Veterans’ Day is an opportunity to pause and thank those who’ve served our country, both in the recent and distant past. Military service can take many forms, and for African Americans during the Civil War it’s a complicated story without simple descriptions. One such person whose service the staff at Belmont Mansion have worked to better understand was Randolph Acklen, or as he was listed on the Impressment Rolls – Randolph Acklin.
Randolph was an enslaved man of Col. Joseph and Adelicia Acklen who was impressed by the Federal Army to help build fortifications around Nashville including Fort Negley, just a mile and a half from the Belmont Estate.
Following the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson in February of 1862, Nashville came under the control of the Federal Army. President Lincoln then appointed former Governor Andrew Johnson to become Military Governor of Tennessee, who saw the need for fortifications to protect Nashville’s strategic rails and supplies.
St. Cloud Hill was one of the sites chosen as a fort, and in August 1862, Brig. Gen. James St. Clair Morton, the design engineer for this new fort, put the word out to impress the slaves of rebel slaveholders in Davidson County. So the Federal Army began a practice of Impressment which involved taking African Americans off the streets, from farms, and from plantations to work building the needed fortifications.
Randolph was impressed sometime between August and November of 1862, and, by records found today, he worked for a period of four months at the promised wage of $7.00 per month. This wage was never given to Randolph. It is known that he was to be provided daily subsistence, as well as an ax, spade, or pick by Col. and Mrs. Acklen so that he could perform his labor at Fort Negley. While the living conditions at the fort during construction were extremely poor, Randolph could have walked the mile and a half back to the Belmont estate in the evening. We do have a reference to the slaves impressed from the Gen. William G. Harding family of Belle
Meade returning home to the plantation on Sundays to see their families.
Fort Negley took many months to build; the site would eventually cover all four acres atop St. Cloud Hill. In the end, it was constructed with over 60,000 cubic feet of stone and 18,000 cubic yards of earth. There have been documented 2,771 laborers employed to build the fortifications, with only just over 300 being paid, and an estimated 600 to 800 died during construction. It is unknown if Randolph survived his impressment as he has yet to appear in the historic record after the Impressment Roll listing.
Union Major George Stearns was responsible for recruiting impressed workers to join United States Colored Troops and through his published writings he documents a system with severe consequences for those involved. His words describing what resulted are documented in this excerpt found in The Life and Public Services of George Stearns by Frank Preston Stearns.