I've embarked on a new project, tentatively titled BLACK SMITH, WHITE LIES, the story of my great-great-grandfather.
This time, the story concerns real people in a real time and place, many of whom have difficult decisions to make.
My ancestor, John Bazel, was a free man of color born in Tennessee in 1822. His father was half-black, the son of a free Negro and a white woman. The grandparents had been early settlers in eastern Tennessee, arriving there shortly after the Revolution. They were landowners and grandpa served in the militia, the same as his white neighbors.
John's mother was a full-blooded Cherokee.
Prior to the adoption of the Tennesse Constitution in 1835, free blacks could vote and had the same rights as white citizens. As the country moved down the path toward civil war, free blacks found their freedoms curtailed more and more and more. It must have been grating on John to watch as right after right was stripped from him and his family during his lifetime.
Still, he seems to have been doing fairly well up until the Civil War. He owned a prime piece of land in Crossville, Tennessee, right on the town square. He followed in the family craft which was blacksmithing and doesn't seem to have suffered much personally under the then current laws. Although he and his family are listed on census records as 'mulatto', the fact that he provided a necessary service seemed to have bought him both friendship and acceptance from his white neighbors.
In June, 1861, the newly seceded state of Tennessee passed a law 'allowing' free men of color to enlist in the Confederate Army. The law provided, however, that if not enough of them enlisted, they would be pressed into service. There were only two free men of color of servicable age in Cumberland County - John and his brother Charles, both blacksmiths. John had four children living, Charles had nine. So John was pressed into the 26th Tennessee Infantry, CSA.
He only saw one battle while with the 26th, as the regiment was captured at Ft. Donelson and sent to Camp Morton, Indiana, where John remained a POW for seven months before being exchanged and sent to Mississippi where the regiment reformed.
Unfortunately for him, during his incarceration, the Confederate States had passed a conscription law retaining all soldiers whose enlistments were due to expire - he had originally 'enlisted' for a twelve-month term which had expired while he was a prisoner. However, there was a loophole, of sorts. The law applied to soldiers between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, but John was only forty. Yet, his military record states that he was discharged for being over age - from which we can conclude that he lied.
He then uprooted the family and moved them to Tompkinsville, Kentucky, near Bowling Green where his regiment had been posted prior to the battle of Ft. Donelson. Sometime shortly after the move his wife Nancy died, and a few months later he enlisted in the 17th Tennessee Cavalry, USA.
The 17th never recruited enough soldiers for muster, so it was later merged with the 13th Tennessee Cavalry. Upon this merger and muster in, John was promoted to sergeant. His record shows that he had informed the Army upon enlistment of his Confederate service, so he was honest about that, and there were a few other members of his regiment who had also served with the Confederacy, but it is telling that the US Army was not at the time accepting black soldiers, free or otherwise. So once again, we have evidence that John lied.
After the War, he married a neighbor, my great-great-grandmother, who was white, and he and the family are listed ever after on every census as 'white'.
In future posts I'll be exploring the stories of other members of John's regiments.