Born on June 13, 1826 in Lynchburg, Virginia, John R. Bowles eventually moved to Ohio, settling in the vicinity of Chillicothe in Ross County. Here, Bowles married Sarah Jane Bryant in 1848.
Born on June 13, 1826 in Lynchburg, Virginia, John R. Bowles eventually moved to Ohio, settling in the vicinity of Chillicothe in Ross County. Here, Bowles married Sarah Jane Bryant in 1848. The couple eventually gave birth to some children, with some records claiming that the couple had two children and other sources listing five. One of the couple’s children was John Hawke Bowles, a son.
Upon arriving in Chillicothe, Bowles participated in the Underground Railroad, assisting fugitive slaves in attaining their freedom. In 1856, Bowles became the minister of Chillicothe's First Anti-slavery Baptist Church. Some sources list the church simply as the First Baptist Church. Bowles encouraged his congregation, which consisted principally of African Americans, to oppose slavery. He also helped establish a choir that traveled across southern Ohio. In its performances, the choir members encouraged the audience to stand up against slavery.
With the American Civil War’s outbreak in April 1861, Bowles hoped to enlist in the Union military. The federal government prohibited African Americans from military duty until 1863, following the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Once the federal government began to permit African Americans to serve, black volunteers had to serve in segregated units under white officers. The State of Ohio refused to create any African American units. For this reason, 5,092 African American Ohioans joined the United States Colored Troops or enlisted in black regiments in other states, most notably in Massachusetts. Bowles, himself, enlisted in Company K of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment along with eleven other African Americans from Ross County. Bowles enlisted on February 18, 1864 as a Chaplin, becoming the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment’s second Chaplin. He received his commission as Chaplin on March 27, 1864, becoming the first African American in the regiment to be commissioned as an officer. He served with the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment until the war’s conclusion. He resigned his commission on June 12, 1865.
Bowles returned to Ohio, where he continued to work as a minister in Chillicothe and then in Cincinnati and Xenia. He also taught school, and it is believed that Bowles was the first African American to receive a salary through the Ohio Public School Fund, possibly making Bowles the first African American teacher in an Ohio public school.
Bowles died in Xenia on September 3, 1864.
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