Elijah J. Marrs today enlists in Company L, 12 U.S. Colored Artillery. The story of how Marrs arrives at this moment is quite remarkable.
Marrs was born January 1840 in Shelby County, Kentucky, to a free black father and an enslaved mother. Since his mother was a slave, Elijah was born into slavery.
“Where I was reared there were about thirty slaves,” he recalls in his memoirs. “Our master was not hard on us, and allowed us generally to do as we pleased after his own work was done, and we enjoyed the privilege granted to us.”
Elijah’s joys included fishing and playing in the woods.
But the young boy yearned for more.
Very early in life I took up the idea that I wanted to learn to read and write. I was convinced that there would be something for me to do in the future that I could not accomplish by remaining in ignorance. I had heard so much about freedom, and of the colored people running off and going to Canada, that my mind was busy with this subject even in my young days. I sought the aid of the white boys, who did all they could in teaching me. They did not know that it was dangerous for a slave to read and write. I availed myself of every opportunity, daily I carried my book in my pocket, and every chance that offered would be learning my A, B, C’s. Soon I learned to read.
Soon, Elijah grew interested in religion. “I am unable to tell the day or year when I became a Christian,” he recounts later in life, “but it was about the year 1851.” His conversion modeled the elements of revivalist religion and straddled the world of black and white Baptists.
One day I was sent out into the field to cut corn-stalks with one of my young masters. He looked at me, and he saw that I was sin sick. He, being a Christian, took me in hand and told me that I was a sinner, and that Jesus Christ died to save sinners, and all I had to do was to believe that Jesus Christ was able to save. He told me about hell and its horrors. From morning to evening he talked. I prayed the best I could after I left him. I prayed during that week, and had a special place to pray every morning, when I went after the cows, about a mile from home, under a June apple-tree. Sunday came and I went to church and heard old Brother James Venable preach from this text, “Escape for your life.” I was struck with conviction, and lingered along until Rev. Charles Wells, who was then pastor of the Colored Baptist Church, Simpsonville, commenced a protracted meeting. Shortly after the commencement of the meeting I professed faith in Christ. Oh how well I remember the time when Jesus freed me! Then, after I had found Christ, I had to go to Old Mass and Old Miss to get permission to join the Church. They consented, and then came the time to be baptized. It was extremely cold, and the streams covered with ice an inch thick. I had to again ask permission to be baptized, and with tears in their eyes my request was granted. Rev. Wells buried about fifty souls that day in the liquid grave. Thank God that I was saved!
By the time the war came, Elijah’s reading and writing abilities were well known in the area. Living in a Union-sympathetic county, Elijah kept other slaves informed of war news. A number of free and escaped blacks from Shelby County enlisted in the war effort. When they wrote home to mothers, wives and sisters, they addressed the letters to Elijah Marrs to be read to the recipients. Marrs’ reputation as “the Shelby County Negro clerk” spread, much to the chagrin of his owner, who warned him to be careful lest Rebels hunt him down.
The warning was to no avail. The desire for freedom was too strong.
I remember the morning I made up my mind to join the United States Army. I started to Simpsonville, and walking along I met many of my old comrades on the Shelbyville Pike. I told them of my determination,and asked all who desired to join my company to roll his coat sleeves above his elbows, and to let them remain so during the day. I marshaled my forces that day and night. I had twenty-seven men, all told, and I was elected their captain to lead them to Louisville. Our headquarters were at the colored church. During the day some one brought the news that the rebels were in Simpsonville, and that they were preparing to make a raid upon the church. For a time this news created a panic–women screamed, jumped out the windows, crying “Murder!”–strong men ran pell-mell over the women and took to the woods. I, myself, crowded into the corner of the church, and Captain Marrs was about, for the time being, to throw up the sponge. But I did not despair. I picked up courage and rallied my men, and news soon came that the report was false. We held a council of war, and the conclusion of the boys was, that where I would lead they would follow. I said to them we might as well go; that if we staid at home we would be murdered; that if we joined the army and were slain in battle, we would at least die in fighting for principle and freedom.
During all this excitement no white face was to be seen. Night came, and Rev. Sandy Bullitt, son of Deacon John Bullitt, who had been drafted into the U. S. Army, was to preach his farewell sermon. The house was crowded to suffocation. He preached one of the most powerful sermons I have ever heard before or since. He was a preacher of the Gospel that none need be ashamed of. His name as a faithful minister of the Gospel was often afterwards mentioned by the white chaplains of the army.
It was known by nearly every one present that night that there were a number of young men in the house who were preparing to leave for the army, and they the best in the neighborhood, consequently there was great weeping and mourning–the wife for husband, the maiden for her sweetheart. Such a demonstration of sorrow I have never seen, before or since.
