The 5th United States Colored Cavalry was a regiment of the United States Army organized as one of many Colored units during the American Civil War. The 5th USCC was one of the more notable black fighting units and it was officially organized, after its first two battles, in Kentucky in October 1864. It was commanded by Colonel James Brisbin until February 1865, when he took over the 6th US Colored Cavalry. His executive officer, Louis Henry Carpenter then commanded the regiment until 20 March 1866. The regiment was composed of ex-slaves, freedmen, and slaves. Many white officers from the unit were later assigned to the famed Buffalo Soldiers cavalry units. Many former USCC soldiers (later called troopers) volunteered for further service after their Civil War units were retired. The regiment isn't to be confused with the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry
In the early months of 1864, General Stephen Gano Burbridge, commander of the Military District of Kentucky, issued General Order No. 24 which authorized the formation of colored units composed of ex-slaves, freedmen, and slaves in his command. Although the unit was not officially formed until 24 October 1864, it saw combat on two different occasions. Its first major encounter was on 2 October 1864, in and around the salt works of Saltville, Virginia. When word of Burbridge's raid reached the 5th USCC, the regiment had yet to be officially organized until after they returned from the raid. At the time of the battle, over 600 colored soldiers joined General Burbridge in the, as yet unorganized, 5th USCC. Although the regiment consisted of black cavalrymen, the officers of the regiment were required to be white. The white officers would then organize noncommissioned field officers among the ranks of the black soldiers to fill the positions of sergeants. However, Lieutenant Colonel L. Henry Carpenter soon realized that his newly formed black troops were illiterate. Therefore, Carpenter petitioned command to place white noncommissioned officers in charge of the black units. His request was granted, and hastily the 5th USCC was formed. Some soldiers had not even officially enlisted; few officers had been appointed, and even fewer noncommissioned officers were assigned. Yet Colonel James F. Wade was temporarily placed in charge of the group with orders to join Burbridge in Kentucky. In his haste to create the unit, Wade mounted his 600 men on untrained horses with Enfield infantry rifles, which were useless to mounted men as they could not be loaded from horseback. In comparison, the troops of the 11th Michigan and 12th Ohio Cavalries were armed with Spencer repeating carbines, which were wholly effective from horseback.
General Burbridge had been ordered by General Grant to proceed into southwest Virginia and destroy the salt works at Saltville. The 5th USCC, therefore, was attached to Colonel Brisbin's forces and joined Burbridge in Prestonburg, Kentucky. Burbridge left Prestonburg on 27 September to march towards Saltville. The black troops were an object of much ridicule. The soldiers were also directing their malice at the black soldiers in the form of petty theft, such as having their hat pulled off, or having their horses stolen. Yet the black soldiers never complained or retaliated against the white racism.
, for his valiant service, in the September, 1864 Battle of Chaffin's Farm]]
The 5th USCC participated in the Battle of Saltville I on 1–3 October 1864, as part of the Union forces under the command of General Stephen Gano Burbridge. Despite valiant attempts to break through Confederate lines, the cavalry was repeatedly repulsed. The battle became a defeat for the Union forces and in the ensuing hours after its finish, a scene of criminal violence, as Union injured, notably members of the 5th USCC, were murdered in their hospital beds by Confederate partisans.Chief among the partisans was Champ Ferguson who was arrested after the war had ended and tried for the murders. Ferguson was convicted in the subsequent trial which took place in Nashville and sentenced to death. His hanging made him one of only two men executed for war crimes which took place during the American Civil War (the other being Henry Wirz, the commander of Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner of war camp near Andersonville, Georgia).
In December 1864, General George Stoneman ordered the 5th USCC to participate in a raid from East Tennessee into southwestern Virginia. This resulted in engagements that involved the 5th USCC at Hopkinsville, Kentucky on 12 December, Kingsport, Tennessee on 13 December, the Battle of Marion near Marion, Virginia on 17 & 18 December, and the second Battle of Saltville on 20 & 21 December near Saltville, Virginia. All were considered Union victories.
During the Battle of Marion, Division Commander Stephen G. Burbridge ordered the 5th USCC between two white units on the left flank of the Union line. Lieutenant Colonel James S. Brisbin and his second in command, Carpenter, led their dismounted soldiers forward toward the Confederate defensive works. The Confederates opened heavy fire upon the advancing Union troops that included four ten pound Parrott rifled cannons. The first Union charge wavered and fell back. Carpenter was seen giving clear orders to reform and rallied his men. With a mighty yell the 5th USCC rushed forward toward the breastworks but could not break the defensive line. Carpenter ordered the men to dig in and night fell. Volunteers went out between lines to rescue the wounded.
