One of Oxford's Civil War veterans was Peter Bruner, who was born a slave near Winchester, Kentucky, in 1845. Bruner, his mother, and his siblings were owned in partnership by two brothers who operated a tannery. After years of abusive treatment and several unsuccessful attempts to escape from a cruel master, Bruner finally reached Camp Nelson, Kentucky, in July, 1864, where he enlisted in company C of the 12th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. The regiment performed garrison duties around Bowling Green, KY.
After organizing at Camp Nelson, Bruner’s regiment moved to Louisville and then on to Bowling Green. In addition to garrisoning forts in the Bowling Green area, Bruner was involved in several other types of details. At one point Bruner and fifty other members of the 12th Artillery served as a guard detail for 1,000 head of cattle being moved from Bowling Green to Nashville, TN. Near Franklin, TN, the herd was attacked twice by Confederate guerillas which the detail successfully drove off each time. Back at Bowling Green, Bruner was assigned to build fortifications and ammunition magazines at Fort Vinegar. The presence of an African-American unit induced many slaves around Bowling Green to run away from their masters. Bruner and his fellow soldiers would protect the runaways and over time helped over 500 reach freedom. The former slaves turned soldiers would find reasons to arrest the masters who came to claim the runaways, and while in the regiment’s guard house, the masters would be made to carry water for the soldiers. Bruner’s former master contacted him several times and asked to see him, but Bruner would have nothing to do with him. The 12th Artillery was reassigned to Paducah, KY, and one cold night while standing guard duty overlooking the Ohio River, Bruner’s feet became frostbitten and he lost all his toenails. One detail sent out from Paducah required Bruner to go the Hopkinsville area to collect government owned horses that were being used by local citizens. Some of the citizens were unwilling to let the animals go and had to be bribed with food.
After mustering out in 1866, Bruner moved to Oxford where, like other former slaves, he learned to read and write. He cut wood and used the proceeds to furnish a house, and once the house was ready, he married Frances “Fannie” Procton in 1868, and together they raised five children. The entire family was members of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oxford. . At the time of their marriage, Bruner had 15¢ to his name. He went into debt to get equipment and livestock to start farming. When the Western Female Seminary burnt down, Bruner was hired to help clean up the debris and rebuild the school. When that work was done, he was hired as a watchman and then took over as the custodian of the school’s boiler and heating apparatus. As part of the 1872 Presidential Election the girls induced Bruner into making a speech and were so impressed by his oratory that they bought him a new suit of clothes and got the speech published in the newspaper. Bruner left Western to farm but later bought a stone quarry. After selling the quarry, he went to work as the heating engineer for Oxford College and eventually got a job as a custodian and bicycle messenger for Miami University, the first African-American to work for the school.
Later in his life, he worked with his daughter Carrie Burns, to publish an autobiography. Titled A Slave’s Adventures Toward Freedom Not A Fiction, but the True Story of a Struggle, and the introduction reads: “In this book I have given the actual experiences of my own life. I thought in putting it in this form it might be of some inspiration to struggling men and women. In this great, free land of ours, every person, no matter how humble or how great seems the handicap, by industry and saving, can reach a position of independence and be of service to mankind.” Bruner was so highly regarded in Oxford that the village honored him in 1938 by naming him "Mayor for a Day." Peter Bruner died in 1938 at the age of 93.
An electronic version of Bruner’s autobiography can be found at Documenting the American South (http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bruner/bruner.html)