Alexander Kelly was born in Conemaugh, Pennsylvania in 1840 to a free black family, when his parents passed, Kelly was just 10 years old. He and his siblings were sent to live with their aunt and uncle, who lived along the Conemaugh River in a small African-American community, most of whom worked in the coal mines or were “Salt-Boilers” like Kelly’s uncle David. “Salt- Boilers would boil off the water from the Conemaugh river, which carried salt due to a large salt deposit near Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. This was some of the few jobs available for Free-Blacks in the time period. At age 16, Alexander Kelly also went to work in the mines.
At the outset of the American Civil War, Kelly was working in the mines in Indiana county. After President Lincoln signed the order that would allow African-Americans to enlist in the army and begin to draft African-American men. Kelly’s brother Joseph received a draft notice, and in the time period, a substitute could take your place in the draft. Alexander stepped forward to enter the army in his brother’s place. On August 18, 1863, Alexander enlisted in the Union Army in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now the Northside of Pittsburgh). Kelly would be sent with other members of the “United States Colored Troops” to Chelton Hills, Pennsylvania to train at Camp William Penn, just north of Philadelphia. Kelly and the other African-American men who enlisted at that time from Western Pennsylvania would be assigned to the 6th USCT Regiment, which was the second regiment made up of all African-American men in the Union Army.
After a grand parade in Philadelphia, the 6th Regiment moved on to Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, and then to Yorktown. The 6th was then moved on to Dutch Gap where they fortified the earthworks outside of Petersburg where they were under constant assault from rebel mortars. They also had to suffer with very polluted water from the James River, many of the soldiers from the 6th Regiment became sick and died. While at Dutch Gap, Alexander Kelly was promoted to the rank of Sergeant of Company F. At the end of September, Ulysses S. Grant was ready to end the siege of Petersburg. The 6th Regiment was mobilized along with many other units in the Army of the Potomac to move on to Petersburg and then to Richmond, the Confederate Capital.
The morning of September 29th, was a misty morning in the Appomattox River Valley outside of Petersburg, Virginia. Kelly and the 6th Regiment were aligned with General Benjamin Butler and the Army of the James. Butler scouted the Confederate lines and determined the weak points. The 6th, along with other Union Regiments were tasked with an attack on a fortified point in the line held by Texas Regiments. Many of the 6th Regiment were cut down by gunfire, including the color guard. Kelly ran into the heavy fire, grabbed the colors of his regiment and rallied the men of the 6th to push on the Texans position. The Confederate defenders realizing that they were about to be overrun retreated to the outskirts of Richmond.
Kelly’s bravery during the battle of was recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Kelly’s citation reads, “Gallantly seized the colors, which had fallen near the enemy’s lines of abatis (breast works), raised them, and rallied the men at a time of confusion and in a place of the greatest danger.” Kelly married after leaving the army, he and his wife Victoria moved to the East End of Pittsburgh where they had one son and adopted several homeless children. Alexander Kelly continued to live in Pittsburgh until his death in 1907. Kelly is buried in Saint Peters Cemetery in the Lincoln-Lemington section of Pittsburgh. Though his grave was initially only marked with a simple tombstone, it now holds a plaque recognizing Kelly as a Medal of Honor Winner.