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Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point

Black Cadet in a White Bastion: Charles Young at West Point

by Brian G. Shellum, Vincent K. Brooks (Foreword by)

Born in slavery, Charles Young (1864–1922) was the third black graduate of West Point, the first black U.S. military attaché, and the highest-ranking black officer in the Regular Army until his death. Unlike the two black graduates before him, Young went on to a long military career, eventually achieving the rank of colonel. After Young, racial


Born in slavery, Charles Young (1864–1922) was the third black graduate of West Point, the first black U.S. military attaché, and the highest-ranking black officer in the Regular Army until his death. Unlike the two black graduates before him, Young went on to a long military career, eventually achieving the rank of colonel. After Young, racial intolerance closed the door to blacks at the academy, and forty-seven years passed before another African American graduated from West Point.

Brian G. Shellum’s biography of Young’s years at West Point chronicles the enormous challenges that Young faced and provides a valuable window into life at West Point in the 1880s. Academic difficulties, hazing, and social ostracism dogged him throughout his academy years. He succeeded through a combination of focused intellect, hard work, and a sense of humor. By graduation, he had made white friends, and his motivation and determination had won him the grudging respect of many of his classmates and professors.

Until now, scholars of African American and military history have neglected this important U.S. Army trailblazer. Young’s experiences at the U.S. Military Academy, his triumph over adversity, and his commitment to success forged the mold for his future achievements as an Army officer, even as the United States slipped further into the degradation and waste of racial intolerance.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist - Frieda Murray
"Shellum draws on his own West Point knowledge in vividly portraying the difficulties Young encountered, and he points up Young's determination and devotion to his country."—Booklist

"Shellum draws on his own West Point knowledge in vividly portraying the difficulties Young encountered, and he points up Young's determination and devotion to his country."—Booklist

— Frieda Murray

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Read an Excerpt

Black Cadet in a White Bastion

Charles Young at West Point

By Brian G. Shellum

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-9315-1

Chapter One

Enslaved in Kentucky

Tremble not before the free man, but before
the slave who has chains to break.
Margaret Fuller, 1844

Charles Young was born in 1864 in the slave quarters of a small
farm in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. His parents were
still living in bondage when Charles was born, which made him a
slave as well. But while Charles's parents were born and raised in
slavery, Charles would grow up a free man. Still, it would take a
war and the sacrifice of countless Americans, both black and white,
to set him free.

Charles escaped slavery in Kentucky with his parents when he
was but an infant. Though spared the experience of the institution
of slavery as a child, he lived with its bitter legacy through his
parents and through the shared memory of the African American
community. To understand Young, it is essential to appreciate his
parents' experiences as enslaved African Americans in Kentucky and
as Civil War soldiers and refugees.

Gabriel and Arminta

Charles Young was born on March 12, 1864, to Gabriel Young and
Arminta Bruen in Helena, Kentucky. On this day, Ulysses S. Grant
assumed command of the Army of the Potomac ina civil war that
was approaching its bloody end. Gabriel and his family lived in an
old log house on Helena Station Road long used as slave quarters.
The house lay near the small town of May's Lick in southern Mason
County, Kentucky.

A settler named Matthew Gray had built this log house in 1792
as his original homestead when his family cleared and settled the
land. He later built a larger, more comfortable house and moved
out of the two-story log structure. At some point the house was
moved or the land around it sold to a neighboring farm. This may
have occurred when Gray died in 1836, leaving two farms in Mason
County to two sons and a property in Ohio to a third. Still later, the
structure was used to house slaves. When Charles Young was born
the cabin belonged to the farmstead of James Willett, a member of
one of several branches of the Willett family in the area.

May's Lick lay to the south of the county seat of Maysville, which
was situated on the Ohio River in the outer Bluegrass region of
north-central Kentucky. This area, on the extreme northern rim
of the Bluegrass, was a thriving agricultural region where hemp
and tobacco were the primary crops. Slaves were central to the
agricultural society of this part of Kentucky, especially on the larger
hemp and tobacco plantations and farms.

