5th US Colored Cavalry
On June 30, 1864, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas authorized the officers of the newly formed 5th United States Colored Cavalry (5th USCC) to begin selecting recruits. Colonel James Brisbin, a well-known abolitionist, became commander of the regiment. Some of the companies were recruited at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, while others were enlisted in nearby towns, including Lebanon and Louisville.
Before the regiment was officially mustered in, over six hundred members of the unit engaged in General Burbridge's Raid from Kentucky into Southwestern Virginia from September 20 to October 17, 1864. During this time they saw fierce action at Saltville, Virginia on October 2, 1864 and Harrodsburg, KY on October 21, 1864.
The regiment was not officially organized until October 24, 1864 at Camp Nelson, Kentucky. The regiment next participated in Stoneman's Raid into Southwestern Virginia, December 10 to 29 which resulted in the eventual capture of Saltville and the destruction of the Confederate salt works. (December 17-18, 1864, Marion, VA; / The Battle of Marion, and December 20-21, 1864, Saltville, VA) The regiment was attached to the 1st Division, District of Kentucky, Dept. of Ohio until February, 1865.
The regiment subsequently served under the Military District of Kentucky and the Dept. of Arkansas. While stationed in Arkansas, the regiment reportedly hunted down rebel renegades, supervised free elections, and tried to protect office holders and freedmen from the Ku Klux Klan and early versions of the White League violence. The unit was mustered out in Helena, Arkansas on March 20, 1866.
According to the records of the National Park Service's Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Project, 1,459 men served in the 5th USCC. 35 of the regiment's enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded. In addition, one officer and 151 enlisted men succumbed to disease during the regiment's term of service.
Murder at Saltville
The 5th USCC participated in the First Battle of Saltville, in Smyth County, Virginia on October 1-3, 1864. Despite attempts to break through Confederate lines, the 5th USCC and other federal forces were repeatedly repulsed. In the ensuing hours after the fighting, Confederate partisans, led by Champ Ferguson, murdered as many as 50 captured and wounded Federal soldiers, including members of the 5th USCC. Some of the soldiers were still wounded and laying on the battlefield and others were being treated at the field hospital nearby. Much like the debate that continues to surround the killings at Fort Pillow, some historians have questioned the severity of the violence at Saltville. However, an analysis of the compiled service records for men in the 5th USCC and 6th USCC concluded that 45–50 Black soldiers were killed by Confederates at Saltville.
Ferguson was arrested at the end of the War and tried for the killings. He was charged with the murder of Federal officer Lt. Elza Smith at a hospital near Saltville on October 8 as well as "twelve soldiers whose names are unknown at Saltville, Virginia" and " two Negro soldiers names unknown, while lying wounded in a prison at Saltville." He was convicted in the trial in Nashville and sentenced to death by hanging. He was one of only two men executed for war crimes that took place during the Civil War. (The other was Henry Wirz, the commander of Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia).
Ambush at Simpsonville, Kentucky
On January 23, 1865, just months after the Saltville killings, 80 Black troops of Company E, 5th US Colored Cavalry were assigned to move cattle from Camp Nelson to the stock yard at Louisville, Kentucky. The men were near Simpsonville two days later when they were ambushed by Confederate guerrillas led by Captain Dick Taylor. Few of the Federal troops were able to fire their muzzle-loaded Enfield infantry rifles, due to fouled powder. The guerrillas were armed with 6-shot revolvers, and most carried two or more. As Confederates quickly closed the distance, almost all of the Black soldiers bringing up the rear were wounded or dismounted. Only two escaped harm, one by playing dead, and the other hiding under an overturned wagon box. The forward group panicked and fled.
About an hour after the ambush, local citizens found 15 dead and 20 wounded soldiers on and near the road. Four more soldiers were later found dead of wounds or of exposure nearby. Later it was determined that 19 Federal soldiers had been murdered trying to surrender or after being disarmed. The remainder of the US wounded were left to die in the freezing cold. Three soldiers remained missing in the final accounting.
A memorial marker commemorating the ambush and murder of US Colored Troops was unveiled in 2009.
Chief Bugler William Scales
Chief Bugler William Scales was born in Williamson County around 1842. On September 14, 1864 the 22-year-old man enlisted in the 5th US Colored Cavalry, Company A in Louisville, Kentucky. He was the chief bugler for the regiment
In March 16, 1866 he mustered out with the regiment in Helena, Arkansas.
William Scales' memorial paver has been sponsored by Perry Happell.