Robert Carter III’s 1791 Deed of Gift, which gradually freed 452 of his enslaved laborers, was the largest private emancipation of slaves until the American Civil War. Some of the descendants of the enslaved men, women, and children freed by Carter’s emancipation directly participated in the abolition of slavery over 70 years later.
“Baptist Billy” Burke was Robert Carter III’s “most trusted emissary.” He and his family lived on the Bull Run Quarter of Leo Plantation in northern Virginia and were freed by Carter’s Deed of Gift in 1795. The Burke family continued to live in Prince William County for decades after Carter freed them. In 1836, Joseph and Hannah Burke had their second son and named him Nimrod.
Nimrod Burke spent the first eighteen years of his life in Prince William County. In 1854, he and his parents moved to Washington County, Ohio. In the 1860 census, Nimrod was listed as a mulatto farmer, but he also worked as a handyman under Marietta, Ohio, attorney and abolitionist Melvin Clarke, who also housed Burke. Under Clarke’s tutelage, Nimrod learned to read, write, and count. Also, Burke married Mary Freeman in 1860.
At the outbreak of war, Nimrod attempted to enlist in the United States Army but could not because of his race. Instead, once he became major of the 36th Ohio Infantry, Clarke hired Burke as a wagon teamster and scout. Burke served in this role with the 36th Ohio until March 1864. Unfortunately, Melvin Clarke’s service did not last that long.
During the afternoon of September 17, 1862, Melvin Clarke’s 36th Ohio participated in the final Union assault of the Battle of Antietam. While charging through a ravine, Clarke, recently promoted to colonel but unaware of that fact, fell victim to enemy artillery fire. He died on the field of battle. Abolitionist Clarke, however, did not die in vain. The Union victory at Antietam prompted President Abraham Lincoln to announce his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22. Lincoln made the presidential edict official on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved men, women, and children living in areas controlled by the Confederate States of America, but it also opened the door for African Americans to serve in the United States Army. On March 23, 1864, 26-year-old Nimrod Burke became one of approximately 200,000 African American soldiers to fight for the United States Army in the Civil War.
The educated and experienced Burke received a quick promotion to Sergeant in the 23rd United States Colored Troops (USCT). Early in his service in late April and early May 1864, Nimrod returned home to Prince William County. On its way to join the Army of the Potomac, the 9th Corps passed through the county and the corps’ Fourth Division, to which the 23rd USCT was attached, bivouacked at Manassas Junction for a few days before embarking on the Overland Campaign. Burke served throughout the war with the 23rd USCT and participated in, but survived, the Battle of the Crater in July 1864. Burke and his comrades mustered out of the United States Army in Texas on November 30, 1865, six days before the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified and officially abolished slavery throughout the country.
Nimrod Burke returned home to Ohio and his family. He lived until 1914. Today, he rests under a military headstone in Greenlawn Cemetery in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Prior to returning to his birthplace in Prince William County, Burke and his comrades marched through downtown Washington, DC. President Lincoln himself watched these African American soldiers with arms on their shoulders and eagles on their buttons tramp through the nation’s capital. This column “was the first body of colored troops of any magnitude that ever marched through Washington,” noted an eyewitness, “and their fine appearance and demeanor, though they had been but a week or two in the service, elicited numerous expressions of the heartiest approval.” He continued:
Mr. Lincoln himself seemed greatly pleased, and acknowledged the cheers and plaudits of the colored soldiers with a dignified kindness and courtesy. As they saw the modest and true gentleman who, with head uncovered, witnessed their march, a spirit of wild enthusiasm ran through their ranks. They shouted, they cheered, they swung their caps in exuberance of their joy. They were now freemen. They had a grand and glorious object to live for. They would now make a history for their race, and there, looking down upon them, was the man who had given them this magnificent opportunity, and who was opening before them a new path of ambition and hope!
Nimrod Burke was born a free man because Robert Carter III freed his ancestors. He served in the United States Army because Abraham Lincoln made it possible. Burke’s life was a product of America’s largest private emancipation before the Civil War. He fought to ensure that others of his race could experience the largest emancipation of enslaved men, women, and children in American history.