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Laying the Foundation to Freedom: The Story of Moses Harding/Grant

a group of people posing for a photoAuthor: Jeff Williams, Historic Interpreter

Although it is not known when Moses Harding was born, it is believed that, based on his Civil War pension application, he was born October 8, 1837 in Davidson County, Tennessee. Through a pension affidavit written by a Nathan Harris (who’s last name could have been Harding during the time of slavery) in the 1890s, he explained that he knew Moses Harding his entire life and they were both born and enslaved at Belle Meade until Moses left for the army in 1864. Not much is known about Moses’s early life since his name does not show up on documents until the American Civil War. The war started in April of 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. By February of 1862, Nashville would be the first Confederate Capitol to fall back into the hands of the Union Army. The city of Nashville would remain under Union occupation until the end of the war in 1865.

During the war Nashville would become the second most fortified city, behind Washington D.C. Building those fortifications took a lot of manpower and the Union Army could not afford to have soldiers doing the construction when they needed to be on the front lines. The occupying army impressed, or forced into service, about 2,000 enslaved men and women and free African American stone masons to build the fortifications throughout the city. Union troops took the able-bodied enslaved men and women from farms and churches and marched them to the construction sites. Moses, along with twenty-one other enslaved workers from Belle Meade, worked on Union fortifications throughout the city including Fort Negley, which still stands today. Moses shows up on the list of employment and non-payment rolls compiled by the Union Army from August 1, 1862 to April 1, 1863. Moses  worked four out of the eight months listed and was compensated for his work at seven dollars per month for a total of twenty-eight dollars. Many of the workers were promised seven to ten dollars per day, however, many of them never received that money. Generally, those who were compensated for their work were skilled workers with a trade in carpentry or masonry. 

Building the fortifications was no easy job; the impressed laborers would experience long hours with back-breaking work and horrible working conditions. Between 600-800 of the workers died in the process of building the fortifications, many of them buried at the base of the hill that Fort Negley sat upon. With hands calloused from years of hard work, Moses would help lay each stone into place, possibly aware that he was laying the foundation to his own freedom. Little is known about what happened to Moses between the time he worked on Fort Negley and when he enlisted in the Union Army in July of 1864. A Moses Harding does show up on a list of people arrested in the May 27, 1863 issue of the Nashville Daily Union newspaper which read, “Moses Harding, negro, arrested for lewdness, given 39 lashes; sent to workhouse.” There is a possibility that he is the same Moses Harding that was enslaved by the Harding family at Belle Meade. However, there is no evidence that explains why he was arrested for lewdness nor does this serve as a confirmation that it is the same Moses Harding. However, this information can still provide valuable historical context.  This story shows what kind of punishments enslaved people faced for different offenses. It should be noted that modern readers will undoubtedly have a certain connotation in mind when reading the word “lewdness.”  In this case, it simply means obscene or unacceptable; at the time, a black man simply walking down the street might be charged with lewdness, implying that the justice system during the slavery era viewed a black man’s very presence as unacceptable.  The harsh reality of this historical fact gives us a better understanding that people of the 19th century were just as flawed as we are today. The other thing to note about this story is that oftentimes, when researching those who were enslaved, there are very limited records or documents. So, in many cases, we have to rely on context to establish a framework with which to better understand what it was like to be enslaved and living in a society structured around that institution.

We do know that by July 14, 1864, Moses Harding had enlisted in the Union Army. He joined as a Private in Company D of the 15th United States Colored Troops in Nashville at the age of twenty-three. The raising of U.S. Colored Troops was very controversial among many people of both the North and South. William Giles Harding, the second-generation owner of Belle Meade, in a discussion with Governor Andrew Johnson said that he would leave his daughter in school in the North and not bring her back home to “a state which will become the theater of indiscriminate violence, robbery, rape, bloodshed and every species of outrage perpetuated by negro soldiers who will have no regard for the lives and property of its citizens or the chastity of women.” It may be safe to assume that William Giles Harding probably wouldn’t have approved of Moses Harding joining the army. Harding’s unfounded assumptions did not reflect the reality of the U.S. Colored Troops’ behavior, especially in the case of the regiment that Moses joined.