In contrast to slavery in the Deep South, with its sprawling plantations
and longer growing seasons, slavery in the border state of
Kentucky reflected greater diversity. Blacks constituted 20 percent
of Kentucky's population in 1860, but many were employed in manufacturing
and in the cities. Most farms and small plantations in the
Bluegrass had at most only a handful of slaves, and only about 12
percent of Kentucky's slave owners kept twenty or more slaves.
Prior to the Civil War, about 5 percent of Kentucky's African American
population of approximately two hundred thousand were free

In spite of these differences between Kentucky and the Deep
South, Gabriel and Arminta faced no kinder brand of servitude.
Although their everyday lives might have been easier than those
of the slaves on the sugar plantations of Louisiana or the cotton
plantations of Mississippi, this did not change the fact that they
lived and worked in bondage. They toiled under backbreaking work
schedules, suffered forced separation from family, and faced physical
and psychological abuse. African Americans living in slavery
were deprived of their civil liberties, with virtually every aspect of
their lives controlled by their owners. In many ways, slavery for the
Youngs must have been even more onerous because of the nearness
of emancipation in the free state of Ohio.

According to Mason County records for 1860, one of the Willett
families living on Helena Road owned five slaves and the other
eleven. It is unclear which farm Gabriel and Arminta lived on or
whether they were owned or "rented out" by the Willetts. It is also
possible that one or both were owned by one of the Gray families
who owned neighboring farms, since there was an important connection
between the Youngs and the Grays after the war. It was not
uncommon in the antebellum period for farmers, manufacturers,
or businessmen to hire slaves owned by others for specific jobs or
periods of time.

According to later census records, Gabriel was born around 1838
and Arminta around 1842. Beyond this information, tracking the
lives of Charles Young's parents as slaves before the Civil War is
difficult. Records documenting the lives of enslaved African Americans
are sparse and unreliable, and they rarely give full names. But
sufficient records exist to provide at least an outline of the lives of
Arminta and Gabriel.

According to one family account, Gabriel belonged to the owner
of an adjoining farm, and Arminta lived on the Willett farm with her
mother, Julia Bruen, whose maiden name was Coleman. According
to this story, Julia had been purchased from a kindly French family
named Byars, who provided her with some education. Julia had
been freed by the Willetts, but she chose to stay on the place with
her two boys and four girls, who, according to state law, remained
slaves until they reached the age of twenty-one. The Willetts had
several girls themselves, and Mrs. Willett and Julia raised their girls

Another description of the family history claims that Arminta's
father, whose last name was Bruen, was a free black man, and that
Arminta's mother, born a slave, was freed when her oldest daughter
was ten. The story continues: "According to Kentucky law, freed
people were compelled to leave the State and the father went, but
[Young's] grandmother Bruen refused to abandon her children, of
whom there were several." Arminta's father moved to Michigan,
where he lived for a time, but he later returned when "his thoughts
turned toward his wife and children in Kentucky and, hanging his
hoe on the fence, he went out of the gate and directed his footsteps
whither his thoughts already had gone before."

Arminta probably lived in the Willett home, with Gabriel working
at a neighboring farm, and both helped work the places with a
handful of other slaves. Gabriel was very good with horses, so he
may have worked with the draft animals on the farm. On some of
the smaller farms in this part of Kentucky, slaves worked alongside
their masters of the middle class doing the same work. Even in that
environment, the enslaved African Americans were subject to the
whim and whip of their masters.

Work patterns varied in Kentucky depending on the size of the
holding and the crops raised. Small slaveholders could not afford to
divide their few working hands by gender and often sent both men
and women to the fields. Hemp growers in Kentucky regarded
women as physically unfit for the demanding work. With other
crops, some tasks were reserved for women and others for men.
Since it is unclear what was grown on the Willett farms, no firm
conclusions can be drawn on Gabriel and Arminta's living or work

Years later, the Willetts who were children at the time remembered
Julia fondly as Aunt Julie and Arminta as Aunt Mintie. The
term "Aunt" or "Auntie" conferred a special status in the household,
indicating she might have been the head housekeeper, head cook,
or nursemaid. The slave owner taught his children this designation
of respect for trusted slaves who served the household and were
in close contact with the children. There were clear delineations in
the slave hierarchy, and field and household workers formed two
separate groups. Since Arminta could read and write, it is possible
that she was assigned as a personal slave to the children and learned
by listening when they had their school lessons.

