Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hometown Hero: James Butler, Co. I, 114th USCI

I have been thinking of ways that I might honor the men that fought in various United States Colored Troops units and that are buried in the Greenhill Cemetery here in Frankfort. I came to the conclusion that there is probably not a better way than to try and tell their stories with what bits of information I can find. So, over the next few months - and maybe longer, as there are quite a few buried there - I am going to, from time to time, feature a soldier so that he may be remembered. It is my hope that these posts may be some source of information that a descendant may find and thus connect with these men that fought for the United States and their freedom.

The first soldier in my "Hometown Heroes" profile is James Butler of Company D, 114th United States Colored Infantry. In a past post I featured William Wright who served in Company H of the 114th. Many of the men in this regiment came from Franklin County as Wright did, and from Woodford County, as Butler did.

Woodford County, just south of Franklin County and was the only county in Kentucky that had an African American majority in the 1860 census. In that year's count about 52% of the county was black. Over 5,800 of those people were slaves, and only 114 were free people of color. The county's 704 slaveholders owned on average, just over 8 slaves each. Over 400 USCTs indicated Woodford County as their home.

One Woodford County slave in 1860 was James Butler, who was owned by Hezekiah Winn. Butler, born about 1842, would have been only around 18 years old in 1860. Hezekiah Winn is listed in that 1860 census as a 46 year old farmer who owned real estate worth $25,000, and personal property worth $11,800. I was unable to locate Winn in the county's 1860 census slave schedules to find out how many individuals he owned, but it is assumed that a large part of his worth was tied up in human property. Winn lived with his wife Matilda (33 years old) and children: Fannie (8), Sallie (7), Charles (5), Thomas (2), and Henrietta (8 months). Also living with the family was a young man named William Lewis (22) with the occupation of laborer.

Jason Butler's service records indicated that he was 23 years old when he enlisted on June 27, 1864, in Lexington.  It appears that he signed up with the consent of Hezekiah Winn. Butler was 5 feet 8 inches tall, had black hair, eyes, and complexion.

Butler's service record is exemplary. He was reported present at each roll call. And the only possible blemish on his record is a brief note that he was charged $.06 for losing a letter ornament that was affixed to the soldier's headgear.

Like many USCT units - especially those that were enlisted late in Kentucky due to the state's sensitivity on the issue - the 114th saw extended service into the Reconstruction years. After being trained at Camp Nelson they departed for the fighting front at Petersburg, Virginia. After the surrender of Lee's army they were sent to guard the Texas-Mexican border. They were finally mustered out at Brazos Santiago, Texas (near Brownsville), on April 2, 1867, Butler with them.

Fortunately, I was able to track James Butler beyond his USCT service. What mode of transportation he used to return to Kentucky is unknown, but likely most of the way was by steamboat up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Three years after the 114th was mustered out, Butler was back in Woodford County and listed in the 1870 census. He was married to Jane Lewis (28) and listed as a "farmhand." Apparently Butler either did not find or perhaps take advantage of educational opportunities while a soldier in the 114th, as the census indicates he was illiterate.

In 1880, Butler was still in Woodford County and working as a farmhand, but now was married to Nelly (28), a cook. Also in the household was a daughter Fannie (2 months) and three boys listed as "sons," who may have been Nelly's boys from a previous relationship, as they had the last name of Thomas. Edwin Thomas was 11 years old, Richard Thomas was 8, and Sam Thomas was 6. Butler was still listed as illiterate.

Sometime between 1880 and 1910, Butler moved to Ward 3 in Frankfort. This section of town was part of what was known as Crawfish Bottom. The Bottom, or the "Craw," as it was sometimes called, was a low-income residential and business district that flooded frequently when the Kentucky River swelled its banks. James Butler is listed on the 1910 census as 68 years old and living with a third wife, Susan, who was 64.

One last record was found on the former soldier. Butler's death certificate indicates that he was 76 years old when he passed away on January 23, 1918. His cause of death was indicated as "paralysis." Susan was listed as his wife, but where it had space to indicate the name of Butler's mother and father, it was marked as "unknown." Did Butler actually not know his parents? Was he separated from them as a slave boy? Or, did Susan just not know his parents' names to indicated such on the death certificate? We will likely never know.

What is known though is that this man, James Butler, spent three years in the service of his country. He likely suffered the hardships of bad food, difficult weather, endless frustrations, deadly illnesses, an enemy's hatred, and at times extreme boredom to keep the United States together, earn his freedom and a chance at citizenship and equality.

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