Reference Entry

Bruner, Peter

Laura Murphy

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Bruner, Peter

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memoirist and soldier, was born in Clark County, Kentucky, twenty miles southeast of Lexington (where, in the decades leading to the Civil War, slaves accounted for approximately half of the population), to an enslaved mother and her white owner, John Bell Bruner. He had two siblings, also presumably the children of his master.Bruner ran away many times as a young man—on one occasion he even made it all the way to the Ohio River—but each time was recaptured and returned to increasingly brutal treatment. Frustrated by Bruner's repeated escape attempts, his master had a set of leg shackles specially made to tie his slave to the wall each night to keep him from running. Bruner's owner also forced him to march through the town wearing the shackles as a warning to other slaves who might consider running away.Soon after Peter Bruner's last unsuccessful escape attempt—this one during the Civil War—John Bell Bruner was apprehended by the so-called Union Home Guard, a group sympathetic to the Union that acted as a sort of reserve for local emergencies, for sympathizing with the Confederate cause. The Guard ordered the Bruner family to unchain Peter-Bruner. When his master returned Bruner was treated better but was suspicious of his changed situation. Bruner ran away one final time in 1864 following this incident.On his way North Bruner sought out Union soldiers at Camp Nelson in Kentucky, widely known as a refuge for runaway slaves, where he informed them of his desire to fight the rebels. Although the Union army did not recruit black men in that region at that time, the Twelfth U.S. Heavy Artillery regiment was created for black soldiers two weeks later and Bruner enlisted immediately. In the army Bruner suffered many of the typical hardships of a Civil War soldier: frostbite, hunger, exhaustion, illness, and fear. After a long illness he was made a nurse in a hospital ward, a job he could not stand to keep because of all the death that surrounded him. He quit that job and returned to the field.Following the completion of his service, in 1866, Bruner moved to Oxford, Ohio, and went to school there, but soon became bored and left. He married Frances Procton in Oxford in March of 1868 and had five children. For many years Bruner struggled to find steady employment and was stuck in a cycle of debt common to many freed slaves in the decades after the Civil War. He borrowed money to buy land, but a number of problems on the farm forced Bruner to borrow even more. On several occasions unscrupulous landowners unilaterally revoked land contracts that Bruner had entered into. It was not until he was hired as a construction worker and night watchman by the Western Female Seminary in Oxford that he managed to find steady work and a guaranteed paycheck. After the election of Ulysses Grant, the women at the Seminary asked Bruner to give a speech, which was later published in Harper's Weekly and other papers, thus beginning his life as a speaker and writer. Following yet another attempt to start a successful farm Bruner went on to work for Oxford University and Miami University of Ohio as a maintenance worker and as a doorman.At some point in the late nineteenth century Bruner began work on his memoir, the only written record of his life, A Slave's Adventures toward Freedom, Not a Fiction, but the True Story of a Struggle. Originally written down by his young daughter Carrie before her death in 1900 and then forgotten, Bruner rediscovered the manuscript when his house caught fire in August of 1913 and decided to have it published in 1918. Despite all of the hardships Bruner faced, his biography nonetheless opens with a dedication remarking on his belief in an America in which anyone, “by industry and saving, can reach a position of independence and be of service to mankind”(7).

Reference Entry.  678 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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