In spite of this status, Arminta's life was fraught with risk and
oppression. Enslaved African American women lived between the
two worlds of the plantation household and the slave community,
representing the cultures of the African American present and their
African past. From birth, writes Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, "the slave
girl's dual membership in the plantation household and the slave
community shaped her identity." In a culture fashioned by enslaved
men and women from diverse African regions and dominated by
the master and mistress of the household, Arminta could never
entirely shape her own life.

In 1863, a former enslaved African American named Francis
Frederic wrote a memoir about his life on a small plantation near
Maysville. It is a sad tale of bondage and brutality, the sole bright
spot being the ability of enslaved African Americans to maintain
a culture and find hope where little existed. Frederic's experiences
demonstrate that slavery could be every bit as appalling in Kentucky
as elsewhere in the South.

Frederic notes in his memoir the importance of folklore, music,
and singing to the enslaved African American community. W.
E. B. DuBois once said that spirituals "are the music of an unhappy
people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death
and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty
wanderings and hidden ways." Both Harriet Tubman and Frederick
Douglass maintained that many slave songs and spirituals carried
double meanings. Others note that slaves in their folktales used
sharp irony and strong symbolism. Arminta and Gabriel passed on
this rich prism of folklore and music to Charles for use in his own
struggle to find a truer world.

Frederic's memoir provides a window on an existence that
Gabriel and Arminta might have experienced. They were rough
contemporaries in time and location and could have known each
other by name. Gabriel and Arminta might have faced a similar
sort of slavery in Mason County. Frederic failed in his first attempt
to escape slavery and paid for it with 107 lashes. He succeeded on
his second try, thanks to the intervention of local abolitionists who
directed him to a way station on the Underground Railroad, and
he lived out his years as a free man in Canada and Great Britain.

Despite the U.S. Congress's prohibition on the importation of
slaves into the United States in 1808 and Kentucky's ban on the
importation of slaves for sale in 1833, slaves remained a lucrative
commodity in the state. By the 1860s Kentucky was known as a
"slave-growing" state, meaning it profited in the business of supplying
enslaved African Americans to plantations in the Deep South.
The phrase "sold down the river" comes from this commerce in
souls, since slaves were shipped down the Ohio River to the Mississippi.

Frederic devotes a chapter in his book to the profitable slave
trade in Kentucky. He passed from a kindly master to a cruel son
after the former's death. The son went deeply into debt leading
"a riotous, dissipated life, losing money by gambling, and then
borrowing." According to Frederic, slaves were generally the first
property parted with, bringing quick and hard cash. He gives pitiful
accounts of children and infants being torn from their mothers'
arms when slave traders came to collect their new "property."

Fortunately, Gabriel Young remained in May's Lick and escaped
the fate of so many other slaves in Kentucky. However, he changed
hands locally, as is reflected in the will and deed books for Mason
County. He first appears in an 1843 court inventory of property
owned by the deceased Thomas Davis, which lists the following:
"Black man Jerard, slave $250; woman Zilloe, slave $250; man Milton,
slave $450; girl Martha $250; girl Emily $100; boy George
$200; boy Gabriel $100." Gabriel was five years old at the time, and
perhaps the "woman Zilloe" was his mother and some of the other
children his siblings. There is no known record of who purchased
or inherited Davis's slaves or whether Gabriel remained united with
his family members.

