head in the negative, Sergeant Thomas doing the same. The General gave his horse what the Christians sometimes call “a short rein for a quick turn,” and in five minutes he was back again among his own men. With a quick, sharp command from him, his men speedily spread out in every direction, and in an hour’s time we were completely hemmed in on all sides. We quickly realized our position, but rather than surrender unconditionally we preferred to die fighting. When they had tightened their lines they again demanded an unconditional surrender, which we again refused. They drew gradually nearer and nearer, and we could see from the cupola of the church, wherein we had taken refuge, that they outnumbered us twenty to one, and were still coming from the surrounding hills in great numbers. A third time they repeated their demand for a surrender, threatening us with bloody consequences if we refused. We trembled, but refused to accede to their demand. At length the rebels procured a stack of hay, and placing it on a wagon on the hill-side, prepared to ignite it and run it down against the church for the purpose of burning us out. Sharpshooters had been placed so as to command every window, and our situation was indeed hazardous. Word was sent us that they would give us ten minutes in which to comply with their terms.
“Here is a test. What must we do?” said the Lieutenant. I said, “No surrender.” So said Thomas and Stone. But hark! It is all over in three minutes. Lieutenant Love, in a moment of time almost, drew up our terms of surrender in the following language:
“We will surrender our men to you on the following terms: That you immediately parole us and give us a safeguard to our regiment, and that we turn over to you all of our munitions of war.”
No sooner was the message borne to them than they accepted it. As soon as it was understood among our men that we were to surrender several incidents worthy of note occurred. Henry Graves, a young man who entered the army with me, attempted to escape by running. I caught him by the collar of the coat and drew him back into the house. He said that he would rather die than surrender. Another man in my company, Corporal A. Jackson, said to be the bravest man in the command, was so badly frightened at the idea of surrendering that he jerked off his stripes and attempted to dispossess me of mine. I told him if the enemy killed me it would be with my stripes on. When the time came for us to march on the field to turn over our arms to our captors, about twenty of the rebel officers met us, shook hands with us, and talked as if nothing unpleasant had happened. There was one exception, in the case of a fellow among them who was drunk and felt that he ought to kill somebody. He was quickly placed under arrest and sent to the rear. We formed in line, marched out on the field, and after turning over our arms, proceeded back to our quarters and then down into the town, where we were paroled.
On the Thursday night previous to the occurrence of the foregoing incidents I had shot a man who was trying to steal upon one of our guards. Some of the rebels were going through our crowd inquiring for the man who did the shooting. I was the first man to deny all knowledge of it. All of my bravery had fled.
By 8 o’clock at night we had all been paroled and were ready to start on our journey. The night was dark and the snow deep, but the rebels lighted us out of town by the flames of our own wagons and ambulances.
The day I was captured, the 8th of January, 1865, will always be remembered by me. The night we left, the General ordered that those who were sick should be permitted to ride. I claimed to be sick, and four of us got on one mule. After we had reached the woods, our mule shied at a stump and spilled us off in the snow.
At midnight we went into camp, and our captors quartered us at a Union man’s house. He had just killed his hogs and he was ordered to give us all we wanted to eat. The gentleman came into camp and informed us we could have all we wanted to eat, as he had plenty. That night I made my bed under the snow. Just before day we all arose from our snowy beds and set about preparing breakfast. I remember when the last hoecake was baked, I jerked it from the griddle and appropriated it to my own use.
The rebels quickly formed us in line and we were off for E. Town. The trouble with me was, that as the United States troops did not know that we were prisoners, and we were to march into town without their being made aware of our true character, I feared our troops would be fired on by them. The nearer we approached the lines the more frightened I became, but at last, without an accident, we arrived in town, when it proved that neither our own troops nor the rebel citizens knew who we were. The latter, presuming we were rebels, began to hand out clothes, thinking we had captured the town and all the Union soldiers in it.
We marched down to the camp with the rebel General Williams and Lieutenant String in front. The soldiers stood ready to make a charge when ordered. Major Bailey, the commander of the post, was a brave and dashing officer. The rebel General told him the conditions of the surrender of Company L; that according to promise he turned the men over to the Union troops, and asked for six hours’ time in which to take his own departure. Major Bailey, a Dutchman, said:
“Me gives you zix hours to get out in. If any other force come, me don’t gives you information.”
At the same time he sent a dispatch to Muldraugh’s Hill, and in twenty minutes we could hear the car-wheels rolling, and one hour from that time not a rebel could be seen in all the plain.
At night the rebels attempted to retaliate, but were driven off. It was reported that numbers of them were killed that night.
We received arms, marched the next day, and went into camp on Muldraugh’s Hill, where we lived on half rations for two weeks–two hard-tacks, one ounce of meat, and a cup of rye coffee without sugar. This was a trying time for poor me. I wondered, the day I was made prisoner, whether I would ever be a free man again.
Black soldiers prove to be a deciding factor in the freeing of remaining slaves in the South and the outcome of the war. Marrs’ journal provides insight into the experiences of former slaves in uniform.
During the coming months, Marrs, proving a capable leader among the soldiers, is promoted a number of times. Following the war, he becomes first a teacher and then, in 1873, a Baptist preacher. He is best remembered in the Baptist world as the first pastor of the Beargrass Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky.
Source: Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, First Pastor of Beargrass Baptist Church, and Author, Louisville, Ky: Bradley and Gilbert, 1885, pp. 48ff, digitized by Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (link)