March of 1864 brought the violence of the Civil War to Paducah's riverfront, and with it came the chance for a regiment of black soldiers to shine.
Amidst the artillery fire of the Battle of Paducah, soldiers in the 8th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery, or USCHA, disproved the widely held notion that they weren't as gallant or competent as their white counterparts.
"Among African-Americans, (involvement in the Union Army) has always been an important source of pride, because the real motivation people had to serve was to be part of claiming their freedom and not be passive recipients," said Bill Mulligan, a professor of history at Murray State University.
The 8th USCHA was organized in Paducah in the spring of 1864, making the town the first in Kentucky to open an active recruiting station for blacks, Mulligan said. Whites on both sides of the war - including Col. Stephen Hicks, the Union commander of Fort Anderson in Paducah - opposed the move.
Black soldiers were generally assigned garrison duty in order to free white soldiers for combat. That meant that many of the soldiers who defended Fort Anderson against Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate troops in the Battle of Paducah were black, Mulligan said.
"They were at the heart of it," he said. "They were manning the cannons that were there to protect (Fort Anderson)."
Forrest's soldiers descended on Paducah on March 25, 1864 and briefly occupied the town, while the Union garrison under Hicks withdrew to Fort Anderson and began shelling the area. Forrest's men succeeded in destroying Union supplies and capturing horses for the cavalry, but the battle did not prove pivotal in the war, Mulligan said.
After the 8th USCHA helped repel multiple Confederate attacks on Fort Anderson, Hicks changed his opinion and commended the soldiers for their bravery, Mulligan said.
"Coming from someone who was skeptical, I think it has extra weight," Mulligan said.
He added that well over 20,000 blacks from Kentucky enlisted in the Union army, making the state second only to Louisiana in terms of black enlistees. By the end of the war, about 10 percent of the Union Army was composed of black soldiers and another 19,000 served in the Navy, according to the U.S. National Archives.
"It's a very large number, cumulatively, and it makes a tremendous difference as the war winds down (and) as enlistments in the North begin to flag among whites," Mulligan said.
But 150 years after the regiment was organized, some say that its contributions - along with many other pieces of black history in western Kentucky - remain in the shadows.
"There's so much around here (western Kentucky) that hasn't been told or has been swept under the rug. I would love to see more of this brought out," said George Sholar, a Cadiz native whose great-great-grandfather, Daniel Sholar, served in company K of the 8th USCHA.
With the help of Nancy Dawson, former director of African-American studies at Austin Peay State University, Sholar obtained his ancestor's pension records. He said they shed light on the era in which his great-great-grandfather lived, fought and died.
While black troops proved crucial to the Union, they often suffered more than white Union soldiers. They were more likely to be killed than taken prisoner and were sometimes subject to outright massacre, most notably after the April 12, 1864, battle at Fort Pillow in Tennessee.
"I'm a very strong person, but once I started reading what went on ... it brought tears to my eyes," said Sholar, whose ancestor survived the war only to die of tuberculosis. "Soldiers weren't properly taken care of. They didn't have proper footwear, they had to sleep on wet ground. When (Daniel Sholar) came back from the war, he died a horrible death."
Painful as it may be, Sholar continues to research and share his findings whenever possible.
"There is some kind of desire, a hunger. People want to know the truth," he said. "A lot of the history is being destroyed, so that's why I was trying to document as much as I could."
Mulligan said recognizing the black troops who fought for their freedom is crucial not only for their descendants, but to the public's understanding of history.
"I think it's important to see the full picture of history, and to see the people who have been neglected restored," he said. "(Historical) sources provide answers to a wide range of questions. It's just a matter of what questions we choose to ask."
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
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