There is mention of a Gabriel joining the May's Lick Baptist
Church in records that are undated but probably from the 1840s
or 1850s. Among the "Names of Coloured Members who have
connected themselves with the Church" are listed Gabriel and his
owner, William Kemper. Gabriel must have remained a member of
the church for a number of years, since many of the other names
on the list are accompanied by remarks indicating they were deceased,
dismissed, or excluded on various dates from as early as
1843 to as late as 1852. The white members of the May's Lick Baptist
Church voted in 1855 to allow the 175 African American members to
establish the Second Baptist Church, to which Gabriel presumably

On June 7, 1864, less than a year before the end of the Civil
War, Gabriel Young married Arminta Bruen. Rev. John Markam,
pastor of the Second Baptist Church, performed the service and
probably thought nothing of the fact that the couple already had
a son. According to Young family history, the wedding took place
on the large veranda of the Willett home and was followed that
evening by a feast in the great dining hall. James Willett presented
the license to the minister and said, "Now Mint you no longer
belong to me, but to Gabe."

It is clear that this marriage was not legally recognized in Kentucky
at the time, since Gabriel was still a slave. Frederic mentions
a few sham weddings in his memoir, but all were conducted informally
among the slaves and none had legal standing. "Jumping the
broom" was a common form of marriage in the slave community
and was encouraged by many owners for the sake of harmony.
Elisha Green, a Mason County African American Baptist minister
who was also a slave, performed unofficial black marriages before
the Civil War. Slave marriage was informal in the antebellum South,
and only an owner's consent was necessary for slaves to marry or
divorce. Some owners readily gave permission, while others did

Civil War

Gabriel answered the call to arms and enlisted in the Union army
in 1865, as did many other African Americans at the time. Perhaps
he heard Frederick Douglass's appeal "Men of Color, to Arms," in
which the former Maryland slave argued that "liberty won only by
white men would lose half of its luster." Douglass also insisted that
military service offered "a genuine opportunity to achieve first-class
citizenship." In addition, the Union army offered freedom and may
have been one of the few paying jobs readily available to Gabriel,
who had a new family to support. He certainly had little or no
future in Mason County, and the army offered him a ticket to a
new life of freedom.

Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War. Although the
state was pragmatically loyal to the Union, the vast majority of
Kentuckians, many with roots or ancestors from Virginia or North
Carolina, never favored an end to slavery and sympathized with
the states' rights sentiments of the South. Because of its strategic
position and the partisanship of many of its citizens, neither the
North nor the South respected Kentucky's armed neutrality. In the
first year of the war it was invaded and occupied first by the Confederacy
and then by Union forces. At the Battle of Perryville, Union
forces defeated the Confederates in Kentucky and forced them to
withdraw in late 1862, and thereafter Union troops occupied the
state until the end of the war.

Hard on the heels of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation
of January 1, 1863, the War Department published an order
that allowed the establishment of African American regiments led
by white officers. On March 26, 1863, a year before Charles Young
was born, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issued an order
directing Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas to organize black regiments
in the Mississippi Valley to support the war effort. Shortly thereafter,
the War Department established a Bureau of Colored Troops
to handle the recruitment, organization, and service of the newly
organized regiments.

This initiative came at a time when Washington was having difficulty
finding enough soldiers in the war-weary North to fill the
ranks of the Union army. During the Civil War more than 178,000
African Americans served in the Union army, of whom approximately
135,000 were recruited from the southern and border states.
By April 1866, when the last of the blacks from Kentucky were
demobilized, some 29,000 had been enlisted from the state.

The enlistment of blacks into the Union army raised a firestorm of
protest in Kentucky. Many Kentucky Unionists were slaveholders
and felt the federal government had no business interfering with
slavery in the state. Gabriel's owner was an officer serving in the
Union army, yet he refused to give up his slaves. Kentucky at first
even resisted the suggestion that free blacks in the state be enlisted,
on the grounds that they were not citizens and therefore could not
be used as soldiers. But by February 1864 the order went out to
enroll all blacks of military age, including slaves. Resistance to the
enlistment of African Americans into the Union army continued in
Kentucky through the end of the war.


Excerpted from Black Cadet in a White Bastion
by Brian G. Shellum
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brian G. Shellum is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and retired from the U.S. Army. He is currently a historian at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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