The 15th U.S. Colored Troops spent most of their time guarding railroad stations and supply depots throughout Middle Tennessee and never saw any major battles. However, they were known as a well-disciplined unit. Lieutenant Levi Patchin of Company G described the soldiers of the 15th U.S. Colored Troops in the April 15, 1864 issue of The Jeffersonian Democrat newspaper in Chardon, Ohio. He wrote, “I often wish that my friends from Old Geauga [Geauga County, Ohio] could stand near and witness the 15th while on dress parade to see a thousand bright guns and bayonets glistening in the sun and held in the hands of as many brave colored men who but a short time ago were looked upon here in the south as brutes…” 

Their camps were described as being free of profanity and vulgar language and kept in excellent order. In his newspaper article, Lieutenant Patchin also shared a story about a white soldier who had boasted that he could capture a musket or bayonet from one of the guards in the 15th U.S. Colored Troops while they were on duty.  The soldier approached a guard and engaged him in friendly conversation and kindly requested to see the guard’s musket, but he refused. The soldier pressed again, and even resorted to intimidation, but the guard still refused to relinquish his musket. The soldier then, pretended to be insulted and took up a fighting attitude. In a very disciplined order, the guard ordered the soldier to back off or he would shoot. The soldier did not heed the words of the guard and advanced aggressively towards him. The guard shot, which resulted in the soldier learning his lesson and having his arm amputated. Lieutenant Patchin put out a warning to other soldiers that if they like to mess with the guards on duty it would be best to leave the guards of the 15th U.S. Colored Troops alone because they will obey orders and take no guff off anyone. Well-disciplined, orderly soldiers with integrity who fulfilled their duties was the standard for the men of the 15th, an attitude which Moses could strive for when he joined the army. This anecdote represents a drastic difference from the assumptions made by William Giles Harding and gives us a better understanding of the true character of the men who were formerly enslaved and were now fighting in the Union Army for their freedom.

Moses had the opportunity to strive for that standard and even exceed it as his military career progressed.  Almost a year after his enlistment in July of 1864, Moses was promoted to Corporal and six months later on November 10, 1865, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. The U.S. Colored Troops at the time of the Civil War were not allowed to have a person of color as an officer. The closest rank attained before becoming an officer was the rank of Sergeant, which was considered a Non-Commissioned Officer. This was not a rank to be taken lightly. Moses must have been considered one of the top soldiers in his company to be promoted to this rank. In this role, he would be tasked with making sure the men did their duty, and that the company was well-trained and ran smoothly. The men of the regiment were in Nashville for a while, then were moved to Springfield, Tennessee to guard the Edgefield and Kentucky railroad on December 23, 1864. They remained at that post until April 14, 1865. They were then ordered to report back to Nashville where they continued garrison and guard duty for another year until they were mustered out of service in April of 1866.

Now out of the Army, Moses had to traverse the new concept called “freedom,” which he had never known for most of his life. For many who were formerly enslaved in the south after emancipation, this was no easy road. In one document, we see a powerful example of Moses forging ahead towards the future in his choice to change his last name. In his 1892 military pension application he wrote, “Moses Harding was my slave name, I was owned by one William Giles Harding of the city. After I was mustered out of the army in 1866, I went by my father’s name Grant.” Perhaps this was a symbolic way for Moses to shed the identity as a slave and to become his own man and continue to lay the foundation for his future and his family’s. Yet, many obstacles still lay ahead for people like Moses and others, who were formerly enslaved at Belle Meade. Out of the 136 enslaved people at Belle Meade, about 70 of them initially stayed after emancipation as contract laborers. It is not known whether Moses returned to work at Belle Meade after the war. He does not show up on an 1879 Cash Account list of workers on the farm; however, according to the 1880 census, he is living in the 11th Civil District of Nashville, which is the same district in which Belle Meade was located. Also, on the 1879 Cash Account list of workers on the farm there is a George Grant listed as working at Belle Meade and, according to the 1880 census, Moses Harding (now known as Moses Grant) had a 12-year-old son named George Grant. So, the possibility is that his son was working on the farm. 