On 18 December, the morning was cold and rainy with a light fog. The second day began as a copy of the first with multiple Union charges. The Union center was able to breach the center of the Confederate breatworks but were pushed out by a Rebel counterattack. Carpenter led a mounted rescue force of colored soldiers to save white soldiers trapped near a cover bridge on the left flank. Carpenter made several attempts but could not rescue the soldiers. Most of those trapped soldiers would be captured later that afternoon, but released before giving their parole. Later that day the Confederate reinforcements delivered a wild rebel yelling charge on the Union left flank. The white unit adjacent to the 5th USCC was completely routed and the 5th USCC flank was threatened. Ordered to fall back, Carpenter and Brisbin tried to maintain an orderly retreat. Many colored soldiers remembering the murder of their comrades during the first battle of Saltville broke ranks to rescue their wounded comrades. The retreat threatened to become a rout. About 4 PM, Union reinforcements arrived and bolstered the Union line. During the night, Confederate forces were forced to retire due to the lack of ammunition. The next day Union forces buried the dead and helped the wounded. The costly victory marked the highpoint of Stoneman's raid.
On the afternoon of 20 December, Union forces attacked Saltville, Virginia. Confederate forces were overwhelmed when the 5th & 6th USCC entered the fray with a cold vengeance. Outnumbered Confederate forces retreated and awaited promised reinforcements. Union forces hastily attempted to destroy the vital salt works. They destroyed about one third of the boiling kettles and most evaporating sheds. They also damaged portions of the Virginia & Tennessee railroad. But they failed to destroy or damage the actual salt wells. General Stoneman claimed a victory and retreated out of Virginia before Confederate forces could completely surround him. Carpenter's role is strangely missing from letters and other documents that simply note that he was there. Within three months, the saltworks were back in full production. Carpenter later wrote a long letter home about this battle and how his men responded.
On 23 January 1865, 80 colored troops of Company E, 5th US Colored Cavalry, under command of 2nd Lieutenant Augustus Flint, were assigned to move almost a thousand head of cattle from Camp Nelson to the stock yard at Louisville, Kentucky. The men were mostly assigned to the front and rear of the spread-out herd of cattle. About 41 men were bringing up the rear on 25 January near Simpsonville, when they were ambushed by Confederate guerrillas. Very few of the Union 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 colored 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 stretched out on and near the road. Four more soldiers were later found dead of wounds or of exposure nearby. The men of Simpsonville took 20 wounded men back to town, 8 of the men so severely wounded they were not expected to live. A total of six soldiers died en route or in Louisville. Later it was determined that 19 Union soldiers had been murdered trying to surrender or after being disarmed. The remainder of the Union wounded were left to die in the freezing cold. Three soldiers remained missing in the final accounting. Flint, who was in town during the ambush, fled to Louisville. Authorities telegraphed Camp Nelson, and Carpenter immediately ordered ambulances, and a heavy escort mounted and arrived on scene on 28 October. They took the surviving wounded to a hospital in Louisville. Locals reported what had happened and the boasts of the Confederate guerrillas, led by Captain Dick Taylor, who had murdered or shot many of the Union soldiers after they had been captured. The mass grave was located, and an effort was made to find the missing men. Carpenter wrote a report and documented the names of the known guerrillas and encouraged a hunt and their prosecution. This never happened. A memorial marker commemorating the ambush was unveiled in 2009.
The 5th USCC remained on duty for almost a year after the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. On 16 March 1866, the 5th USCC held its final formation in Helena, Arkansas where the fifty missing soldiers from the first battle of Saltville were recognized. Although the likely location for the murdered black soldiers at Wiley Hall would be what is now the Holston Cemetery on Campus, this cannot be proven. Repetitious names from similar units, such as a John Willis of both the Federal and Confederate 5th Kentucky Regiment, bring some doubt as to the accuracy of the marking of the Confederate graves on the campus. This happens on several occasions, and may be due to duplication of a name, or the mislabeling of a grave. Many soldiers of the 5th USCC, who were scraped together from former slaves, freedmen, and liberated slaves, paid the ultimate price for their long-fought freedom.
Summary of battles of the 5th USCC.
2 October - Saltville, Virginia - Battle of Saltville I
21 October - Harrodsburg, Kentucky - an engagement
12 December - Hopkinsville, Kentucky - an engagement
13 December - Kingsport, Tennessee (flanking movement & skirmishing)
17–18 December 1864, Marion, Virginia - Battle of Marion
20–21 December - Saltville, Virginia - Battle of Saltville II
25 January - Simpsonville, KY - an ambush