Randolph Acklen and Fort Negley
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.
"The Government has not kept its faith with the colored man anywhere. When I
went to Nashville, colored men, free and slave were hunted daily through the streets, and impressed for labor on fortifications, railroads, and in hospitals, and although promised ten dollars per month, it was rarely paid, and many of them worked twelve to fifteen months without any pay.
"Let me give you one case of several that came under my notice. When our army occupied Nashville, in August, 1862, calls were made for slaves to work on the fortifications. About twenty-seven hundred were employed. A large number ran from their masters. Many Union men sent their best hands, and some were impressed. These men working in the heat of the autumn months, lying on the hillside at night in the heavy dew without shelter, and fed with poor food, soon sickened. In four months about eight hundred of them died; the remainder were kept at work from six to fifteen months without pay. Then all who were able-bodied were forcibly enlisted in the Twelfth United States colored troops. Many of them had families who were destitute of the necessities of life."
Randolph may not have been the only enslaved person from Belmont at Fort Negley. George Apeland also appears on the rolls, owner listed as Col. Apeland. As only the spoken name was given when men were records in the Rolls and Acklen could be spelled by many variations it is quite possible George and Randolph were both from Belmont.
Regardless of where they came from or how the 2,771 men who labored building Fort Negley did so under extreme conditions that resulted in a nearly 25% mortality rate. Their work, to the Union defense of the city of Nashville, supported an effort that ultimately resulted in the preservation of the Union. Once again we are reminded that history sometimes isn’t pretty and seldom provides simple answers to complicated questions.