Merlene Davis: Performer teaches history as member of Colored Cavalry

Robert Bell is a history buff who portrays the Rev. Newton Bush, a former slave who lived in Franklin County.
Robert Bell is a history buff who portrays the Rev. Newton Bush, a former slave who lived in Franklin County.

Robert Bell of Louisville is an unapologetic history buff.

He is a charter member of the 12th United States Colored Heavy Artillery unit at Camp Nelson, a Life Member of the Camp Nelson Heritage Foundation and a charter member of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association, which is focused on remembering the former slaves and freedmen who served during the Civil War.

He has participated in re-enactment battles in nearby states and has portrayed several historic characters in skits and plays.

But it was while he was helping other researchers find a mass grave containing the remains of more than 20 black soldiers who were killed in an ambush near Simpsonville on Jan. 25, 1865, that Bell began to more thoroughly explore the life of the Rev. Newton Bush.

And since then, his portrayal of Bush in the Kentucky Humanities Council Inc.'s Chautauqua presentation of "Rev. Newton Bush: Freedom at a Terrible Price," has become very popular.

Bush lived in Franklin County with his family, who were owned by Nicholas P. Green. Bush was one of the survivors of the "massacre," in which 22 members of the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry died in an ambush and about 20 others were wounded, six of whom later died of their wounds.

The 80-man unit was herding 900 head of cattle to Louisville, with half the troops in front of the herd and the rest behind, when they were attacked from the rear by 15 Confederate guerillas. Apparently, they were abandoned by their white officers and were tended to and buried by residents of Simpsonville.

A historic marker has been placed in that area.

Bell said he selected Bush to portray after his research was done.

"We wanted to educate people on the role that African Americans played during that time," he said. "Too often we are excluded from history books. All that we are taught is that we were slaves. We might learn a little about Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman."

But all too often, he said, blacks are seen as slaves who sat around waiting for someone to free them. "We want them (people) to know we played an active role in our own emancipation," he said.

Bell will bring Bush to life in a presentation for the Wesley United Methodist Church Senior Adult Ministry on Feb. 13. The 45-minute presentation, which will be followed by questions, is free.

"I saw him on TV on the educational channel and I was so enthused about it," said Virginia Lawson, president of the senior ministry. "I wrote to people and got online to see what dates they had available."

Then Lawson accosted me at church Sunday and threatened to force me to don the 6-inch heels the 79-year-old president is so fond of wearing if I didn't write about the event. I took the threat seriously enough to break my vow not to write about black history during February.

February is a busy month for Bell. After March, Bell focuses on his military re-enactment activities.

"I don't consider this a job," said Bell, who is retired. "It is something I love to do. Whether it is portraying the Rev. Bush or giving a general talk about the colored troops, I enjoy it."

Bush enlisted in Company E of the 5th Regiment at Camp Nelson on Sept. 9, 1864. After the war, he moved to Frankfort to farm but later became a minister because of injuries he suffered during his military service.

Bush was present when a monument to colored soldiers from Franklin County was unveiled in Frankfort's Green Hill Cemetery on July 4, 1924. It was one of only four monuments recognizing black soldiers at that time.

He died on May 1, 1925, and is buried in Green Hill.

"He was just an ordinary soldier," Bell said. "The stories of most of the ordinary soldiers are not known. We know about officers and the heroes, if you will, but many of the ordinary soldiers were illiterate with no formal education. They didn't leave diaries.

"What we try to do with him is let people see the life of an ordinary soldier who fought not just for his own freedom, but was fighting for those who would come after," he said.

"They knew they may not survive, yet they fought anyway."