The Life of Joshua Dunbar

Bryan Young and Alan Henderson

Joshua Dunbar was born into slavery in Kentucky sometime between the years of 1818 and 1822. On Joshua’s Civil War muster-in rolls, he named Garret County as his place of birth; however, Garret County does not exist. Therefore, many believe Joshua meant Garrard County. Joshua Dunbar was the father of the famous writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although famous for his poetry, Paul wrote many short stories detailing slave and Civil War life. The stories are considered fiction, but many believe facts about his father’s life are contained in the stories.

According to Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song by Virginia Cunningham, early in his life, Joshua learned the trade of plastering. He plastered for his owner and other plantations in the area. He was a paid worker and therefore was taught limited math skills in order to check his clients' payments. Not long after, Joshua taught himself to read using old alphabet books he had smuggled into his cabin.

Joshua’s owner offered to give him his freedom if he was able to pay a very large price. Joshua realized that it would take too much time to raise the money. Instead, he decided to escape slavery by means of the Underground Railroad. He was able to make connections with the nearest neighbor, a participant in the Underground Railroad.

From the Story "The Dunbar Boy" by Paul Dunbar, it is possible to learn some details of Joshua’s experiences. He used cayenne pepper to make search dogs sneeze and throw them off the trail. He also chose a rainy night to begin his escape, as the sound of rain would muffle the sound of his footsteps.

To begin his escape, he took a shortcut through the woods to the nearest town where a member of the Underground Railroad was waiting for him. Joshua was sure of his way, because he had known this part of the forest all his life. By dawn, he had reached his first hideout. He knocked on the back door a certain number of times and was immediately led down to the cellar.

Joshua rested on an old straw mattress for two days. Around midnight of the second day, he continued to the next location. Shortly after he arrived, Joshua experienced a very frightful moment. A group of plantation owners, including his master, knocked on the door and demanded to be told if a runaway had been seen. The man of the house made sure Joshua was safe. Remaining at the station for only a few more hours, Joshua waited until his pursuers were a great distance away to leave.

Joshua’s helper hitched up his wagon and instructed him to hide in the back underneath the hay. They reached the next stop without difficulty. He continued on in a similar fashion, hiding in basement after basement. After some time, a conductor who had a larger wagon transported Joshua and several other runaways by hiding them under sacks of flour and sacks of potatoes.

He proceeded northward and finally crossed the Ohio River by lying flat on the deck of a ferryboat late at night. Slowly, he made his way farther north to Sandusky, Ohio. He crossed in a boat over Lake Erie to Detroit, Michigan and then went on to Canada. Joshua enjoyed following the struggle between the North and South and decided to join a colored regiment when war broke out.

He returned to the United States to enlist in the 55th Massachusetts United States Colored Infantry on June 5, 1863, in Readville, Massachusetts. Colonel Norwood Penrose Hallowell was in command. Then, on June 15th, he mustered into the regiment and was assigned to Company F. On July 21, 1863, Joshua’s regiment left Massachusetts and headed for Newberne, North Carolina. From July 30th to August 3rd, the regiment was stationed at Folly Island, South Carolina. On October 18, 1863 Joshua was discharged from the army because of varicose veins. This happened because of intense lifting while on fatigue duty.

Joshua re-enlisted a few months later. On May 12, 1864 the 5th Massachusetts Calvary (his new regiment) assembled at Camp Casey near Fort Albany preparing for defense of Washington, D.C. The entire regiment, armed and equipped as infantry, was ordered to Fort Monroe, Virginia, arriving on May 15th. On October 20, 1864, Joshua was promoted to Corporal.

Joshua’s regiment was immediately sent to City Point on the James River and assigned to the 3rd division, 18th Corps. The unit participated in the advance toward Petersburg. In March of 1865, the regiment returned to the front at Petersburg and participated in the campaign until April. On May 1, 1865, Joshua was promoted further to Sergeant. The regiment remained in camp near Petersburg until June when the unit was mustered out of Federal Service at Clarksville, Texas on October 31, 1865.

After the war, on December 24, 1871, Joshua married Matilda Murphy (also from Kentucky) and settled in Dayton, Ohio. Joshua and Matilda had two children, Paul and Elizabeth. Paul became a famous African-American poet and author. Elizabeth died before the age of two. Joshua and Matilda quarreled often, as is suggested in Paul’s writings. Whether it was because of the quarreling or other circumstances, Joshua and Matilda filed for divorce on July 1, 1876. On January 9, 1877, the divorce was granted. Soon after the divorce, Joshua moved to the Old Soldiers' Home, in Dayton, Ohio.

Young Paul Dunbar was said to have gone to the Soldiers’ Home to visit his father often. During these visits, Paul heard stories from his father about slavery and the Underground Railroad and more of service in the Union Army.

On August 16, 1885, Joshua Dunbar died of pleura pneumonia at the National Home for Disabled Soldiers in Dayton, Ohio. He was buried in the Soldiers' Home Cemetery in Dayton. *

*(Row 14, Section E, grave number 8)


Maintained by the Washington Research History Class

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