Not long after Moses left the army in 1866, he reconnected with an old friend, Nathan Harris, who had also been enslaved at Belle Meade. Nathan wrote in a pension affidavit in 1901 that he and Moses worked together for twenty years, attended the same church in the city, and lived about five blocks from each other. Moses’ occupation post-emancipation shows up as many different things; some census records show him as a laborer and a farmer, and his death certificate shows his occupation as a stone mason. The stone mason occupation is very interesting because during the Civil War, Moses helped build Fort Negley which was a stone fort. He also received  some payment from the Union Army for his work on the fort, which is significant. 

The Union Army promised a lot of the impressed workers payment for their labor, but most of the time they never actually saw that money. Oftentimes it was primarily skilled workers who received payment for their time working on the fortifications in Nashville. Possibly Moses was a skilled enslaved stone mason working at Belle Meade before the army impressed him to go work on the fortifications. We know that there was a limestone quarry at Belle Meade and there was a vast system of stone walls that established the border of the 3,600-acre farm at the time. 

Moses married Ann Harding, but unfortunately, we do not know when they married. However, we do know that between 1868 and 1875 they had five children. In 1880, at the age of 43, Moses suffered a serious injury when he slipped and fell in a butcher shop while carrying a heavy load and dislocated his knee cap. This injury would prove to make Moses’ work life very difficult for the rest of his life. Ann passed away in September of 1892 at the age of 45 from a cerebral hemorrhage. Moses then married Sophie Reece in November of the same year. By this time Moses’ health has drastically deteriorated. He suffered complications from his knee injury, partial blindness, kidney problems, and rheumatism. On January 13, 1900,  Moses Harding/Grant passed away from congestion of the lungs. There are many parts of Moses’ life that are missing from the historical record: we have no understanding of who he truly was as a person, his sense of humor, what music he liked, what kind of father or husband he was, or his philosophy on life. All these aspects of who he was as a person could be lost to history forever. Yet, if we look between the lines, we can perhaps understand that Moses did not want to let the institution of slavery define who he was as a person and for the future generations of his family. By changing his last name, he broke the last tie to an institution that kept him from laying the foundation to freedom. 

For more information, please contact:


Brent, Maria C., and E Brent Joseph. 2013. Ready to Die for Liberty, Tennessee’s United States Colored Troops in The Civil War. Nashville Tennessee: Tennessee Wars Commission.

Chronicle, Washington. 1863. “Gov. Johnson and Gen. W. G. Harding.” Memphis Bulletin, September 20: 1.

1861-1865. “Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 14th through 19th.” Moses Harding Enlistment papers. The National Archives.

Court, Recorder Shane’s. 1863. The Nashville Daily Union, May 27: 3.

Patchin, Lt. Levi. 1864. “Our Military Correspondence.” The Jeffersonian Democrat, April 15: 2.

1891-1900. “United States Pension & Widows Pension file.” Moses Grant alias Harding. U.S. Pension Office.

Wills, Ridley. 1991. The History of Belle Meade Mansion, Plantation and Stud. Nashville Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press.

Year: 1880; Census Place: District 11, Davidson, Tennessee; Roll: 1251; Page: 163A; Enumeration District: 071

The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; NAI Title: U.S., Civil War Pension Index:   General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934; NAI Number: T288; Record Group Title: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007; Record Group Number: 15; Series Title: U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934; Series Number: T288; Roll: 199