After a many adieu I formed my men in line, twenty-seven in number, and marched them some two miles to Robinson’s, where I was raised. I arrived there at about 10 o’clock at night, and I stationed my men around until I could make arrangements to get them something to eat. I went into the house where old Aunt Beller, as we used to call her, staid, who always had on hand something good to eat. She gave me what she had, which I took and gave to the men. Then I went into my mother’s room where I had concealed about $300 in money, which I had saved during slave times. I took about $200 of it and left the remainder for mother. She being asleep it was my intention to steal off without arousing her, but in getting my money I awakened her, when she screamed at the top of her voice. I immediately ran out of the door, rejoined my comrades, and we took up our march for the army. We had on the place a large Newfoundland dog, and he followed in our tracks for nearly a half mile.
Our arms consisted of twenty-six war clubs and one old rusty pistol, the property of the captain. There was one place on our route we dreaded, and that was Middletown, through which the colored people seldom passed with safety. When we got within two miles of the place I ordered my men to circle to the left until we got past the town, when we returned to the Pike, striking it in front of Womack’s big woods. At this place we heard the rumbling of vehicles coming at full speed, as we supposed, towards us. I at once ordered the men to lie down in a ditch by the roadside, where we remained some twenty-five minutes, but hearing nothing further I ordered my men to arise and we took up our line of march.
Day was now breaking, and in one half hour we were within the lines of the Union Army, and by eight o’clock we were at the recruiting office in the city of Louisville. Here we found Mr. George Womack, the Provost Marshal, in whose dark woods we had taken shelter the night before. By twelve o’clock the owner of every man of us was in the city hunting his slaves, but we had all enlisted save one boy, who was considered too young.
I enlisted on the 26th day of September, 1864, and was immediately marched out Third Street to Taylor Barracks, and assigned to Company L, Twelfth U. S. Colored Artillery. My first night in the barracks was anything but a pleasant one, and an accident occurred that so jarred my nerves that I wished I had never heard of the war. Our bunks were arranged in tiers of three, one above the other. I occupied the top one. During the night the man who occupied the middle one accidentally discharged his revolver. The ball passed downward, striking the man below in the head and killing him almost instantly. In less than two hours afterwards the body of the man shot was robbed of three hundred dollars that he had received that day as a substitute. This was the experience of the first eight hours of my soldier life, and it naturally caused my mind to revert back to my old home and to those I had left behind. I thought it would have been better had I remained there, than to be in the position I then was, liable to be slain at any moment. My fears in a measure overcame me. I prayed, I cried, I said, “How long, how long, O Lord, shall it be before I am delivered from this thraldom?” The shock was more than I thought I could bear; but I was in for it, and I knew there was no way of getting out of it. In due time I dosed off to sleep, only to dream of what had happened in the former part of the night, with other horrible things, and was only too glad to waken in the morning and find them not true.
When the sun came up from behind the eastern hills I looked towards home, and thought of my old mother and father I had left behind. I said “Lord! shall I ever see them more? I commit them into thy hands.” I remembered the poet: “The Lord has promised good to me; his Word my hopes secure!”
Breakfast time came, the tattoo was beat, and the men formed into line. I was not disobedient to the call. The Orderly Sergeant called the roll, and when he called “Marrs, Elijah,” I promptly answered. I can stand this said I, and like a man, with cup, pan, and spoon, marched up to the window and received my rations. It is true I thought of my mother’s sweet voice when she used to call me to dine, but “pshaw!” said I, “this is better than slavery, though I do march in line to the tap of the drum.” I felt freedom in my bones, and when I saw the American eagle, with outspread wings, upon the American flag, with the motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” the thought came to me, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Then all fear banished. I had quit thinking as a child and had commenced to think as a man. I had in camp some reputation as a writer, though I had little confidence in myself, coming as I did just out of the bondage of slavery. I appeared, however, to be above the average of those in our quarters, and many former friends who had joined the army before me employed me to do their writing.
In the months to come Marrs records many adventures and exploits of soldiering. Surviving the great conflict, Marrs 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.
Sources: Life and History of the Rev. Elijah P. Marrs, First Pastor of Beargrass Baptist Church, and Author, Louisville, Ky: Bradley and Gilbert, 1885, pp. 21-23, digitized by Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (link); “Rev. Elijah P. Marrs,” in General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky, Golden jubilee of the General Association of Colored Baptists in Kentucky, Louisville: Mayes Printing Company, 1915, pp. 190, 194-195, including image (link)