- Historic Sites
From Civil War to Civil Rights
J.R. Clifford fought his real battles in the courtroom
Summer 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 2
Kentucky retained the institution of slavery and more than 225,000 slaves until ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. During the war Camp Nelson and its recruiters became the focus of intense resistance by area whites who either opposed the Union or hated seeing black men in uniform. Kidnapping and murder became so common that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had to issue directives against the state for its resistance to Union recruitment efforts. White supremacists who refused to accept the end of slavery continued terrorist activities after the war. Perhaps the saddest part of Camp Nelson's history involved the Battle of Saltville, Virginia, in October 1864, when many wounded men who had previously been stationed at the camp were murdered in their hospital beds by Confederates outraged at the sight of uniformed black soldiers.
Despite the misery and sacrifice, the soldiers and freedpeople at Camp Nelson found joy in celebrating the Fourth of July in 1865. With the war over, thousands of black soldiers paraded on the grounds with thousands of former slaves to hear military bands and speeches and sing songs, some by black schoolgirls. As the New York Weekly Anglo-African reported on July 22, "Such an assemblage of colored people on the 'sacred soil of Kentucky' was never before beheld." J. R. Clifford did not muster out until November 1865, so he must have witnessed the celebrations and probably participated in them.
He had become a soldier, but he never fought a battle. Instead he found his battles after the war, in courtrooms and in a society that still resisted providing equal rights to all citizens. In a sad irony, he suffered more injuries in the field of law than he had in military service. Working as a lawyer in West Virginia in 1896, he impaneled the first black jury in the state. For those efforts the opposing attorney attacked him with an inkwell and an iron stand, then struck him on the head with a three-cornered paper weight, which left him traumatized for over a year.
J. R. Clifford died in October 1933, leaving a wife, Mary Franklin Clifford, whom he had married on December 28, 1876, at Storer College in Harpers Ferry. The couple had 11 children. Besides his family, J. R. Clifford left behind a legacy of commitment to the cause of civil rights, a struggle that had merely begun after the Civil War ended slavery. He had lived an extraordinary life, and I as learned about his battles and accomplishments I truly understood what my mother meant. Her family had indeed "come from people."
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. He would like to thank Jane Ailes and Donald Yacovone for their generous assistance with the research for this article.