Born: June 1838
Birthplace: Prince William County, Virginia
Parents: Joseph Burke and Hannah Gaskin Burke
Military Service: Scout and teamster for 36th Ohio Volunteer Infantry; Sergeant in 23rd United States Colored Infantry, Company F.
Died: July 15, 1914 in Chillicothe, Ross County, Ohio
In 1860, Nimrod Burke, a 27-year-old living on a farm with his widowed mother, Hannah Burke, had only to look across the Ohio River and see the land of Virginia, his homeland, where the strife of a nation splitting in two was roiling.
The news of the impending war so close to home surely was disturbing, and Nimrod Burke likely heard much about the developments, not just from the news that swept the countryside but also from his employer, Melvin C. Clark, a Marietta lawyer. Melvin C. Clark was clearly an activist for the Union cause. It was Clark who gathered Ohio men and enlisted them into the 36th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in August 1861.
Although born a free African American, Nimrod Burke and other African Americans were, through one of history’s unfair ironies, not allowed to join the ranks of soldiers fighting secession and slavery in the South.
That didn’t stop Nimrod Burke. In the upcoming years he would see one of the Civil War’s most notorious battles.
Clark asked him to join the 36th OVI as a scout and a teamster. Nimrod Burke agreed and headed out on the road in the early days of the war.
The 36th OVI saw its first major battle in May 1862 in Lewisburg, in what was then still the Confederate state of Virginia. The Union victory was barely a taste of what was ahead. The regiment fought at the second battle of Bull Run, near the railroad junction in Manassas, Virginia, where the Confederates handed the Union a decisive and bloody defeat. On that August day in 1862, casualties on both sides totaled 22,000 men.
Nimrod Burke survived. Just more than a week later the regiment went to Washington, D.C. and paraded in front of the White House for a review by President Abraham Lincoln. Nimrod Burke likely was nearby.
Melvin C. Clark was promoted that day. Less than a week later, the colonel was killed in the battle of Antietam, Maryland. Did Nimrod Burke stay on with the regiment? His path after Clark’s death isn’t known, at least until 1863, when he was able to officially join the fight, despite the fact that Civil War battlefields were particularly dangerous for black soldiers.
A black soldier in uniform was, in the eyes of the South, guilty of insurrection. The Confederate Congress called for captured black Union soldiers to be put into slavery.
On the first day of 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation where he called upon freed slaves to join the army for the Union cause. The action allowed free African Americans to join as well. Many of the African American troops were sent to guard forts but of the 166 “colored” regiments mustered, 60 of those regiments were sent into battle.