From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

McColley, William

(born: 1836  -  died: May 28, 1919) 

I Faithful Father: The William McColley Story 
authored by Alicia Howard, PhD

*About the Author, see below.

Over the course of the US Civil War, there were 180,000 African American men would serve, constituting 10% of the Union fighting force. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln and the US government passed the Emancipation Proclamation that would take effect on January 1, 1863. The proclamation offered enslaved people a chance of freedom if they joined the Union army. This deal was limited to slaves in the Southern states, to keep border states like Kentucky, in the Union. As Kentucky only began to recruit African American men in April of 1864, many enslaved men were willing to risk their lives and flee to out-of-state recruitment centers, like Tennessee, to enlist at earlier dates. While the names and stories of many of these brave men are lost, some of these stories are preserved in historic documents and provide a glimpse into their heroic lives.

One of these men was William McColley. William McColley’s grandson, Lewis Washington (1888-1974), described him as a man of stout and solid stature, with deep dark brown skin. William was born to enslaved parents, Robert McColley, and Mary Berton, in Lancaster, Garrard County, Kentucky around 1836. He was 25 years old at the start of the Civil War in 1861. Tennessee began recruiting African American soldiers on October 3, 1863, as secretly ordered by Abraham Lincoln (General Orders, No. 329). Their manpower was seen as an asset to the Union Army. After William received word of a recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the spring of 1864, William, along with his younger brother, Henry McColley (1845-1864), escaped and made the 215-mile journey from Lancaster, Kentucky to Chattanooga, TN, to join the Union Army. Documents indicate that on March 23, 1864, the two brothers enlisted to a 3-year service in the 44th US Colored Infantry Company C in Chattanooga, TN, under the command of Colonel Lewis Johnson. Sadly, on July 25, 1864, military documents indicate that nineteen-year-old Henry succumbed to illness at the General Field Hospital in Chattanooga. Even with the death of his younger brother, William pressed on.  

In April 1864, the 14th United States Colored Troops, mainly comprised of formerly enslaved men, fought off a Confederate Calvary attack near Dalton, Georgia. This would mark the first time that African American soldiers fought in the Civil War in Georgia. Following this attack, however, on October 13, 1864, the 600 men of the 44th, William McColley’s regiment, were protecting the railroad through Dalton, when they found themselves in an immediate embattlement with a 25,000 strong Confederate force led by General John Bell Hood. Several references state that the Black soldiers were still willing to stand and fight though outnumbered. By this time, they had nothing more to lose, except the chance to be free. Nevertheless, out of fear as to what the Confederate soldiers would inflict, Col. Johnson surrendered, at the plea of his White officers. According to McColley’s Company Muster-in Call, he was present until October 13, 1864, when the regiment was captured in Dalton, Georgia, by the Confederacy. The Confederates released most of the White officers, but the Black soldiers suffered a severer fate. According to several accounts, 250 members of the 44th were re-enslaved with their former enslavers, while another 350 of the men were forced to rebuild the railroads for the Confederates, and those too wounded to walk, were executed on the spot. 

Surviving prisoners were robbed of their shoes and clothing, and overcoats. By the end of December 1864, it was reported that only 125 men out of the original 600 were still alive, though their conditions were described as sick, broken down, naked and starved. William McColley’s records indicate that he was a prisoner of war and escaped during the spring of 1865, then rejoined his regiment on May 30, 1865. His escape shows that his desire to be free superseded the physical and emotional pain that he endured during his time as a prisoner of war. In early 1866, his military records reveal that he was on military service in Huntsville, AL, before he mustered-out on April 30, 1866, in Nashville, Tennessee. By then, slavery was abolished in Kentucky, and William returned to Kentucky as a free man. On November 13, 1875, William married his love, Mary Meaux (1857-1897) in Anderson County. Mary was an African American woman, of multiethnic heritage, from Salvisa, Mercer County. Her family had won their freedom in the 1828 landmark court case, John Black vs. Meaux, which is another amazing story in its own right. William and Mary went on to have 10 children. When his oldest and youngest daughters passed away, Mary and William adopted and raised their children. [Reports of Selected Cases Decided in the Court of Appeals of Kentucky During the Year 1836 by James G. Dana, v.IV, 1837. "Black v Meaux" on pp.188-190. Online at Google Books.] 

Lewis, the son of William's oldest daughter Martha McColley Washington, remembered his grandfather, or Pap McColley as he was affectionately called, as a much loved, esteemed and cared for man. A hardworking, dedicated, and well-respected man, William McColley worked for Colonel Thomas H. Hanks, a former Confederate colonel and the patriarch of Kentucky Legislature. When Col. Hanks died in 1897, William was bequeathed the following for his faithful service: fifty acres of land, the house in which McColley was living, two work horses, one black filly, a two-horse plow, one shovel plow, one pair of gear for each horse, a milk cow, and a year supply of feed for the animals.  

William McColley established his farm homestead in a small African American community in Anderson County, on the banks of the Kentucky River. William’s eventful life, filled with pain and sorrow, but also full of determination, hope, and faith, ended very differently from the life he began. Born in 1836 into slavery, he died on May 28, 1919. At the age of 83, William McColley died a free man, owning his own property, and surrounded by his loving family. He is interned at the Woodlawn Hills Cemetery, in Lawrenceburg, KY, with the tombstone inscription, ‘I Faithful Father’. William McColley’s service and contribution to the victory of the Union ensured that his family and descendants were born and raised as free citizens. For this, forever are we all grateful. 


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William McCaley (name misspelled), 1919. Commonwealth of Kentucky, State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. Certificate of Death. Anderson County, Lawrenceburg. In Ancestry [subscription database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. 

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William McColley, 44 U.S.C.T. Muster-in Roll. In Ancestry [subscription database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.

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William McColley and Mary Meaux McColley gravesite in Woodlawn Hills Cemetery, in Lawrenceburg, KY. 

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William McCollie and family. Anderson County, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky Census 1890. In Ancestry [subscription database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.

William McCollie, including grandchildren Lewis Threkeld (Washington), Maebelle Threkeld (Washington), and Matt Threkeld (Washington). Anderson County, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky Census 1900. In Ancestry [subscription database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013.

William McCollie, including granddaughter Lacey McCollie.
Anderson Country, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky Census 1910. In Ancestry [subscription database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. 

Alicia Howard, PhD, native of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, is the great-great granddaughter of William McColley. Her grandfather, Lewis Washington (1888-1974), was raised by his grandparents, William, and Mary Meaux McColley, upon the death of his mother, Martha. Some content of this reflection was directly passed down from Lewis to his daughters, Ann, Pearl, Rose, and Geneva, and graciously shared with me.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Garrard County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Anderson County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Mercer County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Kentucky Place (Town or City)

Read about Lancaster, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Lawrenceburg, Kentucky in Wikipedia.
Read about Salvisa, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

Item Relations

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“McColley, William,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 20, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-06-14 18:33:32