Little information has been found on Cavanaugh’s existence prior to his sale in 1851. Cavanaugh was born sometime around 1834 in Cooper County, Missouri. He listed himself as a farmhand on his United States Colored Troops volunteer form, which is fitting with Horace Kingsbury’s focus on agricultural investments. Shortly after the turn of the war in favor of the Union, Cavanaugh enlisted in the 67th USCT Infantry on January 11, 1864, near Tipton, Missouri—a 31.2-mile hike from Cedar Grove. Cavanaugh enlisted at a dangerous time for Missouri slaves. Masters did not support the idea of their slaves fighting against them or gaining freedom of any sort. In part due to the extreme hesitation of masters in corroboration with the hope of the government to keep Missouri loyal, the policy prior to General Order 135 was restricted to freemen and slaves of disloyal owners, but “slaves’ determination to enlist and the desire of radicals to expand recruitment and thus hasten emancipation pushed this restrictive policy to its limits,” (Berlin, Reidy, and Rowland 188). This policy was loosened to fit all eligible black males in November of 1863, prior to Cavanaugh’s enlistment in January of 1864.
The 67th Infantry travelled south to Louisiana in March of 1864. Most of the duties of the regiment were to patrol: these men saw almost no action. Apart from one skirmish in Mt. Pleasant Landing, Louisiana, that May, most of the men involved in very little actual battle. The 67th USCT Infantry consolidated with the 65th USCT in July of 1865 due to almost 800 of their men dying of disease. Luckily for Cavanaugh, he was rejected from duty four days after volunteering in light of recruiters discovering some kind of disability. It is very possible that Cavanaugh was already aware of his disability, and that he merely enlisted to gain the freedom that had not yet been awarded to slaves in the border states. However, the practice of provost marshals dismissing black men from service was not wholly uncommon. Many of the recruiting officers in Missouri did not want to see black men in the military and were not enthusiastically recruiting black men. Any black man who had been rejected from service “had no recourse but to return to the tender mercies of the master he had just abandoned or risk apprehension as a runaway,” (Berlin, Reidy, and Rowland 189). Cavanaugh chose to risk his life in a time that he could have very well been shot on sight for being thought of as a free black or a runaway, but freedom clearly must have meant more to him than the possibility of death. As former slave Fountain Hughes said in one interview, “If I thought, had any idea, that I'd ever be a slave again, I'd take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog.”
Cavanaugh would have had few options once denied enlistment into the United State Colored Troops. First, he could return to Kingsbury. This option seems unlikely due to the very fact that Kingsbury filed a Compensation for Enlisted Slave form two years after Cavanaugh’s enlistment, with no apparent knowledge of his rejection from the volunteer service. Second, Albert could have made a break for Kansas City, Kansas, where he would be safe from any outlaws hired to kill free or runaway blacks. However, Cavanaugh had a wife and three daughters on Kingsbury’s property, and risking his life as a runaway in Kansas may not have been the best option for his family. The most likely scenario is that Albert Cavanaugh pretended to be a free black and moved to St. Louis:
St. Louis blacks fed, clothed, and sheltered fugitive slaves, and schooled them in the dangers and opportunities of the city. Military authorities and freedmen’s aid societies provided material assistance to newcomers and helped them find employment, often in the free states of the north. (Berlin, Fields et al. 402)
I stumbled across a St. Louis directory from 1865 in which a “colored laborer” named Albert Cavanaugh resided on St. Ange Avenue, which most likely places Cavanaugh in St. Louis after his rejection from enlistment. Life in St. Louis was not easy for most free blacks during the war due to a shortage of free work, but Cavanaugh seems to have been lucky enough to avoid unemployment. St. Louis was one of the only places former slaves would have the opportunity for free labor employment, but “superintendents of contrabands despaired of providing for all their charges. The high cost of food and housing made it difficult for able-bodied adults with few dependents to make ends meet,” (Berlin, Miller, Reidy, and Rowland 561). Many free blacks were sent to work in other Midwestern free states because St. Louis was not big enough for them all. There is no evidence, however, that Cavanaugh ever left the state of Missouri. I am inclined to believe that he left Kingsbury and his family under the notion that he was enlisted in the war as a protection mechanism while he worked and lived alone in St. Louis. At the end of the war, Cavanaugh would be able to change that permanently.
Eight months before Kingsbury filed the compensation claim, Albert Cavanaugh would return to the Franklin, Missouri area for his wife, Harriet Kingsbury, and their three daughters. The two made their marriage legal and christened all three daughters on the same day in the same church on February of 1866. During their enslavement, the marriage of two blacks had no legal standing. Naturally, the legalization of black marriages was cause for joy among African-American romantic partners of the time:
Eager to celebrate publicly relationships that under slaver had been received by backhanded and partial recognition, husbands and wives validated their marriages before clergymen and government officials. In so doing, they not only confirmed the arrival of freedom but also established their unions at law and thereby gained the claims to progeny and property that only marriage could provide. (Berlin and Rowland 155-156)
Albert and Harriet were no exception to the excitement for legal marriage and rights to raise their daughters the way they saw fit. The family remained in the St. Louis area until February 1, 1881—the death date listed on the shared tombstone of Albert and Harriet. The Cavanaughs’ tombstone marks are one of numerous double burial sites in the African-American Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale, Missouri. African-American cemeteries become somewhat popularized after the emancipation, when “these practices began to change as segregation blacks and whites became customary at first and later enforced by law,” (Rogers and Kremer 8). Greenwood was the first, and the most popular, of these African-American cemeteries in the St. Louis area. After a decline in upkeep, Greenwood has been a part of a restoration to reclaim African-American history in St. Louis. Many of the patrons buried there are former slaves, and many of their gravestones are eroded and often illegible. These graves have become forgotten with time, making their struggle a story we cannot uncover—much like the details of Albert Cavanaugh’s life.
The lives of black men, and black people in general, were historically measured in terms of value to those who depended on their capital. Whether by masters or military officials, the value of black men was calculated in numbers from the time they became a slave up until after the Civil War. Some would say the worth of black men is sometimes still determined in terms of profitability to society instead of human value. Though former slaves “[w]anted to enlarge their liberty and ensure their independence from their former masters, how they desired to do so and what they meant by freedom were tempered by their previous experiences as well as by the circumstances in which they were enmeshed” (Berlin, Fields et al. xxi).
Slavery was virtually eradicated in Missouri by the summer of 1864 and legally abolished nationally in 1865, but it is undeniable that slavery serves as the basis for the still-tumultuous racial dichotomy in America. Objects like Horace Kingsbury’s Claim for Compensation for Enlisted Slave show us the foundation for a today’s strained cross-racial relationship.
Like all historical tragedies, the struggles of slaver “have owed their ferocity and their tragedy to their embodiment of notions of good, not to their embodiment to conflicting notions of good and evil,” (Fox-Genovese and Genovese 212). For this reason, Albert Cavanaugh is not necessarily the hero of his story nor is Horace Kingsbury the villain. These two men are products of a multi-century hierarchy that placed black men at the bottom of the totem pole. The Claim for Enlisted Slave that Kingsbury filed, and was rejected for, solidifies the idea of Cavanaugh’s monetary worth—no matter that he may have fought and died for a country that physically and systematically enslaved him. Kingsbury’s claim was an attempt to maintain some type of ownership and control over a man who had escaped to freedom long before Kingsbury could catch on. Cavanaugh’s bravery proves that he had something worth more than the dollar amount his owner ascribed to him: the desire to be free.